A devotion to Our Lady of Sorrows is not a piety that one would associate with the post-Vatican II Church.
The stressed Madonna would seem to be much more suitable to a previous age of sentiment and romanticism. In fact, this devotion was given a great boost by Queen Joan of Spain (daughter of Ferdinand and Isabella and sister of the ill-fated Catherine of Aragon) who warmly embraced the sorrowing Virgin after the death of her husband Philip I. But a second look at the litany of seven unhappy incidents in the life of the Blessed Virgin Mary can still have appeal in this less maudlin era in which today’s Church finds itself.
If Mary’s seven sorrows are studied in the light of the Annunciation, which forms this Sunday’s Gospel, they are all easily understood as milestones in Mary’s pilgrimage of commitment. Mary’s “fiat,” Mary’s “let it be done unto me according thy word,” Mary’s embrace of her vocation of divine motherhood, was renewed and deepened and intensified with every challenge that marked her maternal calling. Having put her hand to the plow, so to speak, she never looked back.
When Mary and Joseph presented their newborn son into the arms of Simeon at the temple, the mother’s heart was pierced with the prophet’s prediction that sorrows and distress lay ahead for both her and her son.
Yet Mary, who had known of her divine vocation for less than a year, did not shrink from her commitment. Rather than fret, Mary pondered this first puzzlement, confident that God who was good enough to save his Jewish people would not allow his plans to be frustrated.
The flight into Egypt, early into Mary’s motherhood, must also have given her pause although she and her husband did not yield to discouragement. The Holy Family persevered as resident aliens in Egypt, secure that God’s good time would arrive and Jesus would accomplish his mission. The loss of the Child Jesus at the temple in Jerusalem (for three days no less!) foreshadowed the loss that the young Christian community would experience as Christ lay in his tomb for three days.
Mary was sorrowing but not discouraged. She and Joseph persevered in their fidelity to the young Jesus and to the mysterious plan of God.
Mary’s divine motherhood was not entirely a veil of tears. The joy of giving birth to a healthy son, the adoration of the shepherds, the homage of the Magi, the happy Nazareth home life certainly gladdened Mary’s heart. The miraculous response of Jesus to Mary’s kindly request at Cana must certainly have engendered much maternal pride. Jesus’ celebrity status during his public life must have provoked not only curiosity but also some satisfaction as this mother viewed her son grow into quite a public figure.
Nonetheless, God the Father would continue to test Mary’s commitment to her noble vocation. Four of Mary’s traditional sorrows would be associated with Jesus’ agony on the way to and from the cross. “Bruised, derided, cursed, defiled, she beheld her tender child, all with bloody scourges rent.” The old, familiar Stations of the Cross rhyme still says it best.
The goodness of Mary and the goodness of Jesus overwhelmed by evil not only pierced their hearts but the hearts of every generation since Cavalry. Mary’s meeting Jesus on his unhappy way, her three hour vigil at the foot of the cross, her valiant embrace of Christ’s dead body (immortalized in the Pieta) and her final parting from Christ enclosed in the stone cold tomb completed her motherly sorrows.
Still Mary persevered. She was the faithful mother of Christ and now she would accept the role as faithful mother of the Church. She is traditionally understood to have been present at the joyous birthday of the Church, the tremendous outpouring of the Holy Spirit which the early Church experienced on that first Christian Pentecost. Clearly Our Lady of Sorrows is equally our Lady of Commitment.
Mary’s sorrows had nothing to do with self-pity or second thoughts. Having pledged her commitment to God’s plan in the stillness of Nazareth, she would persevere throughout the tears, taunts and final tragedy in Jerusalem. Her motherly way might have been sorrowful, but her maternal will was resolute.