September 5, 2008

Seeking the Face of the Lord

Mary is a symbol of quiet and steady hope

(Thirteenth in a series)

Were you there when they took him from the Cross?”

The body of Jesus was placed in the arms of his mother, Mary. Most often, the Thirteenth Station of the Cross is portrayed as the Pieta, the deceased Jesus in the arms of Mary.

When I left Saint Meinrad to become the bishop of Memphis in 1987, Benedictine Father Donald Walpole gave me a striking image of the Pieta which he had painted.

He placed in the mouth and heart of Mary the text from the Book of Lamentations 1:12: “Look and see if there is any sorrow like unto my sorrow.”

Simeon’s prediction at the Presentation of Jesus in the Temple had come true: a sword of sorrow had pierced the heart of Mary as faithfully she stood by when the side of Jesus was pierced by a soldier’s spear. Now, the suffering of her son had come to an end.

We can only assume that Mary was somehow aware of the purpose of her son’s Passion and death, and that she found consolation in that knowledge.

As we ponder the meaning of the Thirteenth Station of the Cross, we do so with mixed emotions.

Silent awe is a natural response. We sympathize with the grief of the sorrowful mother.

The late Cardinal John J. Wright reflected: “Mary, though sustained by faith more ardent than ever before, must have found herself on Calvary fighting fears more harrowing than she had ever known as she stood by the Cross of Jesus. … The measure of Mary’s grief is the measure of her love, and we who cannot equal the purity of the love of Mary for Jesus cannot realize the agony which the sight of his suffering caused her …” (Words in Pain, Ignatius Press, p. 81).

Perhaps only a mother can really and fully grasp the sorrow of the Mother of Jesus as she accepted his emaciated body from the cross.

Before he died, Jesus knew the anxiety of seeing his mother in sorrow. Reflecting on the grief of Jesus for his mother, the cardinal wrote: “He saw the last person in the world who would wish Him this end gazing upon Him with unflinching loyalty” (Ibid., p. 83). His mother was surely bent in sorrow as she stayed by him to the bitter end.

St. Bernard of Clairvaux had a great devotion to Mary. I can’t improve on a homily in which he emphasized the point that Jesus left us Mary as a powerful beacon so that we will always know which way to turn if and when we get lost.

Dramatically, he said: “If the winds of temptation blow, if you run against the reefs of temptation, look at the star, call on Mary. If the waves of pride, of ambition or of envy are breaking over you, look on the star, call on Mary. If anger, greed or impurity are violently shaking the ship of your soul, turn to Mary. If you are dismayed at the thought of your sins, confounded by the ugliness of your conscience, fearful of the idea of judgment and you begin to sink into a bottomless abyss of sadness or despair, think about Mary. … You will reach port safely if she is looking after you” (cf., In Conversation with God, Scepter Press, Vol. 2, p. 464).

The Blessed Mother Mary embraced a critically important role as the story of our redemption unfolded.

In God’s plan, her important part in the foundation of Christianity was largely silent. Other than the verbal exchange at the Annunciation of the conception of Jesus and at the wedding feast in Cana, few of Mary’s words are recorded in the Gospels.

She said nothing at the foot of the Cross or at the burial of Jesus. But it is recorded that after the Ascension she was with the Apostles and disciples in prayer in the upper room.

Mary’s quiet strength, her fidelity and loyalty to her son in a painful and also humanly embarrassing situation provide a poignant example for us. If we truly accept the admonition of Jesus that he is present in the least of our brothers and sisters, then, like his mother, we should be prepared to be with those who suffer in any way; as best we can, we should be ready to stand by those on the margins, the fallen, even in awkward or embarrassing circumstances.

We can count on Mary’s motherly protection in good times and in bad. It is spiritually helpful to realize that her motherly protection takes on flesh and blood through human instruments like ourselves.

We can grasp the truth of our part in this Marian role in Christian life if, like her, we find courage in faithful prayer with Christ.

Mary is a symbol of quiet and steady hope. †

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