Today’s Scripture Readings
Because today is the memorial of Our Lady of Sorrows the liturgy contains a unique element, the Stabat Mater. This thirteenth century hymn is a devotional prayer to Mary about the sufferings she endured staying close to her Son, “to the last.” The prayer asks to participate in the suffering and pain inflicted on Mary and Jesus so that the person may come to live eternally in heaven.
At first blush, the prayer can seem too intense.
Let me to my latest breath,
In my body bear the death
Of that dying Son of yours.
Wounded with his every wound,
Steep my soul till it has swooned
In his very Blood away.
Personally, I have always resisted any view of salvation that involves us seeking out pain and suffering to “be like Jesus.” Jesus wasn’t out looking for scourging and crucifixion, people in authority who were threatened by his ideas and actions killed him. Rather we need to follow Jesus’ path of love, care and forgiveness. Really sticking to that will present enough challenges in and of itself. And that is where this prayer has something to say. It is a strong statement of how painful it can be to stay close to Jesus.
The Gospel gives us what was possibly for Mary an early insight. Simeon says, “Behold, this child is destined for the fall and rise of many in Israel….” Mary is going to live her life with a Son who raises questions no wants to hear. She will see wonderful things happen and be frightened by those who oppose and ultimately end his life. She will end up standing in sorrow watching her only son, her first born taken from her. Executed on a cross. The prayer says,
“Bruised, derided, cursed, defiled,
She beheld her tender Child,
All with bloody scourges rent.”
This is real loss. She is witnessing her Son’s defeat. He and all he tried to accomplish is gone. He lost, the authorities have won. She has to wonder what it was all for if his life only led to this degrading, disgusting moment. Everyone has run away or denied him.
It is hard for us to appreciate the reality of her situation since we see her thousands of years later as people who believe in the resurrection and life after death. But resurrection hadn’t yet happened for her. And in one crucial way it hasn’t really happened for us yet either. Human angst over death is frighteningly deep. It’s hard to hold on to a belief that says death is a gateway to new life. It was hard to accept in the first century when Paul could still point out to the Corinthians that, Jesus then “appeared to more than five hundred brothers at once, most of whom are still living, though some have fallen asleep.” The philosophical viewpoints of the time were challenging the Corinthians about what Paul had taught them. None of us, not the Corinthians, nor Paul himself are very far from Mary’s experience. We have no way of knowing for sure until it’s over.
This is where the prayer, in my opinion, holds a substance and value that is important for us. It says,
O sweet Mother! font of love,
Touch my spirit from above,
Make my heart with yours accord.
Make me feel as you have felt;
Make my soul to glow and melt
With the love of Christ, my Lord.
What the prayer offers is an example of a deep, personal human connection. Mary loses her only son but stays “close to the last” out of love. The prayer focuses on a mother’s love for her child. That mother’s bond of love is a clue to our salvation, our holding on to a belief in the resurrection and the life after death it offers. There’s no sure way to know, to be sure intellectually, that there is life after death. However, coming to know, to experience, Jesus is a connection that will survive death.
The challenge is that to have a close loving relationship with Jesus takes exactly what it took for Mary. We have to live with him for a lifetime. Relationships of love develop over time, with care, experience, challenges and joys. If we want to be confident, to trust in life after death we have to live this life coming to know the God who offers it. This means something different for each of us. But at core it means coming to know ourselves, understanding the truth about what drives us, what really fulfills us and the gifts we have been given. Accepting ourselves and these gifts honestly, we can be grateful and generous just as Jesus was. The way he was for so many during his life and for Mary on Easter when his rising from the dead changed tragedy into joy. The way God’s Spirit continues to free us from fear and enable us to say what today’s Psalm does, “I shall not die, but live, and declare the works of the LORD.”