Earlier this week, I returned home to find that one of my cats, a grizzled tabby named Sheba, had died while I was at daily Mass. His health had been on the decline; medication prescribed by the vet had only marginal effect. Before another round of tests could be scheduled, Sheba had slipped into that mysterious realm inhabited by all deceased pets, where spirituality and sentiment battle over one of theology’s trickiest questions: “Do animals go to heaven?”
With deadlines and meetings looming, I fought the urge to curl up and cry, blessed my little companion with holy water and stoically made arrangements for cremation before heading into the office. As the day wore on, though, tears broke through, and not just for my feline friend. Sheba’s passing had plumbed a depth of sadness I’d been bottling for some time: mourning for others (both two- and four-footed) I’d lost to death, grief over frayed relationships and failed plans, weariness amid a world that seemed to be unraveling by the moment.
Standing quietly in this tempest was Mary, under her title of Our Lady of Sorrows, the memorial of which we celebrated Sept. 15. If ever anyone tasted tears, it was the Mother of God, and her baptism in those waters was foretold from the earliest days of her mission.
When she and Joseph presented the infant Jesus at the Temple (Lk 2:22-38), “Simeon blessed them and said to Mary his mother, ‘Behold, this child is destined for the fall and rise of many in Israel, and to be a sign that will be contradicted (and you yourself a sword will pierce) so that the thoughts of many hearts may be revealed” (Lk 2:34-35; my italics).
While a 12-year-old Jesus “remained behind in Jerusalem” after Passover (Lk 2:43), Mary and Joseph scoured the city “with great anxiety” — or, as older translations rendered the passage, “sorrowing” (Lk 2:48) — until they found the boy “sitting in the midst of the teachers, listening to them and asking them questions” (Lk 2:46). When Mary posed one of her own — “Son, why have you done this to us?” (Lk 2:48) — the reply may well have deepened that anguish, since “they did not understand what he said to them” (Lk 2:50).
In John’s Gospel, Mary remains “standing by the cross of Jesus” (Jn 19:25), and the image inspired the 13th-century Latin hymn “Stabat Mater” (“The Mother Standing”) attributed to Franciscan poet Jacopone da Todi (and variously to St. Bonaventure and Pope Innocent II).
Even before the verses took shape, devotion to the Sorrowful Mother had emerged, with origins traceable to the early centuries of the church. St. Ephrem the Syrian composed the “Lamentation of Mary” in the fourth century; some two hundred years later, Romanos the Melodist wrote his “Hymn of Mary at the Cross.”
Ambrose, Anselm and Bernard reflected on Mary’s suffering, and the Servite Order was instrumental in fostering awareness of it, even obtaining permission in 1668 to celebrate a votive Mass honoring seven particular sorrows endured by Mary. A few decades later, Pope Innocent XII instituted a feast in honor of Our Lady of Sorrows, with the current date fixed by Pope Pius X to follow the Exaltation of the Holy Cross (Sept. 14).
We could easily commemorate Mary’s sorrows every single day, for her agony runs deep.
She weeps as 73.3 million children — more than the total population of France — are aborted each year throughout the world.
She grieves as some 736 million women (almost one in three) are violently assaulted at least once in their lifetime.
She sobs as up to 811 million people currently face hunger, while half a million die of drug overdoses and 4.6 million have been lost to COVID.
Mary shares the tears of the broken, the lonely, the powerless; hers is the voice of those with no strength left to cry, and her holy howls can rouse us to implore the Lord for his saving mercy upon we who, from the least to the greatest, are in incomprehensible need.
Our sorrowful Mother paradoxically leads us to lasting joy, for she knows well the road traverses through the very wounds by which her Son saved us.
Asked by a disciple why he had fallen into ecstasy, desert father Abba Poemen simply said, “My thought was with Mary … as she wept by the cross. I wish I could always weep like that.”
Gina Christian is a senior content producer at CatholicPhilly.com, host of the Inside CatholicPhilly.com podcast and author of the forthcoming book “Stations of the Cross for Sexual Abuse Survivors.” Follow her on Twitter at @GinaJesseReina.
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