‘The Seven Sorrows of Mary’
The Seven Sorrows of Mary are traditionally remembered on the Friday before Palm Sunday. Sometimes known as Our Lady in Passiontide, the remembrance focusses on the passion of our Lord and the pain that it caused to his mother.
Mary is venerated as Our Lady of Sorrows which provides a fresh perspective for a consideration of Jesus’ passion and for some of those events which provide a prophetic insight into Good Friday. It is possible to begin to see how Mary suffered with Jesus and how we might join with her on the journey to Calvary. At its best such reflection might take the faithful beyond the plain meaning of the narrative and to be, in spirit, participants in the event: to be fellow pilgrims with our Lady as she accompanies her son.
The First Sorrow: The Prophecy of Simeon
34 And Simeon blessed them, and said unto Mary his mother, Behold, this child is set for the fall and rising again of many in Israel; and for a sign which shall be spoken against;
35 (Yea, a sword shall pierce through thy own soul also,) that the thoughts of many hearts may be revealed. (Luke 2: 34-35)
After the auspicious proclamation of the Archangel at the Annunciation, Mary must have known that bearing this child would not be easy. No doubt she had already been on the receiving end of considerable misunderstanding, scorn and even condemnation. How dare she treat Joseph, to whom she was espoused, in such a way and still claim that she was a virgin and that this was the work of God?
And Gabriel had made such great claims for this child:
32 He shall be great, and shall be called the Son of the Highest: and the Lord God shall give unto him the throne of his father David:
33 And he shall reign over the house of Jacob for ever; and of his kingdom there shall be no end.
(Luke 1: 32-33)
The child will be the long-awaited messiah with all the implications of power and sovereignty that might bring.
Simeon is similarly explicit in his statement about the child (Lk. 1:34). His words are clearly intended to be prophetic: the child will stand on the national stage, causing great upheaval within the present order. He will present a challenge which will not be welcome and he will be ‘spoken against’. Simeon also has words for Mary although they seem rather cryptic at this time, ‘a sword shall pierce through thy own soul also’. It will not be easy.
Looking back from Calvary…
Mary can now see the stark reality of Simeon’s words; this is the fulfilment of prophecy. How difficult it must have been even to try to see the truth of Gabriel’s words, ‘God shall give unto him the throne of his father David’, ‘of his kingdom there will be no end’. Really? Here is an ignominious death which in the eyes of the world spelt ‘failure’. Even the most ardent supporter could hardly claim otherwise. In the midst of her pain, what could Mary see?
Watch and pray with the distraught mother…
The Second Sorrow: The Flight into Egypt
13 And when they were departed, behold, the angel of the Lord appeareth to Joseph in a dream, saying, Arise, and take the young child and his mother, and flee into Egypt, and be thou there until I bring thee word: for Herod will seek the young child to destroy him.
14 When he arose, he took the young child and his mother by night, and departed into Egypt:
15 And was there until the death of Herod: that it might be fulfilled which was spoken of the Lord by the prophet, saying, Out of Egypt have I called my son. (Matthew 2: 13-15)
This passage and the event it describes are full of theological and prophetic references. The Exodus helped to define the Israelites as the chosen people who would never be abandoned by God even in their darkest hour. It was the proof that God heard the cries of his people and would act in history to set them free. Every year at Passover they looked back to the event, and celebrated an ever-present reality.
It was appropriate that the Messiah should flee to Egypt and so in some way share the pain and grief of his people; to know what exile and desperation were like, but there is more to this journey. The Book of Deuteronomy contains a long list of blessings and woes, some making reference to Egypt.
68 And the LORD shall bring thee into Egypt again with ships, by the way whereof I spake unto thee, Thou shalt see it no more again: and there ye shall be sold unto your enemies for bondmen and bondwomen, and no man shall buy you. (Deuteronomy 28: 68)
This verse alone might simply make reference to a shared experience, but the prophet Isaiah extends the brutal reality by writing of the Lord’s suffering servant, which prophecy the Church has always seen as being fulfilled in Jesus.
4 Surely he hath borne our griefs, and carried our sorrows: yet we did esteem him stricken, smitten of God, and afflicted.
5 But he was wounded for our transgressions, he was bruised for our iniquities: the chastisement of our peace was upon him; and with his stripes we are healed. (Isaiah 53: 4-5)
In this act of escape to Egypt, the Holy Family are not merely refugees amongst many, nor are they just bringing to life the corporate memory of their people: they are beginning the fulfilment of the prophecy that the Christ would suffer; a truth even in infancy. The Christ will bear the burdens of his people.
Looking back from Calvary…
If Mary was at all able to think clearly at this point she would have been able to see the political machinations of Herod, Caiaphas and Pilate, and maybe to see them for what they were. Here were human beings seeking power for themselves; men who were seeking their own glory rather than that of God. Yet even as they do that they are part of God’s plan; their evil intentions provide the stage on which the divine drama of salvation is acted out.
Watch and pray with a mother betrayed…
The Third Sorrow: The Loss and Finding in the Temple
45 And when they found him not, they turned back again to Jerusalem, seeking him.
46 And it came to pass, that after three days they found him in the temple, sitting in the midst of the doctors, both hearing them, and asking them questions.
47 And all that heard him were astonished at his understanding and answers.
48 And when they saw him, they were amazed: and his mother said unto him, Son, why hast thou thus dealt with us? behold, thy father and I have sought thee sorrowing.
49 And he said unto them, How is it that ye sought me? wist ye not that I must be about my Father's business?
50 And they understood not the saying which he spake unto them.
51 And he went down with them, and came to Nazareth, and was subject unto them: but his mother kept all these sayings in her heart. (Luke 2: 45-51)
These events serve as a reminder to Mary and Joseph that there is more going on here than meets the eye. Had they forgotten the extraordinary events of a few years before perhaps through the daily routines of all-embracing child-rearing and work? Maybe they had just put them to the back of their minds because whatever the Archangel and Simeon had said it was something for later, for adulthood in some distant future. After all, the child Jesus was just that: a child. That is who he was for them within the confines of the family.
In this story, the boy Jesus is beginning to break out and do what he is destined to do. He is no doubt exploring as boys his age will, but there is more going on than that. As Jesus is found in the temple there is a reminder for any who care to note it, that ‘the Lord has come to his temple’. The Word made flesh is found at the heart of the faith and the life of the nation. He is beginning to take up the role of Messiah and through his dialogue with the teachers, truth becomes evident, a truth that could only come from the Word himself and which would be manifested in all its fullness in due course.
Looking back from Calvary…
Mary’s sorrow at the temporary loss of Jesus on the Jerusalem pilgrimage is now eclipsed by the pain of his death. All her hopes, those maternal ones which had grown in her over the years and the prophetic ones which she had cherished in her heart since the beginning were now dashed. The Christ has been rejected; her son has been rejected. She had seen him grow into a man. His teaching had flourished. He had worked miracles and many had gathered around him, the length and breadth of the country. But now they were all gone but the few who gathered on the hillside. What had been the point of it all? What had it come to? The one who was to reign over the house of Judah for ever would now barely merit a footnote in history.
For Mary, her child was lost again. And this time it was for good.
Watch and pray with a mother bereft…
The Fourth Sorrow: The Meeting on the Way to Calvary
16 Then delivered he him therefore unto them to be crucified. And they took Jesus, and led him away.
17 And he bearing his cross went forth into a place called the place of a skull, which is called in the Hebrew Golgotha:
18 Where they crucified him, and two other with him, on either side one, and Jesus in the midst.
(John 19: 16-18)
It was a sad, lonely, painful walk. Our Lord struggling from ill-treatment and bearing the heavy burden of the cross must have been conscious of his isolation. The disciples had abandoned him and now his loneliness was made worse by the jeering of passers-by, some of whom would have recognised him as the would-be Messiah of a few days before, riding into Jerusalem on a donkey whilst being feted by the crowds. How are the mighty fallen! And fallen, they are fair game, no more than frauds reaping the reward of their foolish presumption.
Jesus’ loneliness was made worse by the meeting with his mother. Although she was there and he knew her love and compassion, it just served to emphasise that he bore the burden alone. Nobody else could do this. Future generations would have the luxury of reflecting on the nature of Mary’s compassion and the way in which she shared his suffering, but for now he just staggers on bleeding and bruised to the place of execution. The passing moment was one of profound grief for both mother and condemned, one that would shortly be relived on Calvary, but it was no more than an interlude. The pain continued.
Looking back from Calvary…
What does Mary see beyond her tears? The man, the boy in the temple, the child in play at Nazareth, her son in the arms of Simeon? Mary sees the full picture of Jesus’ life from the moment Gabriel met her to this moment near death. Nobody has a fuller picture at this point of the workings of God even if it barely seems to make sense. Nobody has a clearer picture of the nature of the Messiah: his humility, his selflessness, his patience and fortitude. The first Christians would see Jesus’ obedience to the Father and the true nature of his sacrifice, but for now it is just the thoughts of the suffering mother who shares her son’s final agonising moments.
It is probably too much to ask Mary in her grief, but others might have wondered whether there could possibly be a glorious triumph after this, a fulfilment of his promise to the disciples about ‘the third day’. What of Simeon’s prediction about the ‘fall and rising again of many in Israel’. What did all this mean for Israel? What could possibly happen after all this? How could there still be hope?
Watch and pray with the bewildered mother…
The Fifth Sorrow: Standing at the Foot of the Cross
25 Now there stood by the cross of Jesus his mother, and his mother's sister, Mary the wife of Cleophas, and Mary Magdalene.
26 When Jesus therefore saw his mother, and the disciple standing by, whom he loved, he saith unto his mother, Woman, behold thy son!
27 Then saith he to the disciple, Behold thy mother! And from that hour that disciple took her unto his own home. (John 19: 25-27)
It must all have been a blur. Mary, distraught and unable to save her son in his dying moments, was dependent upon her family for support. She had her sister Salome, her sister-in-law Mary and her nephew John with her, along with Jesus’ disciple Mary Magdalene. At least she was not alone; she had them for physical and emotional support.
Support was necessary not least because there was still a potential threat from the authorities. They were on Calvary in support of a condemned man, a man being executed for sedition. They did not need to be associated with anything that seemed to oppose Rome. The risk was real so they needed to be careful to be seen as close family members and nothing more. Perhaps it was for the best that the majority of the disciples were not there. Even so it might have crossed the minds of those present that the disciples might do something. And what about the twelve legions of angels Jesus had spoken of?
Jesus did speak again, this time from the cross and commended Mary to the care of the Beloved Disciple, ever solicitous of the needs of his mother both present and future. In some way this extended family group would become a model for all that was to come, for the new Israel, the family of God which would be called the Church. These thoughts are but a harbinger of all that was to come, but they are proof that for Jesus the future and the fulfilment of his Father’s will were paramount.
Looking back from Calvary…
There must have been many moments over the course of the last few hours when Mary looked back across recent days and perhaps right back to the beginning – to Jesus’ conception, his birth and the events of his early life. Looking back must now be extremely difficult if not impossible. Jesus and his supporters have reached their destination. Mary cannot look back at previous sorrows as this is all too present. Nor is it likely that she could look forward. How could she possibly look beyond the present moment of pain and suffering, both her son’s and her own?
This is one of history’s pivotal moments, perhaps the pivotal moment. All of the past is summed up at this point because this is the moment when the true nature of God’s love is revealed and salvation is realised. If there is to be a future, this is where it will begin. If Mary was able to look back at all perhaps she remembered the words she had spoken at the wedding at Cana in Galilee, ‘Whatsoever he saith unto you, do it’. If she believed in Jesus then, how could she not do so now given the words of the Archangel, the prophecy of Simeon and the words of Jesus himself?
If there is to be a future, this is where it will begin. For now Mary can do no more than be at the foot of the cross. We too may join her in the shadow of our Lord. We may come ourselves with our sins and our brokenness and simply be here. Together with Mary we can realise that, however desperate the moment, whatever the pain, all is in God’s hands. All we need to do is to be there, to trust and to wait.
Watch and pray with the bereaved mother…
The Sixth Sorrow: Holding Jesus’ body
42 And now when the even was come, because it was the preparation, that is, the day before the sabbath,
43 Joseph of Arimathaea, an honourable counsellor, which also waited for the kingdom of God, came, and went in boldly unto Pilate, and craved the body of Jesus.
44 And Pilate marvelled if he were already dead: and calling unto him the centurion, he asked him whether he had been any while dead.
45 And when he knew it of the centurion, he gave the body to Joseph. (Mark 15: 42-45)
Here is the reality of death. All is not over for the bystanders because something needs to be done with the body, at least for the sake of decency. Joseph of Arimathaea whose heart had been touched by God bravely stepped forward to do the duty that nobody else was able to do.
Here is the reality of death. A broken body, lifeless, going cold. All that remains is burial, but tradition has it that Mary was able to hold the body in her arms. This was a moment to reflect, but she must have been barely capable of doing so: a blank mind and a soul numbed by grief.
At this moment Mary leads the mourning of humanity, simply because as the Blessed Mother she sees a fuller picture from the angel’s visitation through all the sorrows and joys of her child’s life in which she has shared so intimately. Nobody else can come close to seeing what humanity has done to its Creator. For mankind this is the moment of complete apostasy; sin and evil have done their worst. Mary sees all this so clearly because she can see and feel the lifeless body. She knows what they have done to him.
All the looking back is over…
Now it is all done; it is finished. Denial, that common human reaction to death, is hardly possible; there can be no pretence. There have been enough lies and deceit already, through the machinations of the authorities and their show trial. What good would lies do anyway? Here is the body of a man who always stood up for the truth.
Here is truth. Here lies the ultimate truth that,
16 (For) God so loved the world, that he gave his only begotten Son, that whosoever believeth in him should not perish, but have everlasting life.
17 For God sent not his Son into the world to condemn the world; but that the world through him might be saved. (John 3: 16-17)
This reflection, this declaration would have been beyond Caiaphas and his associates despite their learning and commitment to the things of God. It would have been beyond Pilate too, not least because power, not truth came first in his panoply. It must barely have been within the grasp of the grieving Mary either, but in her arms she held the seed of salvation, a seed which would be buried and yet rise in glory for the salvation of Man.
Watch and pray with the broken mother…
The Seventh Sorrow: The burial of Jesus
59 And when Joseph had taken the body, he wrapped it in a clean linen cloth,
60 And laid it in his own new tomb, which he had hewn out in the rock: and he rolled a great stone to the door of the sepulchre, and departed.
61 And there was Mary Magdalene, and the other Mary, sitting over against the sepulchre.
(Matthew 27: 59-61)
At last some closure. This is what everyone hopes for on the death of a loved one: the proper rites and a chance to say ‘farewell’.
Closure. This is the end of all the hopes and dreams associated with this child. What could possibly happen now? Jesus had spoken of the future, but blinded by grief it must have been hard for Mary and the others to remember what he said and reflect upon it.
Closure. This is more than a death, even a tragic one, more than the death of a righteous teacher. This moment marks the closure of the old covenant and the complete and familiar way of life that went with it: the temple, the sacrifices, the national identity. From this moment the world has moved on and nothing will ever be the same again. It may be closure, but not a comfortable one. Joseph and the others may have performed the appropriate rites at the burial, but from this point these acts and the beliefs that lay behind them are meaningless; they are defunct. There is, as yet, nothing new to offer security either. Easter Day lies in the future, so for the moment for Mary and the others who will yet rejoice and become the first members of the Church, there is a void. Jesus descends whilst they wait.
Does Mary know she is waiting or is she just conscious of the void? ‘A sword shall pierce through thy own soul also’. The sorrows have now come to an end. Looking back with an Easter faith it would be easy to gloss over this time before the resurrection, but these hours have to be lived by Mary and all those who loved and followed Jesus. For Mary, mother of our Lord there is absolutely nothing left. The sorrows are complete and it is all over. Full stop.
Now is the time to look forward…
Those who wait for Easter may be filled with grief and the comfort of hope may elude them, but they would do well to heed the words of the prophet:
10 Yet it pleased the LORD to bruise him; he hath put him to grief: when thou shalt make his soul an offering for sin, he shall see his seed, he shall prolong his days, and the pleasure of the LORD shall prosper in his hand.
11 He shall see of the travail of his soul, and shall be satisfied: by his knowledge shall my righteous servant justify many; for he shall bear their iniquities.
12 Therefore will I divide him a portion with the great, and he shall divide the spoil with the strong; because he hath poured out his soul unto death: and he was numbered with the transgressors; and he bare the sin of many, and made intercession for the transgressors. (Isaiah 53: 10-12)
They might also heed the words of Jesus himself:
24 Verily, verily, I say unto you, Except a corn of wheat fall into the ground and die, it abideth alone: but if it die, it bringeth forth much fruit.
25 He that loveth his life shall lose it; and he that hateth his life in this world shall keep it unto life eternal. (John 12: 24-25)
And that is so. The time of mourning will soon be over. ‘Joy cometh in the morning.’ Thanks be to God.
Father Andrew Burton SSC
Good Friday 2022