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, and most devoted and most loving to Mary herself. Of what sort, therefore, was the love of the Virgin for Christ? Such a thing defies description, indeed, even the concept is beyond our reach … She certainly always knew that her son was also the true and real son of Almighty God … (Although Mary) possessed a most perfect faith (and) would, as Abraham did, have offered her only and most beloved son to God in sacrifice, this (nevertheless) she would not have done without the greatest sorrow of spirit and anguish of heart … (Thus), the sharpest sword of pain pierced her most holy heart in the passion and death of her son: when she knew that her son was taken by the Jews after Judas betrayed Him; when she understood that He, after the terrible scourging, had been condemned to the infamous and most shameful death of thieves; when she saw him crowned with thorns, carrying his own cross, to be led along with thieves to the place of Calvary to be crucified; when she saw him hanging from the cross to which he was fastened by nails; when she heard his voice, for “standing by the cross of Jesus were his mother, and his mother’s sister, Mary the wife of Clopas, and Mary Magdalene” (Jn. 19:25); and, finally, when she saw him dead. O ineffable pain of sorrow and grief!
The depth of perfect maternal sorrow is great, but in Mary’s case it is a harbinger of great joy. While all Christians rejoice in the Resurrection, none more so than Mary, for in the Resurrection her own son was returned to her. For St. Lawrence, Mary standing at the foot of the cross, feeling true and genuine sorrow for the horror of the Passion and Crucifixion, but with unshakeable faith in the Resurrection to come, is the great model of the Christian disposition. The sorrow convulses the soul, but the faith is unshakable.
She stood next to the cross filled with the virtue of faith, knowing that her son would soon be lifted up. At the cross her station keeping stood the mournful mother weeping. O what a standing it was! … She stood wholly composed in body, but more so in spirit because of her faith and virtue. She stood astounded at God’s love for the world, both his divine mercy and justice in punishing sin for the salvation of the sinner. She admired the divine obedience of her own son to God, his divine fortitude against demons, and his infinite patience in enduring the most extreme torture. Thus she stood amazed and awestruck at the divine mystery of the redemption of humanity. She stood, an example for the whole Church in the future and a paradigm of invincible patience in the endurance of adversity … Mary drank the most bitter cup which was given her to drink all the way to the end. Thus in everything she was like her suffering son in her spirit and in her virtue.
But after darkness one hopes for light, and after a horrible winter one hopes for a gentle spring. “Weeping may tarry for the night, but joy comes in the morning” (Ps. 30:5) … “For as we share abundantly in Christ’s sufferings, so through Christ we share abundantly in comfort too” (2 Cor. 1:5). Great joy, no the greatest joy follows great grief … Who can grasp in heart or mind the joy and happiness of the Virgin arising from the most glorious and everlasting resurrection of her son, especially when he appeared to her in that same glory which he manifested in his transfiguration to the chosen disciples? … When the woman found the lost coin, she exhibited very great joy. The merciful father was immeasurably happy at the return of his prodigal son because he had come back safe. What must we think concerning the Virgin? What sort was her joy, what sort her happiness at Christ’s resurrection? If “the disciples were glad when they saw the Lord” (Jn. 20:20), how much more joyful was Mary when she beheld her most beloved son? If she was filled with great joy at His conception, when she brought him into the world mortal and necessarily liable to many sufferings—”My soul magnifies the Lord, and my spirit rejoices in God my Savior” (Lk. 1:46)—how much more did she rejoice in His resurrection when He came back to her immortal and most blessed?
Thus as great as was her sorrow, even greater is her joy. In this way Mary’s travail is the model of life for all Christians.
Dr. Joseph Almeida is Professor of Classics at the Franciscan University of Steubenville. The above article is the last in a series on the sermons of St. Lawrence of Brindisi. The series first appeared in the publication,Catholics United for the Faith.