Feasts are times to reflect. The Feast of Our Lady of Sorrows, September 15th, is an important feast for my community, the Passionists. Mary is the first disciple of Jesus and a model for anyone who wishes to follow him.
The gospel reading for the feast from St. John says simply that Mary stood by the cross of Jesus. She’s a brave woman, not afraid to come close to the fearful place where Jesus was put to death. The Book of Judith, ordinarily the 1st reading for the feast, praises Judith, the brave and wise Jewish woman who’s not afraid to stand with her people at a dangerous moment in their history. Two women of courage face suffering and the challenge it brings.
The prayers, traditions and art of this feast take up the theme of Mary standing by the cross. She’s remembered in poetry, music and art. “Stabat Mater” Here’s an example in Gregorian Chant and Pergolesi’s magnificent baroque setting.
At the cross her station keeping
Stood the mournful mother keeping
Close to Jesus to the last.
Blessed Dominic Barberi, in his reflections on Mary’s sorrows, emphasizes that Mary is a mother, the new Eve and a follower of Abraham, who hopes even as his son faces death. Dominic places particular emphasis on Mary’s ties to Jesus as his mother, ties of flesh and blood.
Her motherhood provides another strong tradition that appears in early medieval art – the Pieta– the Mother holding her dead Son in her arms on Calvary. Where did this come from? Some say it comes, not from the gospels which make no mention of it, but from the writings of mystics like St. Bridgid of Sweden, a mother who saw the life of Jesus, particularly his passion, through a mother’s eyes.
The women mystics, many of them pilgrims to the Holy Land, could not imagine Mary not taking the body of her dead Son into her arms when taken down from the cross.
The 13th century icon above, from the Ryerson collection from the Art Institute of Chicago once belonged to a European pilgrim to the Holy Land who brought it back as a reminder of a pilgrimage. It probably reflects the two traditions. Mary, a mother, holds her Son at birth and she stands at his cross at death.
An alternate gospel for the feast recalls Mary’s loss of the Child Jesus in the temple. Mary’s sorrows were not limited to Calvary; they were lifelong.
A study of the Pieta in art in early medieval France explores the diversity of this scene before Michaelangelo’s Pieta became an overpowering icon. “Often she is viewed as caught up in the horror of the moment, but she is also shown praying or even gazing into the distance, as if contemplating comforting memories or the reunion to come. Her demeanor ranges from youthful innocence—the Purity that Time cannot age—to careworn maturity—Our Lady of Sorrows.”