Of all the statues in my parish church, one is particularly beloved by our faithful: a life-sized version of the Pietà, the iconic depiction of Mary holding the dead body of Christ on her lap following his crucifixion.
Such images, inspired by both the human heart and religious imagination, emerged in 14th-century Germany and quickly gained popularity in northern Europe. The best known version, however, was created by an Italian: Michelangelo, whose 1499 masterpiece is housed in St. Peter’s Basilica in Rome.
Even in photographs, Michelangelo’s exquisite rendering in Carrara marble seems like flesh: Christ’s form is utterly spent, and in Mary’s solemn contemplation of her Son, every shade of grief can be traced.
But there are other Pietàs no less poignant – ones that breathe, that weep, that howl in agony, that sit in stunned silence.
These are the Pietàs of Ukraine.
Since 2014 – when Russia annexed Ukraine’s Crimean Peninsula and backed the separatist regions of Donetsk and Luhansk in the nation’s east – Ukrainian mothers have been cradling dead and wounded children daily: an estimated 14,000 to 15,000 were killed in the eight intervening years between then and the full-scale invasion Russia launched Feb. 24.
And now, the slain include even more civilians, thousands more of them: raped, tortured, starved, executed, burned, buried in mass graves or left to rot in the streets.
Some victims are only a few years old, and some young bodies are so shattered there is nothing for a mother to hold: Viktoria Kovalenko’s 12-year-old daughter Veronika was struck by a Russian shell as the family was fleeing Chernihiv; the child’s head was blown off.
Mary knows that pain all too well. On her Son’s body – the flesh that had taken flesh from her own – was written the sins of mankind, and the hatred of the world. The Theotokos – Greek for “God-bearer,” and a beloved title for Mary among Eastern Christians – embraces all those whom death has sought to devour.
We can only wonder how long Mary held her Son before his friends, Joseph of Arimathea and Nicodemus, gently lifted him and laid him in spiced shrouds for burial, their agonizing task hastened by the impending Sabbath. Pietà moments are ones of both timeless grief and temporal exigency.
Yet another moment awaited Mary, marked by Filipino Catholics in an exquisite celebration called Salubong, which translates as “welcome.” Before dawn on Easter Sunday, faithful reenact the encounter of the Risen Christ and his Mother through two converging processions led by statues of each. When the crowds meet, a child dressed as an angel removes the mourning veil from the statue of Mary, and she beholds her Son as joyful hymns are sung.
May that moment come, and come soon, for the Theotokos of Ukraine.
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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