“Then Simeon blessed them and said to Mary, his mother: “This child is destined to cause the falling and rising of many in Israel, and to be a sign that will be spoken against, so that the thoughts of many hearts will be revealed. And a sword will pierce your own soul too.” -Lk 2:34-35
“An old man’s cold prediction of a sword thrust through her heart; a rough journey to Egypt with her newborn; losing her boy on the road from Jerusalem to Nazareth; meeting her bloodied son on the road to Calvary; watching him die; a gratuitous lance in his side; the laying of his lifeless body in a tomb: Mary’s sorrows – at least the seven ones traditionally associated with her which the Church remembers today as the Feast of Our Lady of Sorrows. There were – no doubt – other sorrows. From the moment Simeon prophesied the sword, it must have lingered in her imagination. Sometimes she felt the blade pierce her, which is why these sorrows are often portrayed as seven daggers in her heart. Other times her eye caught its flash, reminding her that she would not escape unscathed from her son’s destiny. She was playing a part. This sense of looming danger must have been a source of distress for Mary.
In his book called The Lord, Romano Guardini has a chapter called “The Mother” in which he explores another sorrow: that chasm which began to yawn between mother and son upon Jesus responding to his worried parents in the temple: “How is it that you sought me? Did you not know that I must be about my Father’s business?” (Luke 2:49). We read that Mary does not understand this response, and with good reason. A typical twelve-year-old child would run to his parents’ arms upon being lost for three days. Jesus, even at that age, is already setting out on the path his Father has for him. Despite their closeness, there is a growing gap between Mary and her son. This too must have been a source of sorrow for Mary.
But what does Mary do with these sorrows? How does she respond to pain? She does not lash out at circumstances. Nor does she run away from hardship. The encounter in the Temple is one of the occasions for Mary to ponder in her heart some experience she has. She contemplates the sorrow, just as she ponders joy in other moments in her life (Luke 2:19).
But above all Mary responds to her sorrows as a faithful disciple. She is a disciple of her Son regardless of the circumstances. In fact, Mary is the model disciple. Throughout her life she is with Christ. And she is not merely journeying with Christ because she is his natural mother. Jesus preaches that those who hear and do the word of God are blessed (Luke 8:21). No doubt Jesus had natural affection for his mother and relatives. But to be a true disciple is another order of blessedness. And Mary becomes the exemplar disciple, for, hearing and doing the Word of God, she bears the Word within her. The temporal scope of the seven sorrows reveals this fidelity. The sorrows begin with Jesus as an infant, and end with his burial. And the sorrows are always related to Jesus. They are not disconnected from his mission. They are uniquely caught up with it. And they serve to show a response to sorrow – one of fidelity and discipleship.
We also see that Mary went through human emotions just like anyone. Some pretty heavy emotions too. “Emotional rollercoaster” comes to mind. We can see this by looking at Mary’s sorrows in the context of the Rosary. One of the Joyful Mysteries is the Presentation. This liturgical dedication of Jesus must have been a joy to Mary, and we meditate on it as such. But this joy is tinged with sorrow, for it is here Mary also hears Simeon’s prophecy that she too will suffer. Another joyful mystery is the finding of the Christ child in the temple. But directly before finding Jesus, Mary was in sorrow because she had lost him. And then as Guardini proposes, there was also sorrow in Jesus’ response to Mary. So Mary experienced the full range of emotions. Of course this range exceeds the typical experience: Mary had the joy of bearing Christ and the sorrow of burying him. It’s hard to imagine greater extremes. But still, we have a model in Mary not only for saying yes to God, but in how we respond to sorrow and pain.
No one is exempt from sorrow. By faith and following Christ as a disciple our pain can be redemptive for ourselves and for others. We follow Christ through sorrow just like Mary did because we know ultimately how the story ends. That’s why we can definitively sing at Easter: “Be joyful Mary!” And that’s why we can pray to her in this vale of tears. She has known sorrow like us. And now she knows the joy that comes with Christ’s redemption. She accepted God’s plan for her life, followed Christ on earth, and now lives with him among the Blessed. So then, Our Lady of Sorrows, pray for us.”