This Lent we will reflect on what are known as the Seven Sorrows of Mary. One of the traditional titles for our Blessed Mother is Our Lady of Sorrows, which affirms that there were moments throughout her life, found in Scripture, where we see that Mary experienced authentic human suffering, just as we all do. However, Mary is a woman of deep faith, which we see in her fiat as she tells the angel that she is the handmaid of the Lord and is open to His plan for her life without even knowing what it is (Luke 1:38). In this, she teaches us how to suffer better and in a way that grows our own faith rather than diminishes it. We also know that Mary is so deeply connected to Jesus that her sorrows are intimately joined to Him and His own suffering. Through this, she serves as an example of how to join our own personal suffering to Jesus’.
The First Sorrow of Mary is the Prophecy of Simeon. When Mary and Joseph present Jesus at the temple according to the Jewish custom, they encounter Simeon, a man whom God promised would not die without first laying his eyes on the Savior. Simeon was elated when Jesus arrived and heaped praise on God for this great gift. Mary must have had a heart full of joy in that moment until Simeon’s words took a sudden turn:
And his father and mother marveled at what was said about him. And Simeon blessed them and said to Mary his mother, “Behold this child is appointed for the fall and rising of many in Israel, and for a sign that is opposed (and a sword will pierce through you own soul also), so that the thoughts from many hearts may be revealed.” (Luke 2:33-36)
In the words of this prophecy, she is hearing that her Son will cause controversy and will be opposed, but also that she will suffer for it. Simeon also does not provide any specific details of what all of this suffering will entail, which may have caused temptation for her to worry and fear what is to come.
By virtue of her Immaculate Conception, Mary did not sin, but that does not mean she was not tempted at times to do things that are sinful. (You can read more about the Immaculate Conception on the parish blog from September 20, 2020.) To experience a sorrow, or any emotion at all, which Mary likely did at pronouncement of Simeon’s prophecy, is not a sin in and of itself. Sin enters in when we allow our emotions to cause us to act in ways that are not according to God’s will for our lives. Worry and fear are not of God. As a matter of fact, we are told numerous times throughout scripture to not worry and to not be afraid. To feed and dwell on worry or fear of things that have not even occurred yet reveals a lack of faith and trust in God and that He will use all things for the greater good of His plan, however bad they might seem at the time. So, knowing that Mary was a holy woman of perfect faith, we can be assured she embraced the sorrow of Simeon’s prophecy with a gentle and loving trust that whatever suffering was going to come to her Son, and whatever sword would pierce her heart, it must be for some greater good. We now know, in retrospect, that the greater good of that sorrow was the salvation of humanity, allowing the opportunity for all souls to enter heaven should they choose to embrace the path Jesus has provided.
So, how does this first sorrow of Mary, Simeon’s vague prophecy, and her response to it apply to our own lives? First, we don’t particularly need a prophet to tell us suffering is headed our way and we have no idea in what form it will come. It’s simply part of the human condition and we all know that because we have already experienced it and have witnessed others around us experience it. And unfortunately, as long as we remain on this Earth in this life, there is probably more to come in ways we can never predict. Mary was still basking in the joy and afterglow of having just given birth to a baby boy when she received this painful news. Consider times in your life where one day things were going well and then some great sorrow or suffering came suddenly and changed things for you. It could be anything: loss of a job, loss of a loved one, a diagnosis, a betrayal, or any other number of things. In any of these cases, you likely did not know the form this suffering would take in the years leading up to it. All of us can collectively relate to the shared experience of celebrating with joy the end of 2019 and the beginning of 2020 only to find all of our lives so dramatically changed almost instantaneously with the ushering in of COVID-19. It is safe to say that 2020 brought with it so much suffering, on so many levels, that never could have been expected or predicted by any of us. So, the challenge to us is not so much in worrying and fearing about the unknown factors that lie ahead of us, but in working to strengthen our faith in God so that we respond correctly and with trust when these things do happen to us.
Secondly, I would imagine that the part of the prophecy that predicted the suffering of her Son, caused Mary more pain due than her own suffering. Any parent will agree that they would rather suffer themselves than to watch their children suffer. Watching a child suffer is a unique type of suffering for the parents as well. It is a certainty that people we love will also encounter many unexpected sufferings as they progress through their lives. We can help our children and other loved ones increase the strength of their faith and trust in God through not only our example, but also through our encouragement in speaking always of the goodness of God and in helping them always keep their eyes fixed on Him. If we are true believers in His goodness, then we know He makes all things new and no suffering is in vain if we join it with the interconnected suffering of Mary and Jesus.
This week, imagine Simeon coming to you in a moment of great joy when things are going well and prophesying that great pain is headed your way, but he isn’t any more specific than that. I realize this is probably not a pleasant thing to imagine, but then imagine your response to his words. Most of us, as imperfect humans, are going to experience some level of anxiety at such an announcement, but let us remind ourselves that anxiety does not come from God, but from the evil one. How can we instead imitate Mary in her sorrow and picture ourselves proceeding in the peace of knowing that our heavenly Father will hold and guide us as we go through whatever is to come? Like Mary, how can we use our sorrow to draw closer to Him so that it may be used for our own salvific benefit?