Father Richard Gribble, C.S.C., has taught at Moreau Seminary, Notre Dame, Indiana, and is a contributor to Catholic journals such as Homiletic and Pastoral Review. This article was originally published in Contemporary Insights On A Fifth Marian Dogma: Mary Coredemptrix, Mediatrix, Advocate, Theological Foundations III, Queenship, 2000.
The Blessed Virgin Mary of Nazareth plays an integral role in Catholic theology and liturgical practice. Sprinkled throughout the liturgical calendar, Marian feasts remind us of the important role the Blessed Mother played in human salvation and how she continues to intercede for us with her Son and our Savior, Jesus Christ.
Of her many titles, the Sorrowful Mother, or Mater Dolorosa, captures the unique purpose and role of Mary’s life. She was a woman who suffered much that she could not comprehend, but she never ran from her pain. Rather she embraced her cross of suffering, and in the process became partners with her Son’s redemptive work and today mediates between Christ and the world. Mary’s life lived in much pain and uncertainty can be a model for our lives today as we approach the new millennium.
The Sorrowful Mother in Scripture
Scripture, the primary medium of divine revelation, is the basic source for our knowledge of Mary and her association with the cross. The Gospels, together with the apocrypha and pseudepigrapha, provide many insights into the life of Mary and her relationship with Jesus. While many episodes in the Virgin’s life were difficult, there are seven specific events that have been labeled the dolors, or sorrows, of Mary: 1. The prophecy of Simeon 2. The flight into Egypt 3. The loss of Jesus in the Temple 4. Mary meets Jesus on the Via Dolorosa 5. The hours beneath the cross 6. The slain Jesus rests in His mother’s arms 7. The laying of Jesus in the tomb (1)
The presentation of Jesus in the Temple (Lk 2:22-40) provides the background for the first, most prophetic, of Mary’s sorrows, Simeon’s prophecy.
We read, “This child is destined to be the downfall and rise of many in Israel, a sign that will be opposed—and you yourself shall be pierced with a sword—so that the thoughts of many hearts may be laid bare” (Lk 2:34-35). Origen (d. 252-3), the towering theological figure of the patristic Church in the East, understood Simeon’s prophecy in a unique way, believing that his words referred to a doubt that invaded Mary’s heart when she saw her Son’s suffering. In placing these words on Simeon’s lips, Luke is suggesting that the scandal to the cross experienced by the apostles would also be felt by Mary.
Origen’s great authority in the Church as a scholar made this interpretation popular in the East. St. Basil of Caesarea (d. 379) repeated the idea, and Hesychius of Jerusalem (d. after 451) in the mid-fifth century still spoke of “discord” within Mary as she witnessed the Passion of Jesus. (2)
In the Latin Church, in contrast, where Origen’s influence was weak, Simeon’s prophecy always referred to Mary’s own suffering under the cross. For Western theologians, such as Bernard of Clairvaux, who preached that Mary was martyred, not in body but in spirit, the key words of the relevant passage in Luke were “and you yourself will be pierced with a sword” (Lk 2:35a).
Simeon could have announced Christ’s future suffering without reference to Mary, but in directly addressing her he makes the announcement significant. Why did Simeon speak to Mary specifically and what was he telling her?
While there is some precedent for associating children predestined by God for greatness with their mothers, (3) it is more likely that Simeon (and probably Luke as well) wanted to demonstrate that Mary, by a unique right apart from Joseph, was to be associated with the sorrowful destiny of the Messiah. Even if he had not added the words indicative of Mary’s future suffering, the simple fact that Simeon spoke to Mary directly would be strong evidence to her place in Jesus’ suffering and death.
Mary was not destined to escape the feelings of darkness and abandonment that Jesus would experience on His way to Calvary; she was to suffer along the road that would take her Son to His salvific death. The theologian and Jesuit priest Jean Galot has concluded: “The prophecy, therefore, unites Mary and her child so closely that it reveals the Passion of Jesus to us through the sword of sorrow that will pierce the soul of His mother.” (4)
Scholars often ask what exactly was the sword that would pierce Mary? Some have suggested that the sword is the grief to be caused by the contradiction of which Jesus will be the object. Mary will suffer from the trial that will affect her Son to whom she is inseparably united.
In this view, the sword is an integral part of the prophetic picture, because it will play a major role in the drama of salvation. The majority of Scripture exegetes, however, believe that the sword refers to Mary’s act of offering her Son on Calvary. Returning to the basic association of Mary with suffering and the cross, Galot writes of Simeon’s image of the sword: “Under the effect of this revelation, Mary lives in the constant perspective of sacrifice, and she holds herself ready to share in her heart the tragic fate of the Messiah.” (5)
St. Matthew’s description of the flight of the Holy Family into Egypt to escape the wrath of Herod most assuredly brought Mary sorrow. But it is in the conclusion of Luke’s infancy narrative that we again find specific reference to the psychological pain experienced by the Virgin.
The description of Jesus’ being lost in the Temple, where it becomes clear to Mary and Joseph that Jesus belongs completely to God’s service, must be associated with the Presentation as the logical conclusion to His consecration to God. The drama portrayed is a precursor to Calvary. For three days—a time period certainly not coincidental with Jesus’ suffering and resurrection—Mary and Joseph search “in sorrow” for their Son. The event makes Mary understand the threat of the sword that hangs over her and gives a foretaste of the sacrifice that will one day be her lot to present. The episode demonstrates again the close association of Mary with her Son, a bond that will find its culmination years later under the cross.
Scripture’s description of Mary’s sorrows finds its climax and fulfillment in the Passion account of St. John. Of all the Evangelists, John is the only one who posits Mary at Calvary, demonstrating by this the significance of her presence. Why would Mary come to Calvary to witness the painful and ignominious death of her only Son, and why would St. John describe these events?
For John, the suffering and death of Jesus is His greatest triumph, the time when He demonstrates fully His purpose and mission. Thus, the Church intentionally uses this Gospel at the Good Friday service as a clear indication of not only the necessity but also the greatness of Christ’s death. John wishes to draw attention to Mary and her sacrifice of love. She is there by intention, not by accident; she fully intends to walk the road of suffering to the end. Galot remarks: “We must conclude that Mary’s presence by the cross was not the mere result of a combination of circumstances, but proceeded from the firm determination of Mary to be united with the dramatic destiny of Christ.” (6) In the twentieth century, various papal documents have echoed the sacrificial nature of Mary’s action under the cross and her close association with the sufferings of her Son. Pope St. Pius X in Ad Diem (1904) spoke of Jesus as the victim that Mary places “near the altar at the appointed hour”:
Nor was she merely engaged in witnessing the cruel spectacle; rather she rejoiced that her only-begotten was being offered for the salvation of the human race, although her compassion was so intense that, if it were at all possible, she herself would have embraced even more eagerly all the sufferings that her Son endured.
In Miserentissimus Redemptor (1928), Pius XI described Mary’s action of “offering him at the foot of the cross as victim for our sins” as heroic. Pius XII in his encyclical Mystici Corporis (1943) also wrote of Mary’s special sacrifice: “She offered Him on Golgotha to the Eternal Father for all the children of Adam’s sin.”
In the end, the great contribution and challenge of Scripture with reference to Mary’s role as the Sorrowful Mother is the concept of belief. Dominican Father Thomas O’Meara has written: “When this night (of pain) reached its darkest intensity, Mary’s faith was such that it enabled her to stand near the cross.” (7)
Mary believed that God’s plan had a purpose that was beyond her understanding, and through her faith she was able to participate fully and without apparent hesitation, despite uncertainty and predictions of suffering. The words of Simeon prepared her, but it was only her faith that sustained her as the cross began to appear on her horizon.
The Sorrowful Mother in Tradition and the Magisterium
The cult of the Mater Dolorosa finds its earliest roots in the patristic Church. The Latin Fathers, save Ambrose, wrote that the trials and events of Calvary should be interpreted in terms of Mary’s sorrows.
Theologians saw Simeon’s prophecy as a foretaste of the experience through which
Mary would have to pass as the most involved spectator at the Crucifixion, as well as a reference to her own . The concept of prophecy and its fulfillment was important for the Latin Fathers. Jesus’ words from the cross, “Woman, there is your son” and “There is your mother,” appeared to clearly fulfill Simeon’s warning in the Temple. The great drama of this scene was depicted in the Kontakion of Romanos Melodos, written in the sixth century by order of Emperor Justinian for a Good Friday service:
I am overwhelmed, O my Son I am overwhelmed by love And I cannot endure That I should be in the chamber And You on the wood of the cross;I in the house And You in the tomb.
Mary appears to ask why God should have to suffer such a cruel death, but the answer comes that such a fate is the will of God to which she must submit. (8)
The cult of Mary as the Sorrowful Mother began to flourish in Italy, France, England, the Netherlands and Spain from the end of the eleventh century, reaching its full flowering from the fourteenth century forward. Promoters of the cult stressed Mary’s participation in humanity’s ordinary, mundane and painful lot. Her sorrows became a significant source of medieval popular piety; her life and suffering somehow made ordinary lives more meaningful. The theologian Marina Warner has written:
The Virgin was the instrument mediating bafflement at the mystery of the Redemption into emotional understanding. She made the sacrifice of Golgotha seem real, for she focused human feeling in a comprehensible and accessible way. (9)
The cult of the Mater Dolorosa reached its apex through the establishment of a liturgical feast on the Church calendar. One catalyst to the cult was the rapid spread of the Black through Europe, reaching its height in 1348 to 1350. Those who saw the plague as the retribution of a just God on the wickedness of humanity suggested the image of the Mater Dolorosa as a means of penance.
In the late-medieval period, especially in the Rhine area of Germany, the Church began to commemorate the sorrows of Mary during the season of Lent. In a provicial synod of 1423 at cologne, a feast honoring Mary as Our Lady of Sorrows was established on the third Sunday before Easter and was adopted by various dioceses and religious communities under the title Lamentatio Mariae (Wailing of Mary).
In 1727, Pope Benedict XIII extended the feast to the universal Church, for celebration on the Friday preceding Palm Sunday. In a parallel development, the Servites in 1667 were granted a special feast based on Mary’s sorrows, to be celebrated on the third Sunday in September. In 1814, Pope Pius VII, in thanksgiving for his safe return from exile in France, universalized the Servite feast. In 1913, Pius X transferred the celebration to Sept. 15, its present date in the liturgical calendar. In 1943, Pope Pius XII summarized the Church’s understanding of Mary as Our Lady of Sorrows:Bearing with courage and confidence the tremendous burden of her sorrows and desolation, truly the Queen of martyrs, she more than all the faithful “filled up these things that are wanting of the sufferings of Christ…for his body, which is the church” (Col 1:24). (10)
Numerous representations of the Mater Dolorosa in art have been created over the centuries. Michelangelo’s “Pieta” was the best and most famous attempt to capture in statuary or in paint the depth of the Virgin’s grief as she held the body of her crucified Son. In his famous play “Faust,” Johann Wolfgang von Goethe has his heroine, Grethchen, cry out to Mary in her hour of crisis:
Incline my countenance graciously to my need, thou who art abounding in pain. With the sword in thy heart and with a thousand pains thou dost look up at the death of thy Son. Thou dost look to the Father and send sighs upward for (thy Son’s) trial and for thine own.
In a more contemporary vein, the third symphony of Polish composer Henryk Gorecki uses an exchange between Christ and His Mother to expand the sorrows of the Mater Dolorosa by embracing all the suffering and the fallen of World War II:
Where has he gone My Dearest Son?Perhaps during the uprising The cruel enemy killed him. (11)
The most famous artistic expression of the Sorrowful Mother is the Stabat Mater, traditionally attributed to the Franciscan Jacopone da Todi (1230-1306). This hymn—based on John 19:35, Luke 2:25, Ezekiel, 2 Corinthians 4:10, and Galatians 4:17—speaks of the need for all people to share in the sufferings of Mary and Jesus. The prose version of this hymn reads in part: “Holy Mother, do this for me. Pierce my heart once and forever with the wounds of your crucified Son. Let me share with you the pain of your Son’s wounds, for He thought it right to bear such suffering for me.” The hymn continues later, “Grant that…I may feel the pains of my crucified Lord.” (12)
The establishment of a liturgical feast in honor of the Mater Dolorosa was complemented by the parallel theological development of Mary’s role in salvation history, beginning with the teaching that she was the “new Eve.” In the West, this idea began when theologians contrasted the obedience of Mary with the disobedience of Eve. Justin Martyr (d. 165), the first apologist to speak of Mary as the new Eve, wrote in his Dialogue with Trypho, “For Eve, an undifiled virgin, conceived the word of the serpent, and brought forth disobedience and death. But the Virgin Mary, filled with faith and joy…answered, ‘Be it done unto me according to thy word.'”
Irenaeus in the second century was first to integrate the Eve-Mary analogy into theology: Just as Eve, wife of Adam, yes, yet still a virgin…became by her disobedience the cause of death for her herself and the whole human race, so Mary too, espoused yet a virgin, became by her obedience the cause of salvation for herself and the whole human race. (13)
For Irenaeus, the cooperation of Eve with Satan in effecting humanity’s spiritual is matched and outstripped by Mary’s cooperation with God in effecting humanity’s return to life. In the West, Eve was viewed as the mother of the human race, but Mary the mother of salvation. St. Jerome (d. 430) succinctly stated the belief: “Death through Eve, life through Mary.” (14)
Marian devotion in the Eastern Church was generally more advanced than in the West, but the concept of Mary as the new Eve gained acceptance in the East only after the belief was well established in the Latin Church. St. Ephraem, a representative of the fourth-century Syrian Church, saw the parallelism between Eve and Mary at the root of human dignity. He wrote that humanity’s “lovely and lovable glory was lost through Eve, (but) was restored through Mary.”
In 348, Cyril of Jerusalem preached to catechumens that “It was through the virgin Eve that death came; it was through a virgin, or rather from a virgin,