Our Lady of Sorrows

Today’s feast is clearly linked with yesterday when we celebrated the Exaltation of the Cross. Only the Gospel of John records that the “mother of Jesus” stood by the cross with her sister, Mary of Magdala and the “beloved disciple”. In the Synoptic Gospels, women are recorded as standing at some distance from the cross, but Mary is not mentioned among them. One can hardly imagine the pain and grief that Mary must have undergone to see her only Son dying in such terrible suffering over a period of several hours. Mary, as the first and greatest disciple of her Son, shared in a very special way in the redeeming death of her Son and Lord.

Devotion to Our Lady of Sorrows flourished in the Middle Ages. From that time comes the well-known hymn, Stabat Mater, which we still recite during the Stations of the Cross:

At the Cross her station keeping,
Stood the mournful Mother weeping,
Close to Jesus to the last.

Since the 14th century, these seven sorrows have been linked to Mary:

  1. The Prophecy of Simeon – During the Presentation in the Temple, when Simeon foretold that a sword of sorrow would pierce Mary’s heart (Luke 2:22-37).
  2. The Flight into Egypt – When Mary and Joseph took the new-born Jesus to the safety of Egypt to escape the massacre of the children in Bethlehem (Matt 3:16-18).
  3. The Loss of the Child Jesus for Three Days – When Jesus was 12 years old, he accompanied his parents to Jerusalem to celebrate the Passover. After being missing for three days, his distraught parents found Jesus in the Temple in discussion with the teachers of the Law (Luke 2:41-52).
  4. Meeting Jesus on the Way to Calvary – A traditional scene, familiar from the Stations of the Cross, where Jesus meets his mother as he carries his Cross on the way to his crucifixion on Calvary (but not mentioned in Scripture).
  5. The Crucifixion and Death of Jesus – As the Gospel of John tells us, the Mother of Jesus was present at the foot of the Cross and kept vigil with her Son as he died (John 19:25-27).
  6. Jesus Taken Down from the Cross – Again, a traditional scene from the 13th Station of the Cross and also represented in art by the Pieta (though again, there is no scriptural reference for this scene).
  7. Jesus Laid in the Tomb – This is recorded in all four Gospels. The burial took place close to the place of crucifixion because of the coming Sabbath day. It must have been a painfully sad moment for the Mother who must have believed this would be the very last time she would lay eyes on her Son (Matt 28:57-61; Mark 15:42-47; Luke 23:50-56; John 19:38-50).

By remembering Mary’s sufferings in this way, we realise how close she was to the redeeming work of her Son. As mentioned, she is his first and closest disciple.

Especially in Mediterranean countries, statues of Our Lady of Sorrows are traditionally carried in processions on the days leading to Good Friday.

No feast in her honour was included in St Pius V’s Tridentine Calendar in 1570. Approval for the celebration of a feast in honour of Our Lady of Sorrows was first granted to the Servite order in 1667. By inserting the feast into the Roman Catholic calendar of saints, Pope Pius VII extended the celebration to the whole of the Latin Church in 1814. It was assigned to the third Sunday in September. In 1913, Pope Pius X moved it to 15 September, the day after the Feast of the Exaltation of the Cross.

Our Lady of Sorrows is traditionally depicted in art dressed in black with seven swords piercing her heart. These seven swords symbolize the chief seven sorrows of her life. Devotion to the Sorrows of Mary inspired the works of art we call the Pieta, the grieving Mother holding her dead Son in her arms, after he has been taken down from the Cross.

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