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Part 17: Mary, Most Sorrowful

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By Dr. Robert Stackpole, STD (Mar 17, 2017)
The following is part 17 of a special series on the role Mary plays in the life of the Church.

Sadness in itself is not a virtue. It is why we suffer and how we respond to the sorrows in our life that make all the difference.

Our faith asks us to respond, first of all, with hope. As St. Paul wrote: "For this slight momentary affliction is preparing for us an eternal weight of glory" (II Cor 4:17). The Apostle entreats us to understand that our afflictions are not necessarily a burden and a curse, for our crosses can help lead us to everlasting joy at our journey's end.

In fact, this is one of the main lessons to be learned from the sorrows in the life of the Blessed Virgin Mary. Although she was the one chosen to be the Mother of the Messiah, this did not exempt her from the Way of the Cross, any more than any of the rest of us is exempt from trials and tribulations along our path. In his book The World's First Love, Archbishop Fulton Sheen wrote:

If our Lord allowed Mary to suffer the trials that even the most grieved mother could suffer — such as to have her son pursued by totalitarian soldiers at two years of age, to be a refugee in a foreign country, to point to a Father's business that would end in death, to be arrested falsely, to be condemned by His own people, and to suffer the taking-off in the prime of life — it was in order to convince mothers with sorrows that trials without pleasures can be overcome and that the final issues of life are not solved here below. If the Father gave His Son a cross and the Mother a sword [that pierced her heart], then somehow sorrow does fit into the Divine plan of life ... and only in the next life is sorrow left behind.


Mary's own life was filled with sorrows because the more tenderly she loved her Son, the more her compassionate heart was exposed to the crosses that He bore. Richard of St. Victor wrote: "As no other creature ever loved God as much as Mary loved Him, so there never was any sorrow like Mary's sorrow." Old Simeon had foretold that sorrow like a sharp sword would one day pierce the heart of Our Lady (Lk 2:35), and it was not long before his prophecy began to come true.

It started that night when God unexpectedly told Mary, through Joseph's dream, that they must flee with their child to Egypt to escape from King Herod's rage. In his book The Glories of Mary, St. Alphonsus reminds us of the hardships and sorrows of their nocturnal flight and long journey into exile:

O God, what a touching sight must it have been to behold that tender Virgin, with her new-born babe in her arms, wandering through the world! "But how," asks St. Bonaventure, "did they obtain their food? Where did they repose at night? How were they lodged?" What can they have eaten but a piece of hard bread, either brought by St. Joseph or begged as an alms? Where can they have slept on such a road (especially on the two hundred miles of desert, where there were neither houses nor inns, as authors relate), unless on the sand or under a tree in a wood, exposed to the air and the dangers of robbers and wild beasts, with which Egypt abounded? ...

Let us consider the great poverty they must have suffered during the seven years that, according to St. Antoninus, St. Thomas and others, they spent there. They were foreigners, unknown without revenues, money, or relatives, hardly able to support themselves by their humble efforts.


This experience of immigration and exile is the foundation of our Lady's special compassion for refugees fleeing from economic misery and political violence in every generation. Archbishop Sheen explains:

If the Son of God in His human nature and His Blessed Mother did not both feel the tragedy of millions in our civilization pursued by other Herods; if they did not share the experience of violent uprootings from homeland and that forced grafting into the wild olives of Siberia; if the new Adam and the new Eve were not the first displaced persons of Christian history, then refugees would raise their fists to heaven and say, "God does not know what I suffer" or "No woman ever bore such grief."


But this was only the beginning of Mary's sorrows.

Nothing wounds the hearts of parents more deeply than to lose all trace of their children, especially when they do not even know if their children are alive or dead. This sorrow, too, Mary shared when she lost the child Jesus in Jerusalem, only to find Him three days later in the temple after an agonizing search throughout the entire city. Saint Alphonsus describes her sentiments for us:

There are some who assert, and not without reason, that this dolor [in the heart of Mary] was not only one of the greatest, but the greatest and most painful of all.

For in the first place, Mary, in her other dolors, had Jesus with her; she suffered when St. Simeon prophesied to her in the Temple; she suffered in the flight into Egypt, but still in company with Jesus; but in this dolor she suffered far from Jesus, not knowing where he was: And the light of my eyes itself is not with me [Ps 37:2]. Thus weeping she then said, "Ah, the light of my eyes, my dear Jesus, is no longer with me; he is far from me, and I know not wither he is gone!"


In a mysterious way, this sorrow in the heart of Mary is the foundation for her special compassion for another group of human sufferers: All those who suffer the loss of the presence of Jesus in their hearts because of sin. Archbishop Sheen unfolds the mystery in these words:

What is sin? Sin is separation from God and an alienation from love. Mary lost God too! She lost Him not morally but physically, during the seemingly endless three days when her Divine Son was only twelve years of age. Searching, questioning, knocking from door to door, pleading and begging, Mary came to know something of the despairing emptiness of those who have not yet found Christ. This was the moment of her widowhood of soul, when Mary came to know how every sinner feels — not because she sinned, but because she felt the effect of sin, namely, the loss of God and the loneliness of the soul. To every soul who is lost, she can still truly address the same words: "Son, we have sought thee sorrowing."


The Blessed Virgin also must have been overwhelmed with sorrow, many years later, when she met her son Jesus on the Way of the Cross, for she knew that this time their parting from each other in the present life would be irrevocable. We find no mention of this meeting between Mary and Jesus in Holy Scripture, but a strong tradition of the saints tells us that they did indeed see each other as He bore His Cross through the streets of Jerusalem. Saint Alphonsus summarizes this tradition for us:

Mary goes with St. John, and by the blood with which the way is sprinkled, she perceives that her son has already passed. This she revealed to St. Bridget [of Sweden]: "By the footsteps of my Son, I knew where he had passed, for along the way the ground was marked with blood." St. Bonaventure represents the afflicted Mother taking a shorter way, and placing herself at the corner of a street, to meet her afflicted son as he was passing by. "The most sorrowful Mother," says St. Bernard, "met her most sorrowful Son."...

She raised her eyes and saw, O God! A young man covered with blood and wounds from head to foot, a wreath of thorns on his head, and two heavy beams on his shoulders. She looked at him, and hardly recognized him, saying with Isaias, and we have seen Him, and there was no sightlines [Is 53:4]. Yes, for the wounds, the bruises, and the clotted blood gave him the appearance of a leper, we have thought of Him as it were a leper [Is 53:4], so that he could no longer be known: and His look was, as it were hidden and despised; whereupon we esteemed Him not [Is 53:4]. ... On the one hand she desired to behold him, and on the other she dreaded so heart-rending a sight. At length they looked at each other. The Son wiped from his eyes the clotted blood, which, as it was revealed to St. Bridget, prevented him from seeing, and looked at his Mother, and the Mother looked at her Son. Ah, looks of bitter grief, which, as so many arrows, pierced through and through those two beautiful and loving souls....
The Mother would have embraced him, as St. Anselm says, but the guards thrust her aside with insults, and urged forward the suffering Lord; and Mary followed him. ...

But although the sight of her dying Jesus was to cost her so bitter sorrow, the loving Mary will not leave him: the Son advanced and the mother followed, to be also crucified with her Son, as the Abbot William says: "The Mother also took up her cross and followed, to be crucified with him."



Access the series to date.

Robert Stackpole, STD, is director of the John Paul II Institute of Divine Mercy. His latest book is Mary - Who She Is and Why She Matters (Marian Press).

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