April 15, 2011

Seeking the Face of the Lord

Pieta represents a tender call to faith in the life to come

(Listen to the archbishop read this column)

(Editor’s note: While Archbishop Buechlein continues to recover from a stroke, we offer some reprints of his various columns for your enrichment. The following column is from the March 30, 2007, issue of The Criterion.)

On the wall outside the chapel of my residence hangs a moving rendition of the Pieta. It was painted by Father Donald Walpole, a Benedictine artist at Saint Meinrad.

He gave it to me as I was leaving to become the bishop of Memphis. On it is painted: “Whose sorrow is as great as my sorrow?” This text is based on the Scripture verse from Lamentations 1:12.

The lament of the suffering servant is applied to his mother. This image of the Pieta, mother and son, is usually represented at the 13th station on the Way of the Cross.

In a meditation on this station when Jesus is taken down from the cross and placed in his mother’s arms, a priest wrote: “ ‘Behold the handmaid of the Lord.’ At these words of Mary, the Word was made flesh in her womb. In the temple, Simeon foretold that her motherhood would involve suffering: ‘Your own soul a sword shall pierce.’ At the foot of the Cross, Mary receives her dead son into her arms, and knowing why he has died, she takes the whole world into her heart” (from a Columban Fathers Way of the Cross, 1967).

These words capture the sentiment of many of us who are touched by images of the Pieta.

We can imagine the grief of Mary, her companions and the disciples at the moment of Jesus’ death.

Many a mother and father, helpless, have held a son or daughter who died an untimely death. Some say it is the greatest sorrow there is, unspeakable really.

I think it is helpful for us to call upon our own experiences of grief as we conclude the week of Christ’s most bitter human Passion. This is a good time for us to pray for the faith to see beyond death to new life.

It is a bitter prayer of parents, who ask for the power to face their grief, but it is a prayer and it is rooted in the hope of eternity. Jesus won that hope for all who care to believe as he died on the cross, and was lowered into the arms and bosom of his own mother.

It was true of the death of the Savior as it is true of a death of our own loved ones. The experience for Mary and her companions and for the beloved Apostle John was as it is for us: It is as if time stands still and nothing matters but grieving for the lost loved one. At that time of intense grief, it is hard to believe that life goes on as usual for everyone else in the world.

In her thoughts at the 13th station, Catherine Doherty wrote: “The sky was red with weeping. The clouds were dark with mourning. Men, women and children came and went. They passed the gibbet where love hung dead, intent on this and that, scarcely glancing up.”

Of those who were grieving, she wrote: “His own came slowly, half bent, as are men and women who are spent in work or grief. Their movements were slow. They seemed to throw strange shadows on the breathless earth, each mirrored in the reflection of the sky—blood red. Each was partly covered by the black shadows of mourning clouds. They slowly took him off the cross and laid him on a white and spotless sheet. The cross stood there naked, holy” (The Stations of the Cross, Madonna House Publications, 2004, p. 37).

Catherine Doherty concluded her reflections at the 14th station: “When it received the Lord of Life lifeless, dead, the tomb became a manger again, the birthplace of life. Its silence sang a requiem of alleluias. … Jesus slept within the cradle of its depths the sleep of the One who conquered death. Alone, the tomb became witness to the mystery of victory. For all eternity, it will keep secret the mystery giving humanity but its emptiness, guarded by angels” (Ibid, p. 39).

With the eyes of faith, the grief of any human family can—in time—eventually become a sweet rather than a bitter sorrow.

As we conclude this Holy Week and process toward the Easter mysteries of our Church, the empty tomb guarded by angels gives us the assurance that Jesus was raised from the dead and thus conquered death.

And so it is, no matter one’s human plight, we can sing alleluias because we too, like our loved ones before us, will someday rise from the dead and be welcomed into the arms of the Mother that Jesus gave us from the Cross—and we pray, of our mothers, too.

The beloved Pieta, mother and her son, is a tender call to faith in the life that is to come. †

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