MARY OUR MODEL IN SUFFERING
SCRIPTURE READINGS: [ HEBREWS 5:7-9; LUKE 2:33-35 OR JOHN 19:25-27 ]
Having celebrated the Feast of the Triumph of the Holy Cross, it is appropriate for the Church to follow up with the memorial of Our Lady of Sorrows. On the surface, these two celebrations do not seem to agree as one is celebrating the triumph of suffering and the other is more focused on the sorrows instead. In truth, both celebrations ultimately want us to celebrate the triumph of love over death and pain. The intent of this twin commemoration is to assure us that suffering need not be a curse but a means by which the love of God is manifested.
However, the love of God and His victory over sin was not bought without a price. It was purchased with the blood of Jesus on the cross. A resurrection without the cross would be cheap grace; a cross without resurrection would be a tragedy. A resurrection without the cross has power but no love. A cross without a resurrection would be love without power. Indeed, success is sweet, but sweeter still is the struggle we go through to arrive at our success. Hence, the first reading speaks of Christ’s struggles in His love for His Father and us when He cried out “aloud and in silent tears, to the one who had the power to save him out of death”.
We can imagine the suffering of Jesus in His life on earth; not just at His passion. He must have felt the pain of having to leave His mother behind to enter the ministry. He would have felt the pain of being misunderstood by His relatives when they thought He was out of His mind. It must have been painful for Him when His good works were rejected and spurned by His townsfolk. His heart surely grieved when He was falsely accused of casting out the devil by the name of Beelzebul. It must have saddened Him to see His disciples fighting for power when He was on His way to the passion. He would have suffered the conflict of having to choose between being made king by the populace and going to His passion. He must have felt terribly alone at His passion in the Garden of Gethsemane, betrayed by His friends. And to leave His poor mother alone would surely have broken His heart as it would have been for Mary too. Indeed, His suffering was the fulfillment of the prophecy of Simeon that “he is destined for the fall and for the rising of many in Israel, destined to be a sign that is rejected.”
But His suffering was also as much the suffering of Mary, His mother. “And a sword will pierce your own soul too – so that the secret thoughts of many may be laid bare.” Mary’s suffering with Christ at the cross was a suffering for the love of humanity. The truth is that we always suffer much with those whom we love. True love brings about mutual passion for each other. So we can imagine how much agony Mary would have gone through at the foot of the cross. Her union with her Son caused her to suffer much. Her suffering, unlike that of her Son, which was one of the suffering of the body and the soul, was that of the spirit, as prophesied by Simeon when he said, “a sword will pierce your own soul too – so that the secret thoughts of many may be laid bare.” St Bernard remarked, “Do not be surprised, brothers, that Mary is said to be a martyr in spirit.” He continued, “Jesus died in body through a love greater than anyone had known. She died in spirit through a love unlike any other since his.” Undoubtedly, Mary, standing at the foot of the cross, would have shared in Christ’s suffering. She had to bear to see the suffering of her son. She was an associate of Christ’s redeeming work. She had to suffer the disgrace of her son. She suffered in union with Christ. She suffered in spirit. No greater suffering is there than to suffer with those whom we love. This feast which commemorates the spiritual martyrdom of Mary, Mother of God, reminds us of the tremendous evil of sin, but more importantly, the power of love.
But more than the cross alone, which is the climax of her spiritual martyrdom, she suffered with Jesus throughout His life on earth. What is this sword that Simeon spoke about? It includes all the events associated with the life of Jesus, such as the Prophecy of Simeon, the flight into Egypt, the loss of the child Jesus at the Temple, the encounter between Jesus and Mary along the via cruces, the death of Jesus, the lowering of His body and the burial of Jesus. All these significant milestones in the life of Jesus certainly caused Mary grief and anxiety. Archbishop Fulton Sheen suggested that although Tradition indicates that Mary was pierced seven times with swords of sorrow, it was not “that there were seven swords, but seven thrusts of the one sword, and the sword that pierced Mary’s soul was Christ Himself. This Sword was a double edge; one edge ran into His own Sacred Heart, the other into her Immaculate Heart.”
To climax it all, St Bernard, contemplating on Mary at the foot of the cross, wrote: “Or were those words, Woman, behold your Son, not more than a word to you, truly piercing your heart, cutting through to the division between soul and spirit? What an exchange! John is given to you in place of Jesus, the servant in place of the Lord, the disciple in place of the master; the son of Zebedee replaces the Son of God, a mere man replaces God himself. How could these words not pierce your most loving heart, when the mere remembrance of them breaks ours, hearts of iron and stone though they are!” Aptly, therefore, the Church gave her the honorific title, co-redemptrix, not to speak of her as if she is the efficient cause of our salvation or that she is an equal partner with Christ in the work of redemption. On the contrary, her role in our salvation differs from Christ’s in essence and degree. What the Church wants to express is that she cooperated with Christ in His saving work by giving the consent at the Incarnation right up to the cross. More than anyone else, being the mother of her son, she cooperated most closely with the saving work of Christ for the redemption of humanity and shared in Christ’s suffering in spirit.
Today, we are invited to contemplate on Mary’s suffering so that we too can share in Christ’s suffering. We are called to enter into the mystery of the passion of Christ and the compassion of Mary so that we can share in their redemptive suffering for the salvation of humanity. By pondering over what Mary had gone through, we learn the true meaning of com-passion. Mary’s silence at the foot of the cross invites us to support others who are suffering by our very presence. Being in solidarity with others in their suffering does not mean that we have to be doing things, but through our words of consolation or presence, we can give them strength as Mary gave strength and courage to Jesus.
Most of all, in order to give strength to those who suffer, we need to be like Mary and see the cross in the right perspective. Unless we have grasped the meaning of suffering from the perspective of the cross, we will only be weighed down and as a result, also bring others down by our negative approach to life. Licking each other’s wounds cannot heal us unless we can shed light and help each other to see life and suffering positively. In spite of the harsh reality Mary had to face, she did not fall into despair or resentment against God or even the enemies of Jesus. Her faith, hope and love were sustained by God’s love for her and her love for her Son. Most of all, her love was founded on hope because she knew that God would be faithful to her. The letter of Hebrews tells us, “and he submitted so humbly that his prayer was heard. Although he was Son, he became for all who obey him the source of eternal salvation.” So the suffering that Mary went through was not one of resignation or despair but a joyful pain in view of the salvation that Jesus would render for humanity.
Like Mary and her Son, in our suffering, we must turn to God in prayer. Again, the author of Hebrews tells us, “During his life on earth, Christ offered up prayer and entreaty, aloud and in silent tears, to the one who had the power to save him out of death.” And of course, again and again in the gospel, especially in St Luke, we read that Mary would ponder everything in her heart. So if we are to make sense of our suffering and see them in the light of faith, we too must pray like Jesus and Mary so that we can integrate suffering into the plan of God for humanity and our salvation. Jesus can enlighten us in our suffering that often, it is caused by our sins, the lack of faith, a test or purification, so that we learn obedience, surrender and total trust in God’s power. Total abandonment to the Father’s will is the key to overcoming suffering and death. So, like St John the perfect Christian and disciple of Christ, we too are invited to make a place for Mary in our home by having her as our spiritual mother in faith, hope and love especially in our sorrows.
Written by The Most Rev William Goh, Roman Catholic Archbishop of Singapore © All Rights Reserved
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