Our Lady of Compassion
Today the Church dwell's upon the ancient feast of the Compassion of Mary. Before embarking upon a discussion of the feast, we must first comprehend what it actually means. The word ‘compassion’ must be understood properly in order to fully grasp the weight which such a feast holds. It is derived from the two latin words cum, meaning with, and patior meaning to suffer. Compassion thus equates to suffering with another. The modern usage of the word has slightly reduced the meaning of compassion, to something akin to feeling sorrow for another during a time of trial. But the true meaning and older usage of the term in fact denotes suffering with another. The compassion of Mary thus refers to her suffering alongside Christ.
Brief history of the feast.
The familiar feast of Our Lady of Sorrows celebrated on September 15th, was a feast originally celebrated by the order of the Servites and later extended to the whole Church by Pope Pius VII. It is an excellent opportunity to meditate upon all of the sorrows which Our Blessed Mother endured. It is positioned in the ecclesial calendar on the day after the feast of the Exaltation of the Cross, a poignant fact, denoting the closeness of the relation between Mary and the cross.
Yet even before this beautiful feast was established, there existed another day upon which the Church particularly commemorated the compassion of Mary. It is recorded that the popularity of a devotion to the compassion of Mary grew substantially during the 12th century. Soon, a feast was established by a synod of Cologne in 1413, which placed the commemoration of the compassion of Mary on the Friday after the Third Sunday of Easter. The focus of this feast was specifically the sorrow and suffering of Our Lady which she endured during the passion and death of Christ. In 1482 the feast was inserted into the Roman Missal as ‘Our Lady of Compassion’. Initially the celebration of the feast was limited to certain dioceses or provinces and the dates upon which it was held differed. However in 1727, the supreme pontiff Benedict XIII, extended the feast to the entire Church and gave the date of the Friday before Palm Sunday. It remained so until recent years, when a revision of the Missal lowered the rank of the feast.
‘Our Lady of Compassion’ as our spiritual guide.
The placement of the feast of Our Lady’s Compassion is rather striking, since it occurs on the last Friday before Good Friday. It teaches us about the relation between Mary and Christ, but also about how we ought to approach God in our own lives. By observing this feast one week before Good Friday, we are reminded of the inseparable union between the Co-Redemptrix and Christ the Redeemer. We cannot dwell on one without dwelling on the other. Furthermore, the placement of the feast on this day, is in many ways significant of the humility of Mary and the love of God which she so perfectly manifests. She leads us to God as a tender queen leads the subjects to an almighty king. For first we contemplate the sorrowful passion of Mary, before entering into Holy Week proper and giving ourselves to the contemplation of the passion and death of Christ. As the saints tell us, she is the surest and easiest way to God and so it is very fitting that we recall her suffering first, in order to petition her aid in properly entering into a fruitful meditation on the death of her Son. This feast serves only to bring us into a closer union with Christ, which is exactly according to the will of His Mother.
The Medieval period furnishes us with evidence of the great mysteries of the faith which are contained in such a feast. Some of the greatest Marian saints of the time composed works in which the popular devotion to Mary as the one who suffered with Christ is very evident. St. Bernard mentions the co-suffering of Mary in a sermon given on the Sunday during the octave of the Assumption:
One can well say, indeed, that a sword pierced your heart, o blessed Mother, for it was only through your heart that it could penetrate the flesh of your Son…His pain, like a violent sword, has thus passed through your heart, and we can call you, with reason, more than a martyr, since in you the sense of compassion has prevailed so strongly over that passion endured by the body.(1)
The beautiful imagery used in this passage is not for mere artistic effect - the relation between Mary and Christ is so intimate and perfectly connected, that in order for the sword to pierce Christ it necessarily had to pierce her. Namely, due to her perfect love of God and union with His will, the sacrifice of Mary is inseparable from the sacrifice of Christ. Hers was an unbloody sacrifice, His a bloody one, yet the altar of their sacrifice was one and the same - the cross on Calvary. St. Bonaventure recalls this by saying that: “there was but one altar - that of the cross of the Son, on which, together with this Divine Lamb, the victim, the Mother was also sacrificed; …O Lady, where are thou? near the cross? Nay, rather, thou art on the cross, crucified, sacrificing thyself with thy Son”.(2)
St. Bonaventure’s words demonstrate the Mariological and Christological truths pertinent to the subject of Mary’s Compassion. By noting that the altar of sacrifice was but one, he points out that the redemptive sacrifice is Christ’s alone and Mary has no power aside from her Son. This must serve to clarify any doubts which others might raise, when disputing the matter of her role in the sacrifice on Calvary. Yet the saint also notes that Mary is crucially and perfectly united with Christ, joining Him on the cross for our salvation. The collect of the Mass for today mentions this union when it describes a sword of sorrow piercing her heart at the cross. It is the fulfillment of the prophecy of Simeon, who foretold that Mary would be pierced by the sword. (Luke 2:35).
The compassion of Mary moves us to a deeper knowledge of her and should awaken in us a desire to become more intimately acquainted with her. Mary’s life was one of constant joy precisely because her life was centred upon the cross. Mary united herself to the cross and to the Divine Will at the moment of her fiat. From the very moment of the Annunciation her life was one of joyful submission and unison to the will of God, and it is this life to which we are called in turn. The moment of her acceptance of the will of God was one of a stark and harsh realisation, for she knew that her Divine Son would be her joy and sorrow. Indeed, “the cross was ever before her mind”. (3) Without the cross, the Catholic faith means nothing, since it is through the cross that we find life, hope and salvation. We see in Mary such perfect adherence to the life of the cross, the Christian life, as to be in no doubt of the way to perfection. Union with God and perfection is found only by following Mary’s lead and clinging to the cross.
On the eve of holy week, the final occasion for a redoubling of Lenten penances, the Church calls us to dwell on the compassion of Mary precisely so that we might imitate her. Mary’s life was full of unfathomable joy, since she was both spiritually and physically with God, her Son. Yet this was a happiness not according to the spirit of the world, but according to the spirit of God. She knew that true peace and sanctity is found in the humble union of oneself with God and this principally involves the cross. Her life of spiritual joy was spent in constant acceptance of the cross. Mary’s compassion teaches us that union with God must involve the cross or else it is no true union.
Our spiritual life and union with God depends precisely upon this one point, the joyful acceptance of the cross. We have the example of the quiet and humble act of Mary in response to the angel Gabriel. This must serve as our blueprint: the target for which we ought all to strive when faced with the reality of the cross. The response which we must utter, but seldom do, is the single word of fiat. Mary’s fiat was constant, both at the Annunciation and beneath the cross on Calvary. Through the feast of ‘Our Lady of Compassion’ we are reminded of the perfect love of God that Mary had, as well as the unique and intimate role which she performed in the redemption. But we are crucially also reminded of the love to which we are all called. As members of the Church, each one of us is given the command to be perfect and it is only through faithful imitation of Mary and union with the cross, that we can hope to do so.
(1): St. Bernard, “Sermon pour le dimanche dans l’octave de l’Assomption de Marie,” paragraph 14. Accessed on 3rd April 2020. https://www.bibliotheque-monastique.ch/bibliotheque/bibliotheque/saints/bernard/index.htm.
(2): St. Bonaventure, De Stim. Div Am p. i. c. 2. as quoted in Ligouri, The Glories of Mary, 445.
(3): Rev. Leen and Kearney, Our Blessed Mother, (Dublin, Clonmore & Reynolds LTD, 1947), 91.