Published September 7, 2006
When I think of Mary, I picture a joyful young girl, running to her cousin, Elizabeth, to share the news of her pregnancy. I see the twosome, sitting beneath a tree and trying to ponder the mysteries unfolding for them.
But the feast of Our Lady of Sorrows is Sept. 15 and reminds us that Mary’s life took a different turn after her baby was born. Of course, there were moments of happiness, but she endured seven sorrows, which are remembered on this day.
When she and Joseph took their new baby to the temple, they heard a puzzling prediction by Simeon.
On a day of celebration, Mary must have been shocked at his somber pronouncement, which became known as her first sorrow: “And thy own soul a sword shall pierce” (Luke 2:35).
Later, when she learned that Herod had ordered the slaughter of all baby boys, as a way to destroy her own beloved infant, maybe she thought the prophecy was coming true.
And when she and Joseph fled into Egypt with the baby, she endured her second sorrow, which surely included her realization of how many infants were killed in Jesus’ place.
Simeon’s sword may have come to mind 12 years later, when she and Joseph could not find their son for three long days. This third sorrow is one any mother can imagine who has ever been separated from a child for even a few moments in the grocery store.
When they find their boy, calmly sitting in the temple, I imagine Mary felt weak with relief. It is telling that Scripture contains, in this scene, the only instance where Mary could actually be seen as chiding her son.
“Son, why have you done this to us?” she asks. “Your father and I have been looking for you with great anxiety” (Luke 2:48).
I can imagine the tone of her voice, and what an understatement “anxiety” must have been.
When the child replies with his puzzling comment that he is conducting his “Father’s business,” maybe Mary felt more confused. All we know is that she kept these mysteries in her heart, something women do so well.
Twenty-one years pass before Mary endures the fourth sorrow, as she stands on the wayside and sees her beloved son on the road to Calvary.
As a mother, her instinct has always been to care for him. Now, as she sees him torn and bleeding and parched in the sun, stumbling beneath the cross, she desperately would want to give him water and bandage his wounds.
Perhaps this moment depicts the greatest suffering that any person ever experiences, when we watch someone we love in great pain, and we feel helpless.
And when her beloved son is crucified, Mary meets the fifth sorrow because there is nothing she can do but hear his cries of pain.
As the hymn called “Stabat Mater” puts it so beautifully:
“At the Cross her station keeping,
Stood the mournful Mother weeping,
Close to Jesus to the last.”
In the midst of our greatest suffering, though, God’s mercy is unveiled. And in this scene, Christ reveals how deeply he cherishes his mother by giving her to the care of his friend, the apostle John.
A woman left alone in those days was extremely vulnerable and subject to many dangers, so it was a deep pledge of her son’s love, when he showed his concern for her even as he was dying.
Mary endures the sixth sorrow when Jesus is taken down from the cross and placed in her arms. Now, as she holds the lifeless body to her bosom, just as she once rocked the baby, surely she feels her heart shattering.
And in that moment she must know that Simeon’s prophecy has come true.
It is all too soon before her heart is pierced a seventh time, when the one she gave life to is placed in the tomb, and she says goodbye to him.
Meditating on the seven sorrows can bring us closer to Mother Mary and help us to realize how much she endured for the love of Jesus—but Catholicism is a religion in which the darkness of death gives way to the shimmer of new life.
After all, the Gospels don’t end with Jesus’ death, but with his resurrection, and we know that Mary heard this good news and surely exulted in it.
We encounter her again in the Acts of the Apostles, where she is praying with the disciples, who have seen Jesus frequently during the 40 days after his resurrection.
Although Mary suffered terribly during the last hours of her Son’s life, she knew her son was still very much alive and she would be reunited with him one day.
Through her example, we may better learn to accept the swords that pierce our own hearts and trust that the darkest night of suffering is always followed by the dawn.
Our Lady of Sorrows, please pray for us!
The artwork (not shown in online version), “Our Lady of the Seven Stars,” is by Jef Murray. His artwork is shown at www.jefmurray.com. To contact Lorraine Murray, e-mail her at firstname.lastname@example.org.