The Heart of the Sorrowful Mother
“Behold your Mother!” (Jn 19:27). This is our Lord’s command to us from the cross. What do we see when we behold our Mother?
Looking into her suffering heart, we find a love wholly unique opening out to us. At the same time her heart is virginal, maternal, and impeccable. A love woven of these three strands—purity, maternity, sinlessness—reveals a heart of the greatest breadth and therefore of unparalleled suffering. Yet the heart of the Virgin of Sorrows is not narrowed by suffering, as ours are apt to shrink in painful moments, to become heavy or withdrawn. Our Lady’s heart expands in her affliction to embrace in spirit all that Jesus embraces on the cross—not only His sufferings, but also those for whom He suffers.
Christian piety has always led the faithful to seek protection and guidance from her who was so steadfast beneath the cross. Far from being a passive stance of powerlessness, of one who can only stand by and watch as evil seems to triumph, Mary’s posture beneath the cross is that of one who fully understands her role in the redemption. As Mother of the Redeemer she does not abandon her Son, but carries out her unique motherhood to the very end by a heartfelt sharing in everything Jesus suffers.
As mothers regularly “absorb” the sufferings of their children, so does the Blessed Mother spiritually take on those of her Son. Nor does she ever abandon God’s scattered children who are the fruit of those sufferings (cf. Jn 11:52). This has led Christians from ancient times to invoke our Lady as Star of the Sea—an especially fitting symbol of the Virgin of Sorrows. As the human life of Jesus was slowly extinguished she remained the one light shining, the one inextinguishable lamp shining in the darkest of places. At the moment of our Lord’s arrest He had said to those apprehending Him: “But this is your hour, and the power of darkness” (Lk 22:53).
That same darkness falls from time to time on the disciples of Jesus, upon ourselves. This is why Mary must be our constant star, because she knows what it is to remain constant when darkness falls upon the Christian soul. And it does fall, because to live for Jesus in this world means that we will come into open conflict with evil—within ourselves first, and then in the world around us. There are times when we too feel the pain of misunderstandings, of unfair treatment, of confusion. And Jesus gives us His Mother so that we will look to her, as He did, in those moments.
She understands us! She understands her children! We can imagine her encouraging us with these words from Job: “Surely then you will lift up your face without blemish; you will be secure, and will not fear. You will forget your misery; you will remember it as waters that have passed away. And your life will be brighter than the noonday; its darkness will be like the morning. And you will have confidence, because there is hope…” (Job 11:15-18). Such encouragement can only come from the heart of one who has passed through the darkness of discipleship with an unwavering confidence in the Lord.
The darkness that our Lady experienced on Calvary has led the faithful, especially in Spain and Latin America, to robe statues of her in black during Holy Week, and to invoke her as Our Lady of Solitude or Our Lady Forsaken. Indeed, we can imagine all of the appalling sights and sounds that surrounded her as she remained near the cross.
Calvary was outside the city of Jerusalem, at a crossroads of travel. The idea was to execute criminals in a location where passersby would see and fear, so as to prohibit crime and insurrection. Thus St John specifies: “Pilate also wrote a title and put it on the cross; it read, ‘Jesus of Nazareth, the King of the Jews.’ Many of the Jews read this title, for the place where Jesus was crucified was near the city; and it was written in Hebrew, in Latin, and in Greek” (Jn 19:19-20).
And the people passing by would have said all of the things that you would expect people to say in the face of such a pitiful spectacle: Mothers telling their children to Look the other way; others saying Serves them right—thieves and rebels! Still others: Poor men. What do you suppose “King of the Jews” means? And then: Poor woman, poor mother. She’ll never be able to show her face in public again.
And amidst all of the noise and commotion, our Lady also had to listen to the commentary of her Son’s enemies: “And those who passed by derided him, wagging their heads and saying, ‘You who would destroy the temple and build it in three days, save yourself! If you are the Son of God, come down from the cross.’ … ‘He saved others; he cannot save himself. He is the King of Israel; let him come down now from the cross, and we will believe in him. He trusts in God; let God deliver him now, if he desires him; for he said, 'I am the Son of God.' And the robbers who were crucified with him also reviled him in the same way” (cf. Mt 27:39-43).
This unruly and brutal environment provided the setting in which our Lady’s maternal vocation reached its crowning moment. And it is also there that Jesus directs our attention to the place where He Himself fixed His gaze from the cross: “When Jesus saw his mother…,” He guided the attention of His beloved disciple to her as well: “Behold your mother!”
In beholding her, we see a Mother prepared to take every sorrow onto herself for the sake of her Child, for the sake of her children. And it is the support and inspiration of that love which will enable us to carry our own cross and climb our own Calvary, staying as close to Jesus as she was.
These spiritual reflections are brought to you by Father John Henry Hanson, O.Praem., a Norbertine priest of St Michael's Abbey in Silverado, California. He and his community contribute to the work of Aid to the Church in Need.