As we enter into this final week of Lent, we will take a look at the sixth and seventh sorrows of Mary, which go hand in hand. Mary’s sixth sorrow was when Jesus was pierced in the side with a spear and then placed in her arms. The seventh sorrow is the burial of her precious Son in His tomb.
Recall from last week how Mary was standing at the foot of the cross for the entire three hours it took Him to die, never once leaving Him. She remained with Him in His agony, while simultaneously enduring an internal agony of her own. The Sabbath was quickly approaching, and due to Jewish law, the crucifixions needed to be wrapped up quickly so everyone could get home to observe the holiest day of the week. Because of this, it was ordered that the knees of the crucified be broken in order to speed the process along. The men to the right and left of Jesus – who had not endured the same torture He did – had their knees broken, but when they got to Jesus, they found that He was already dead and therefore did not need to break his knees. This fulfilled the Old Testament prophecy from Numbers 9:12 that said that none of the sacrificed Passover lamb’s bones would be broken (John 19:31-37). Now, imagine Mary, His mother, watching this scene, where they have already determined He has died, and a soldier decides to thrust a spear into His dead body’s side, bringing forth a gush of blood and water (John 19:34). It would appear that such an action would be nothing less than yet another meaningless cruelty, especially for Mary. However, this seemingly unnecessary action was, in fact, a necessary action for humanity to witness His Divine Mercy flow forth from His body and to see the Eucharistic reality of His sacrifice in His Body and Blood on the cross. When we participate in the Sacrament of the Eucharist at Mass and consume His Body and Blood, we can remember and thank Mary for enduring this horrific moment for our sakes.
As Jesus was taken down from the cross, Mary would have instinctively reached her arms up to finally hold Him, as she had been unable to do during the entire ordeal. I’m sure you have all seen many artistic renditions of these very sorrow-filled moments, including Michelangelo’s famous “Pieta” sculpture kept in St. Peter’s Basilica at the Vatican. One of my personal favorite artistic expressions of this moment is a painting by Peter Paul Rubens (c. 1617) called Descent from the Cross. He so brilliantly captures the urgency Mary felt to hold her bloodied, bruised, and dead Son and the pain and sorrow in her eyes. Despite the pain of this moment, there must have also been a co-existing sense of relief, not only to finally be holding Him, but also in knowing that His own suffering was finally over. In her grief, she must have been remembering holding Him as an infant in Bethlehem in her innocence, not knowing what was yet to come. This was the prophecy of Simeon (her first sorrow), coming to fruition.
Now recall, the Sabbath was fast approaching and the things were moving very quickly, so it is very likely that the time Mary had to hold her Son was very short, or at the very least, not nearly long enough. The time was imminent for her seventh and final sorrow: the burial of her Son in the tomb. The time had come for her to say goodbye to her beloved, innocent Son. Recall that every Apostle, aside from John, had long before fled the scene. Very few disciples and friends remained with her. She was burying her child with very little support or sources of condolence. She wasn’t entirely abandoned, but when juxtaposed to just a week earlier, on Palm Sunday, when throngs of people welcomed Him to Jerusalem shouting “Hosanna in the highest” (Matthew 21:9), she must have felt terribly alone. Additionally, her appreciation for the few who remained must have been magnified in light of Palm Sunday.
When Mary gave her fiat to the Angel Gabriel and said, “Let it be done to me according to your word” (Luke 1:38), she was not simply agreeing to a pregnancy. She referred to herself as the “handmaid of the Lord” and was thus giving assent for God to do whatever He wanted with her entire life according to His will. In agreeing to give birth to the Savior of the world, she was agreeing to everything that went along with it, including all the joys and sorrows that were part of the divine plan of salvation. How often have we said “yes” to God ourselves in our vocation, only to find that it came with great unpredicted suffering? And yet, we must continually remind ourselves that we said, “yes.” Now that Mary is saying goodbye to her Son and burying Him, her vocation changes, but does not end. Recall from last week, that when Jesus entrusted Mary to John at the foot of the cross, He was also giving her to us as a spiritual mother. As the stone is rolled in front of the tomb, her vocation continues in a new way – her fiat continues. We know she moves quickly into her new role as Mother of All when we see her in the upper room praying with the Apostles in Acts 1:14. She is present for the descent of the Holy Spirit and the birth of the Church; the very Church she is to mother. Every step of the way, her pain was very real, but she never stopped trusting in God’s plan for herself and for the world, and she carried on as she was called to do.
Both Jesus and Mary loved perfectly. They loved selflessly and in service to others, never considering their own desires. We suffer because we love. There is no escaping the truth that loving and suffering are inseparable realities. “Greater love has no one than this, that someone lay down his life for his friends” (John 15:13). Jesus loves you so much that His entire Passion and death were for your own sake, to redeem you from your sins, and to enable you to join Him in heaven for all eternity. By extension, His Blessed Mother suffered her own passion and emotional death for you, because it was God’s will for her to do so. We owe her a debt of gratitude for her deep and selfless love for us – for saying “yes” for the sake of us all, and not for her own. Because our sins continue to wound Jesus every day, they continue to bring sorrow into our Blessed Mother’s heart. Therefore, the best way we can show our appreciation to both Jesus and Mary for their sacrifice, is to continue to root out the sin in our lives and continually find ways to grow in virtue and holiness. Spend some time this week in gratitude to Mary for all of her suffering for you and try to find one, small, practical step you can take in your own life to live out that gratitude.