On Monday, a week after Mary’s birthday, and one day after the Triumph of the Cross, we celebrate Our Lady of Sorrows.
The tie-ins are nice. First we celebrate, with a bigger feast, Christ’s triumph. In fact, this feast used to be called, “The Finding of the Cross.” “Behold the wood of the Cross, on which hung the Savior of the world.” This is a very objective feast. By focusing on the Cross itself, it reminds us that Christ did the work. Christ saves us. It is the Cross that sets us free.
Placed in September, it lets the Easter mysteries of Spring penetrate to the other side of the year. And it recalls the High Holy Days of the Jews, and the Day of Atonement, in which the High Priest entered the Holy of Holies to offer sacrifice for the sins of the people – perfected on the Cross.
But the next day, we celebrate, as it were, the subjective side. It is Christ who saves us. But it is Mary who is first to be saved, Mary who receives the gift of Christ on the Cross. Our Lady of Sorrows doesn’t do anything, except enter into what Christ does. Yet it is that entering in that is the whole point. Christ died to save us – and Mary stands there for us.
Indeed – this is the other tie-in – it is for this that Mary was born. In a quick week, we go from celebrating all the promise of Mary’s birth to seeing the fulfillment of that promise, in the Cross. For this she was born: to share in the sufferings of Christ, to be bathed in his blood.
But what does Mary gain at the Cross? What happens to her there?
The tradition – especially the Dominican tradition – focuses on a single word in John’s Gospel: “Now there stood by the cross of Jesus his mother” (John 19:25). Stabat Mater, sings the great sequence, the special hymn for this day: she stood.
She did not faint. Though others were there, the heart of the mother, which, Simeon prophesies in Luke’s Gospel will be “pierced by a sword” (Lk 2:35), is a singular place to meditate on this standing.
Notice, when you look at traditional art of the crucifixion, that Mary Magdalene is typically sprawled on the ground. And who would not? The Cross is too awful, the very pinnacle of awfulness. If the Cross does not make us despair, if the Cross does not make us faint, then nothing will.
But the Cross does not make the Mother of Jesus faint or despair. She stands. (So, says the Greek of the New Testament, does the disciple Jesus loves: in traditional images, John too is standing with Mary, as we are called to stand.)
We are not meant to see in this an image of Mary’s strength, or stoicism. To name a feast Our Lady of Sorrows is to see the connection between Mary Magdalene and Mary the Mother of Jesus. She has every reason to fall. Nobody’s heart could be more broken than Mary’s.
How then does she stand? Her standing is an image of grace. We can imagine a ray of light (as in the image of Divine Mercy) shining into Mary’s heart, holding her up beyond all human strength. A ray of hope beyond hope: for “hope that is seen is not hope: for what a man sees, why does he still hope for? But if we hope for what we do not see, then with patience we wait for it” (Rom 8:24-25).
The Holy Spirit dwelling in Mary’s heart keeps hope alive in complete darkness. She cannot see beyond the darkness. But hope keeps her alive. Hope keeps her standing.
And the root of that hope is love: the love that binds her to Jesus on the Cross, and the love that is as strong as death (Song 8:6).
This is the Gospel. This is the meaning of the Cross.
Jesus does not save us from suffering. We are “joint-heirs with Christ; if we suffer with him, then we may be also glorified together” (Rom 8:17). Glory sounds nice – but the promise is that we may pass to heaven through the Cross.
Yet the promise of Our Lady of Sorrows is that we can stand through that suffering. Jesus has been there. Mary has been there. John has been there. We do not take the place of Jesus, but like Mary, his Spirit poured into our hearts can transform our suffering into the place of union, of hope and love. If, like John, we stand at the foot of the Cross with Mary.
What Cross is Jesus offering to help us stand through? What does it look like when we faint?