Mary’s Travail in the Passion of Christ

Updated: May 30, 2020

In the final two sermons of St. Lawrence’s exposition of St. John’s apocalyptic vision of the Virgin Mary, he turns his attention to her sorrows and her joys. The measure of Mary’s joy is the immensity of her willing yet heartrending suffering in the Passion of Christ. St. Lawrence focuses on this text from Revelation: “She was with child and she cried out in her pangs of birth, in anguish for delivery” (12:2). As the imagery of this passage is in sharp juxtaposition with the dogma of the inviolate birth, one can see in St. Lawrence’s work, not only inspiring exposition, but the power of exegetical method illuminated by magisterial teaching. Mary’s travail is in the passion of Christ, her joy in his resurrection.

St. Lawrence begins by presenting the difficulty of the text:

The question arises, if Mary remained inviolate in childbirth, if the nativity of Christ was a great miracle, the womb of virginity remaining unbroken, the enclosures of the body not in the least violated … how did Mary suffer the torments of pain in childbirth? In no other way could Mary have remained a perpetual virgin than for the doors of the sanctuary of Ezekiel to have remained closed (cf. Ez. 44:1-3), the garden locked, and the fountain sealed (cf. Song 4:12). It is unholy to think otherwise: the perpetual virginity of Mary is an unshakable dogma of our most sacred faith.

The necessity of the dogma leads St. Lawrence to look for deeper meaning of the Scriptural image which reveals the real nature of Mary’s anguish.

What therefore was the cause of such great pain and torment? How wonderfully does St. John indicate the reason at once when he adds: “Behold a great red dragon, with seven heads and ten horns, and seven diadems upon his heads. His tail swept down a third of the stars of heaven, and cast them to the earth. And the dragon stood before the woman who was about to bear a child that he might devour her child when she brought it forth” (Rev. 12:3-5).

The dragon is Satan; the child is Mary’s child, Christ the Savior. Therefore the deepest anguish of Mary’s soul implicates the great mysteries of salvation which unfolds in the drama of the enmity between the woman and the serpent and the tender love of a mother for her child. For St. Lawrence the pangs of birth refer primarily to Mary’s role in the sufferings of Christ’s passion.

The divine words were known—”I will put enmity between you and the woman, and between your seed and her seed” (Gen 3:15)—which God addressed to the ancient serpent. The most holy Virgin knew the immense hatred of Satan for Christ, she foresaw in spirit what kind and how great were the persecutions which the infernal dragon was devising against Christ intending to destroy him, and therefore she cried out in pangs of birth and was in anguish for delivery … They tore at her most holy heart and rent her feelings just as the holy man Simeon predicted… Sacred Scripture uses childbirth as a figure and mode of speaking about the experience of great pain … Isaiah said: “Wail for the day of the Lord is near … Therefore all hands will be feeble, and every man’s heart will be dismayed. Pangs and agony will seize them; they will be in anguish like a woman in travail” (13:6-8).

St. Lawrence knows from his own human experience that a good mother’s grief is measured by her love, and so he understands Mary’s sorrow in connection with the passion of Christ.

Great pain arises from great love … No love can be found or even conceived more pure, more true, greater in its nature than the love of a parent for a child … Mary, however, truly carried and gave birth to Christ our Lord. She was truly His natural parent, and He was her true and natural son, indeed her only child, a most beautiful, most pleasing, and excellent son, endowed with every virtue, perfect in all ways,