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Along the Way
Mary at the foot of the cross
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One Lent many years ago I was participating in the Stations of the Cross. As I prayed the regular prayers, I tried to imagine what it would have been like to be there and witness Christs suffering and death. As I meditated on the thirteenth station, where the dead body of Jesus is placed in his mothers arms, I imagined that I was Mary at the foot of the cross. In my minds eye it seemed that I held the broken and tortured body of my own child. It was then that the terribly reality of Marys pain overwhelmed me, as a parent I felt the horror that she must have experienced.

That experience opened up for me a deeper appreciation for Mary. We were both parents. I could better relate to her through that shared identity. I also gained new insight into Jesus because in a sense I could see him through her eyes.

While there is not a lot about Mary in Scripture there is enough to get a sense of her as a joyful, strong, wise and loving woman. Yet, every joyous experienced that touched her life seemed to be accompanied by a similar measure of sorrow.

  • She learns that she is to be the mother of the Promised One but she is not yet married.
  • She gives birth to her beloved Son whose coming into the world is heralded by the angels, yet her delivery room is a stable and within months of the childs birth they must flee to Egypt to escape death.
  • Her son reaches the age where he can undertake the religious responsibilities and rights of a man. Yet, it is on this occasion that the youth is separated from his parents for three days.
  • Tradition has it that not many years after this the peace of their home was disturbed when Joseph died.
  • It is not difficult to imagine Mary as a doting mother who worried for her son first when he did not marry and then when he began to wander around Israel as an itinerant preacher.
  • Imagine her pride and joy as Jesus ministry grew in influence and in signs of Gods favor. Yet, also think of her worries for notoriety attracted opposition.

At the time of Jesus circumcision at the Temple in Jerusalem, Simeon the prophet spoke of the baby Jesus as a light to enlighten the pagans and the glory of Israel. As he looked upon the baby, Simeon spoke of seeing the salvation which God had prepared all nations to see,. He also spoke of the baby being rejected and a sword piercing Marys own soul. As Mary experienced the suffering that came into her life, we can imagine her remembering Simeons words of a sword that would pierce her soul. At the foot of the cross the sorrow that pierced her soul must have seemed unbearable.

One of the titles that the Church has given to Mary is Our Lady of Sorrows. This is understandable given the numerous difficulties. Yet, Mary is not what we would consider a sorrowful woman, overcome with the pain that afflicted her. Rather, we remember her words in the MagnificatMy spirit proclaims the greatness of the Lord, my spirit rejoices in God my Savior for he as looked with favor on his lowly servant. From this day all generations will call me blessed: the Almighty has done great things for me, and holy is his Name. How can we reconcile the joyous Blessed Mother with Our Lady of Sorrows, as she stands at the foot of the cross?

Perhaps the difficulty in reconciling joy and sorrow is found in ourselves. It seems that most people believe that they have right not to suffer, as if it were not part of the human condition. If suffering intrudes in their lives they have a right to be rid of it. They can take a pill or see a lawyer and be done with their suffering. This is pounded into our heads everyday as the media offer us dozens of ways to avoid pain and end suffering. Take a pill. Buy a car. Go on vacation. Run away from pain. Forget suffering.

We struggle to live in a suffering-free, pain-free state such that we gradually become desensitized to the suffering of others. In order to avoid pain ourselves we retreat from others, afraid to risk involvement for fear of being drawn into their suffering or being wounded ourselves.

The heart of our Christian faith is the proclamation of the life, death and resurrection of Jesus Christ. This is the Paschal mystery. Death and resurrection are the distinctive pattern of we see in the life of Christ and in his disciples. It is this pattern of living that offers the possibility of salvation. If we are to experience the joy of resurrection we must submit to a life of loving and compassionate vulnerability in which we risk pain and suffering. It is only through the willingness to feel pain, to suffer, to know real loss, that we can know delight, gratitude and the joy of life that the Spirit offers us.

  • What marriage, or even friendship, can survive if we run from it at the first sign of difficulty?
  • How can we cherish good health, if we have not known sickness?
  • How can we offer compassion to others, if we have not felt the sting of loss?
  • How can we know the value of our own life, if fear makes us deny its brevity?

St. Paul describes Christ as freely giving up all of his divine prerogatives and entering into the fullness of the human experience. He didnt cling to honor or glory. He didnt run from pain and suffering. Rather, he took the lowliest rung on the human ladder and embraced a shameful death on the cross that we might live. This wasnt the end. God raised Jesus up in glory on the third day.

Human fulfillment follows the pattern of the paschal mystery, that is, death and resurrection. To live as a Christian is to freely embrace the reality of constraint, loss, and the necessity of pain as part of human existence. We find fulfillment precisely when we accept vulnerability and and are willing to take risks giving ourselves over to lives of committed service and love.

It is precisely because the Blessed Mother was willing to love totally and so deeply as she loved her son that her life was so joyous. To be full of grace implies a willingness to embrace both lifes joys and sorrows.

Also read A Course in Christian Spirituality by Deacon Shewman that is available through this link.

(c) 1997-2008. Richard Shewman. All stories, articles, reflections and other written material contained in this website are the creative fruit and property of Richard Shewman. All rights are reserved. The written material contained in this website may not be reproduced or published in any form, except for the individual and personal use of the reader, without the express consent of the author.