Tuesday, 15 September 2015

Joining our Lady of Sorrows

 Using various allegories from Scripture this article explores the sorrows of our Lady and how we are called to join our Lady in Her Sorrows.

The Martyrdom of the Mother and Her Seven Sons

'The Martyrdom of the Maccabees', Jean Baptiste Vignaly, 1781.
In the Second Book of the Maccabees we read the account of the Jewish mother and her seven sons who were arrested by the Greek King Antiochus IV (215-164 B.C.) for having kept their Jewish religious customs against the tyrannical decree of the king. King Antiochus IV was the king of the Seleucid Empire, a Hellenistic state which was one of the empires formed out of the division of the empire of Alexander the Great upon his death. We read that “the king sent an Athenian senator to force the Jews to abandon the customs of their ancestors and live no longer by the laws of God; also to profane the temple in Jerusalem and dedicate it to Olympian Zeus (Mac 6:1-2a). An extract from the account of the mother and her seven sons reads as follows:

It happened also that seven brothers and their mother were arrested and were being compelled by the king, under torture with whips and cords, to partake of unlawful swine's flesh. One of them, acting as their spokesman, said, "What do you intend to ask and learn from us? For we are ready to die rather than transgress the laws of our fathers." The king fell into a rage, and gave orders that pans and caldrons be heated. These were heated immediately, and he commanded that the tongue of their spokesman be cut out and that they scalp him and cut off his hands and feet, while the rest of the brothers and the mother looked on. When he was utterly helpless, the king ordered them to take him to the fire, still breathing, and to fry him in a pan. The smoke from the pan spread widely, but the brothers and their mother encouraged one another to die nobly, saying, "The Lord God is watching over us and in truth has compassion on us, as Moses declared in his song which bore witness against the people to their faces, when he said, `And he will have compassion on his servants.'" (2 Mac 7:1-6).

The rest of the account relates that the king tries to persuade each son to transgress their Jewish customs, yet after each refuses and retorts with courageous words the king orders the mother’s sons to be tortured in more or less the same gruesome way, one by one, but torturing the last and youngest of the brothers worst of all. Finally the king then has the mother tortured and killed. In the Eastern Orthodox tradition this mother is referred to as St. Solomonia, and according to a rabbinical tradition she is interestingly known as Miriam which is the Hebrew equivalent of Mary.

There are many things that are striking about this account but let us focus on the courage of the mother and the sorrow she must have undergone in seeing all seven of her sons tortured and killed before her. Although she would have desired to have the lives of her sons spared, she preferred their physical death to what she believed would have been their spiritual death and damnation, or if not this, at least a lesser kind of spiritual death if they ate of the swine’s flesh which was forbidden to them by the Law of Moses. She thus encourages her sons to stand fast boldly and to be martyrs of their faith –dying for reparation of the sins of Israel (Mac 7:32, 37-39), and in obedience to God’s Will, whilst she knows that they will all be reunited in the afterlife and will attain the glory of the resurrection (Mac 7:14b). The mother encouraged the youngest of her sons as follows:

"My son, have pity on me. I carried you nine months in my womb, and nursed you for three years, and have reared you and brought you up to this point in your life, and have taken care of you. I beseech you, my child, to look at the heaven and the earth and see everything that is in them, and recognize that God did not make them out of things that existed. Thus also mankind comes into being. Do not fear this butcher, but prove worthy of your brothers. Accept death, so that in God's mercy I may get you back again with your brothers." (2 Mac 7:27-29).

The Crucified Jesus and Mary at the Foot of the Cross

Mary at the Foot of the Cross
The above account serves as a fitting allegory for our Lady at the foot of the Cross, for as the mother beheld each of her seven sons die, so too did our Lady behold Her own beloved Son die on the Cross. As the seven brothers were innocent and were killed for doing what was right and just, so too our Lord Jesus, Innocence Incarnate, was killed for doing what was right and just –for simply spreading the Good News of God’s Merciful Love. Just as King Antiochus sought to persuade the seven brothers to abandon their identity as Jews, they resisted and willingly laid down their lives; so too Pontius Pilate sought to persuade Jesus to forsake His identity as the Jewish Messiah in order to set Him free; and before Caiaphas the High Priest Jesus also had an opportunity to shy away and deny His identity, but instead He paid no heed to such an opportunity, and willingly laid down His life on the Cross. 

The mother and her seven sons died a martyr’s death for the sins of Israel, in order to ‘make up’ for the idolatry and faithlessness of many of the Jewish people who had abandoned their faith to the paganism of the Greeks. Likewise Jesus died as the Martyr of Martyr’s in order to ‘make up’ for the sins of Israel and the whole world, and for the sins of our very selves. The Blessed Virgin Mary also died a martyr’s death, a white martyr’s death without the shedding of Her blood; because at the foot of the Cross Her pains were so great in seeing Her Son die - the very Son whom She nursed as a babe - it was truly worse than death, since for a mother it is far less of a death to die herself, than it is to see the death of her own child. And these pains our Lady suffered at the foot of the Cross were Co-Redemptive because they were perfectly joined and were a very sharing in Christ’s Redemptive sufferings (Col 1:24), and thus Her martyrdom like the mother in the Maccabean account was –but in an extraordinary way – for the reparation of the sins of Israel and the whole world, and for our very own sins.

The Seven Sorrows of our Lady

We might also draw a further parallel in reference to the Seven Sorrows of our Lady. These sorrows are traditionally as follows:

1.      The Prophecy of Simeon (Luke 2:34–35) or the Circumcision of Christ
2.      The Flight into Egypt. (Matthew 2:13)
3.      The loss of the child Jesus in the Temple. (Luke 2:42–49)
4.      Mary meets Jesus on the way to Calvary.
5.      Jesus dies on the cross. (John 19:25)
6.      The piercing of Jesus’ side, and Mary's receiving the body of Jesus in her arms. (Mt 27:57–59)
7.      The body of Jesus is placed in the tomb. (John 19:40–42)

'Pietà', Adolphe William Bouguereau, 1876.
In consideration of these seven sorrows we can say that the seven sons in the Maccabean account represent each of the seven sorrows of our Lady. For just as the mother lost her seven sons, so too each of the seven sorrows of our Lady in seeing Her Beloved Son suffer, were so painful that it is as if she had lost Her Son seven times. For truly an ordinary mother loves her child exceedingly so, and there is no greater human love than this example, and hence there is no greater sorrow than when a mother loses her child. But what shall we say is the sorrow of the Mother of mother’s, the most perfect and greatest of all mother’s; She who is the very Mother of God? Indeed we can hardly fathom how great Mary’s love for Jesus was (and is!). So great was this Divine Love that palpitated in the Immaculate Heart of Mary, that even the consideration of the pains of Jesus yet to come, as received in the prophecy of Simeon – who said that Her Son would “be a target of contradictions” – was so painful that She experienced the sorrow of the death of Her Son. Likewise when Mary lost Jesus for three days we might think this would hardly warrant the kind of intense sorrow that we are speaking of, but assuredly our Lady loved Jesus so much that to even have Him out of Her sight for one minute was a sacrifice beyond even the greatest of sacrifices made by all of the Saints’ sacrifices combined. Hence three days of Mary missing Her Son caused the very pain as if He had died. The greatest sorrow of our Lady was the death of Her Son on the Cross; and like Jesus She was fully aware of this pending reality throughout His life, and hence every sorrow of our Lady recalled the death of Her Son to Her mind; and even more so, brought through eternity the very reality of Jesus’ death on Calvary and its sorrow into Her heart. Thus truly as the Maccabean mother suffered the sorrow of losing seven of her sons, the Blessed Virgin Mary suffered the loss of Her Son seven times; and even then we are speaking mildly, for these are but the primary sorrows of our Lady and we could easily say that She suffered the loss of Her Son seven times seventy times. This is why one of the titles of Mary is Our Lady of Sorrows, and hence we can apply these words spoken by the Prophet Jeremiah to our Lady: “Look and see if there is any sorrow like my sorrow which was brought upon me” (Lam 1:12).

Our Lady of Sorrows

'Mater Dolorosa', Bartolomé Esteban Perez Murillo, 1668/70.
The sorrows of our Lady are the very sorrows of seeing Her Son suffer, and of experiencing the loss of Her Son. Yet since Christ Jesus is the Head of the Church, and all other members of the Church are other parts of this Mystical Body (1 Cor 12:12-26), these sorrows of our Lady cannot be separated from the sorrows She has in seeing the members of the Church – who are Her children – suffer in any way. Our Lady’s sorrows thus include the sorrows She has over seeing the evils in this world, over the hatred and violence of men, over the abuse of children, the abortion of children, the blasphemies against Her Son, the sacrileges against the Eucharist, and most of all the sorrows of seeing countless souls dead in sin. She also sorrows over those who may not be dead in mortal sin, but those who are even in a state of grace but are relatively dead in a lesser sense, and these are they who live good lives but who live in their own will as opposed to living in the Divine Will, and this would apply to almost all of us practicing Catholics. In the light of this understanding we come to realise that our sins, our resentments against others, our slanders and harsh judgments, are all wounds which we cause to Christ and wounds which we cause to Mary our Mother. It is true that they cannot suffer now in their state of glory in heaven, but they did suffer in the past for our sins that we commit today, and hence it is as if they suffer now. We may think those who tortured the mother and her seven sons were cruel and heartless, but the reality is that we are ‘the butchers’ who butchered our Lord Jesus on the Cross, and who thus made the Mother suffer such horrendous pains. The awareness of this truth ought to humble us, and lead us to repent from the depths of our heart for having caused Jesus and Mary so much pain. A marvelous way to repay them and thus give glory to God, is to meditate and come to participate in the Cross of Christ and in the Sorrows of Mary –for this tells them that we are grateful for their sufferings. Besides, they suffered for our sake, not for their own sake; so the best thing we can do is satisfy their desire for our salvation and complete sanctification, by allowing their sufferings to bear fruit in our souls. For their sufferings are as water that nourishes the soul and makes it bear good fruit –Jesus’ sufferings have this quality by virtue of His divine nature, whereas Mary’s sufferings possess this sanctifying quality because of Her ‘fullness of grace’. So indeed the soul that meditates and enters into these sufferings of Jesus and Mary becomes as a garden that is moist and rich with all kinds of fresh and luscious produce –spiritual produce which God Father delights to feast upon.

Mary the New Rachel that ‘Weeps for Her Children’

An Icon of Rachel Weeping for Her Children
In the Book of Jeremiah we read: “A voice is heard in Ramah, mourning and great weeping, Rachel weeping for her children and refusing to be comforted, because her children are no more.” (Jer 31:15). The author of the Gospel of Matthew states how this was fulfilled when Herod slaughtered the Holy Innocents – killing “all the male children in Bethlehem and in all that region who were two years old or under” (Mt 2:16-17). This is true on a literal level, however interpreting these Scriptures in the spiritual sense we can glean further insights which reveal that Mary is the New Rachel –the fulfillment of the Old Testament Rachel – who weeps for her children that ‘are no more’. As we mentioned, on one level the children Mary weeps for are those who are dead in mortal sin, those who are spiritually dead who do not possess the life of Christ within them. Thus the Scripture applies: “Rachel” –by which we understand as Mary – is “weeping for her children and refusing to be comforted, because her children are no more.” (Jer 31:15). On another level the children Mary weeps for are those who are in a state of grace but who are still sorely imperfect and do not yet live in the Divine Will of God; and hence these children are dead –not in mortal sin – but dead compared to the fullness of life of living in the Divine Will, a fullness of life that is akin to eternal beatitude – the state of those in heaven. Hence the Scripture likewise applies: Mary the New “Rachel [is] weeping for her children and refusing to be comforted, because her children are no more.” (Jer 31:15).

This passage from Jeremiah also reminds us when the Lord says along the via dolorosa (‘the way of sorrows’ which is the way of the Cross): “Daughters of Jerusalem, do not weep for me, but weep for yourselves and for your children.” (Lk 23:28). This He says to the women who are weeping over His sufferings as He carries the cross towards Calvary. If these are the consoling words the Lord spoke to the daughters of Jerusalem, what consoling words did the Lord speak to His weeping Mother – the Daughter of Jerusalem – through the mutual exchange of their glance? “Daughter of Jerusalem, do not weep for me, but weep for your children.” For She need not weep for Herself, because our Lady the Daughter of Jerusalem was conceived without sin and had no guile in Herself to weep over unlike the daughters of Jerusalem which symbolise all of us who are born in the state of original sin and fall at least seven times a day (Prov 24:16). Thus truly we can understand how Mary is the New Rachel that weeps for Her children who are either dead in mortal sin, or dead in subjection to the finite operation of the human will. Yet as we know our faith does not stop at the Cross, it does not culminate with the shedding of tears, for the Cross and tears are necessary means to the joyful end of the mystery of the Resurrection.

Following the passage where Jeremiah states how Rachel is weeping inconsolably for her children, he speaks again saying: “This is what the Lord says: ‘Restrain your voice from weeping and your eyes from tears, for your work will be rewarded,’ declares the Lord. ‘They will return from the land of the enemy. So there is hope for your future,’ declares the Lord. ‘Your children will return to their own land.’” (Jer 31:16-17). When we look with the eyes of our New Testament faith through the Mariological lense, this is simply another way of saying: “This is what the Lord says to you O Mary the New Rachel: ‘Restrain your voice from weeping and your eyes from tears, for your work of suffering and your many sorrows will be rewarded,’ declares the Lord. ‘Your children who are dead in mortal sin and who belong to the land of the enemy, Satan; and your children who are dead to the life of the Divine Will and who belong to the land of the enemy of the human will, will return and be raised spiritually to life again. So there is hope for you to rejoice,’ declares the Lord. ‘Your children will be raised from their graves, you will hold them again, and those you hold already you will hold even closer; for your children will return to their own land –those in mortal sin to the state of grace, and those abiding in the human will to the Divine Will.’”

Mary’s Sorrows: The Mystical Dew

'The Israelites Gathering Manna', Ercole de' Roberti, 1490's.
We ourselves may be one of these children who are spiritually dead in one way or another, but we can number among the ranks of those children who are spiritually resurrected if we repent of our sins and for the pain they have caused our Lord and this Mother of ours; and if we endeavour to allow the tears of Mary, the tears of our Lady of Sorrows, to wash us clean and sanctify us, through mediating and entering into our Lord’s sufferings and the inseparable sorrows of our Lady. For then spiritually we will be immersing ourselves into this sanctifying water of Mary’s tears which will lead to our spiritual regeneration into deeper modes of holiness. For these tears of Mary, of our Lady of Sorrows, and of the New Rachel, are one with the Holy Spirit, and are the same waters that Christ poured out when He was pierced by a spear (Jn 19:34)–for the humanity of Christ was given to Him by Mary. These are the very waters concerning which the Lord said: “I tell you the truth, no one can enter the kingdom of God unless he is born of water and the Spirit.” (Jn 3:5). Yes, this speaks of Baptism and Confirmation, and even the Holy Eucharist as ‘the source and summit of the Christian life’, but it also speaks of the fulfillment of one’s baptismal life which is only totally fulfilled in the one who bathes and drinks from the wellspring of our Lady’s Sorrows, such Sorrows which are the spiritual dew that encase the Manna of the Eucharist, just as the physical dew so covered the manna in the wilderness (Num 11:9). For indeed one may receive the Eucharist day after day, but as the Catechism states: the Sacraments “bear fruit in those who receive them with the required dispositions” (CCC 1131), and if one is relying on their own imperfect dispositions (i.e. their own humility, faith, love etc.) they are sure to bear imperfect fruit as children who are alive in the state of grace for sure, but as children who are ‘dead’ to the perfection to which they are called. Yet those who bathe and drink from the wellspring of our Lady’s Sorrows, they become like the manna that was covered with dew, they invest the perfect dispositions of Mary (i.e. Mary’s humility, faith, love etc.) as their own –thus they approach the Eucharistic table with the very same perfect and immaculate dew that spiritually covers the Manna of the Eucharist. Hence even though such persons may still be imperfect they bear perfect spiritual fruit because they receive the Eucharist with Mary’s perfect dispositions and not with their own.

Bathing in the Sorrows of our Lady

Additionally the one that bathes in these Seven Sorrows of our Lady, although he be sorely sinful and imperfect like a spiritual leper, if he bathes in these waters he will be cleansed, and will possess the purity of Mary as his own. This is signified in the Scriptures when Naaman the leper is told by the prophet Elisha to bathe seven times in the Jordan River so that he will be healed. Naaman stubbornly complains yet his servant convinces him to carry out such a simple ritual because he has nothing to lose but can only gain by doing so. The Scriptures then record: “So he went down and dipped himself seven times in the Jordan, according to the word of the man of God; and his flesh was restored like the flesh of a little child, and he was clean.” (2 King 5:14).

Naaman Washes in the Jordan River
In this instance we can understand Elisha to represent Jesus, Naaman as ourselves, the Jordan River our Lady, the seven immersions referring to the Seven Sorrows of our Lady and our ‘fusion’ with them, and the servant of Naaman our conscience. Hence we approach Jesus as spiritual lepers, in this case we will refer to being lepers in regards to that lesser kind of death –spiritual imperfection a.k.a. not yet living in Divine Will; and we say to Him: Lord heal us of our leprosy. He tells each of us to go to Mary and to foster devotion to Her, and to accommodate ourselves with Her Seven Sorrows – by meditating upon them, seeking to console Her through the Rosary and acts of mortification (especially of the will), and to enter into them spiritually by making Her sorrows and all thus all Her merits our own. If we do this, our Lord says we will be healed of spiritual leprosy. Yet maybe like Naaman we are repulsed by this idea –doubting in the benefit and necessity of Marian devotion for spiritual sanctity; thinking that things like consecrating oneself to Mary is ‘going overboard’ or ‘crossing the line’; as if devotion to Mary takes away from Christ. Yet if we listen to the voice of our conscience, and inform our conscience with the teachings of Truth, the teachings of Holy Mother Church which was founded on Peter by Christ; then we will hear our conscience say: “Devotion to Mary does not slight Christ, it is in fact the perfect means of rendering Him greater glory. No one comes to Father except through the Son, and no one comes to the Son except through the Mother –whether they are aware of this or not. Do not be one of those who ignores this Mother and goes to Christ without paying Her homage, for the Archangel Gabriel paid Her homage, so will not you? Indeed honour Her as the commandment demands: ‘Honour thy father and thy mother’; a commandment which Christ fulfilled by honouring Mary, and do you think that you are better than Christ to forfeit rendering Her such honour? Certainly not! So make haste and consecrate yourself to Her –immerse yourself in this mystical River- make Her virtues and merits your own, and bathe in Her Sorrows.” If we do this, then just as Naaman’s flesh was restored to that of a little child by dipping seven times in the Jordan River; our soul’s will be restored to become spiritually like ‘little children’, and as the Lord says: “unless you turn and become like children, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven,” that is, the Kingdom of living in Divine Will (Mt 18:3). This becoming ‘little children’ –who are simple and innocent – is perfectly wrought through true devotion to Mary, by uniting with Her and becoming one with Her Sorrows, for in this manner one’s ‘old man’ – as St. Paul calls it – of sin and imperfection, will be washed away so that one is spiritually regenerated, spiritually reborn and resurrected into higher levels of sanctity.


Finally we must remember as Mary so perfectly understood, and as the life of Christ testifies as does Her own life and that of all the Saints: “If we have received happiness from the hand of God, shall we not also receive sorrows?” (Job 2:10). For it is only those who embrace their cross of sorrows in this life that come to enjoy the delights of eternity; and the greater one’s sorrows in this life, the greater one’s joys in the next. For when that great day comes, those who are rejoicing will mourn, and those who mourn will rejoice, for to those who join Mary and follow Christ along the via dolorosa, “he will wipe away every tear from their eyes, and death shall be no more, neither shall there be mourning nor crying nor pain any more, for the former things have passed away…and thus they that sow in tears shall reap in joy for they went out full of sorrow carrying seed for the sowing, but they will come back, they will come back, carrying their sheaves, full of joy.” (Paraphrase: Rev 21:4, Ps 126:5-6).

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