Consider the scene - Mount Calvary is topped with three crosses, and beneath them stand the cruel executioners of Christ. They cast lots for His garments and fill the air with their profanities, whilst above them the Saviour of the Universe pours out His blood for the salvation of mankind. Passing almost un-noticed by the mocking crowd of soldiers and townspeople, stands a woman. She is found next to the cross of Christ, her eyes gazing up at Him and her hand extended to touch the wood of the cross. The blood from His pierced and flagellated body falls down the beams and onto her hand as it rests on that sacred tree. She remains there, unflinching in the face of the torturous death of her Son, not filled with hate for his enemies, but freely offering herself with Him. She sacrifices her own will for the sake of God’s: she rejects the natural desire to wish Christ's preservation and instead unites her will to His in willing that His sacrificial death be the cause of salvation. This is the Woman of sorrows, her hand never moving from the cross, her will never wavering in its resolve. She thus unites herself to Christ in a manner which none else can do. Her heavenly crown is won here, on this bare hill, where she and Christ offer themselves for the salvation of souls and the glory of God. Such is our Mother of Sorrows.
Holy Mother Church follows the feast of the Exaltation of the Cross, the instrument of Christ’s passion, with the great feast of the Seven Sorrows of Our Lady, or Our Lady of Sorrows. It is most fitting that these two feasts should be so situated in the Church’s liturgical year. Just as Mary and Christ were so united in their lives, especially in their suffering, so must the Exaltation of the Cross, that instrument of His suffering, be accompanied by the exaltation of Mary’s sorrows. The union between Christ and His mother cannot be understood if one does not realise the deep union which is formed through their joint suffering. Christ offered Himself on the cross: Mary offered Him but also herself with Him. It is for this reason that she is hailed as the Co-Redemptrix, and consequently when we honour the passion of Christ, we rightly honour her also.
Yet it seems strange perhaps to use such a term as the ‘exaltation of Mary’s sorrows’, for how can it be right to rejoice so in the sufferings of another? St. Alphonsus Ligouri mentions that her sufferings were so great that she is called the Queen of Martyrs, a title by which we hail her in the Litany of Loreto. Her sorrows were so great and so profound that she is likened to those who have died for Christ, but how then can this great sorrow be a cause of joy for the Church? One answer to this is to remember the role of suffering in the spiritual life and to further state that it is only through the suffering and death of Christ that we have access to heaven. Suffering is indeed the gateway to union with Christ, since it is the way by which one dies to self and imitates his Lord. This truth Mary knew more perfectly than all, and it was this which moved her to will her suffering.
For indeed, the sorrows which she endured were all voluntary. She willingly accepted the honour and the sacrifice of becoming the Mother of God, fully aware of the trials and the awful pain which this would cause. It was in the face of this realisation that she offered her fiat to the heavenly messenger at the Annunciation. This does not mean that her life was spent in sombre expectation of the dread moment of the joint passion she was to undergo with her Son. Her life was one of sorrow, yes, but it was also one of joy. Fr. Keen mentions this fact: “Mary’s life never ceased for a moment to be a life of intoxicating joy. Mary’s life was one of intense union with God”.(1)
It is through this complete union and willing of the Divine will that Mary spent a life in joy and blissful union with God. Fully conscious of the torments that she would suffer along with her Son, this thought did not overwhelm her because she knew that such sacrifice was perfectly in accord with the will of God. He so wished that she should be united with Christ in the act of redemption. Indeed, the Catholic life is one of suffering, but sufferings united to God so that they became joys. Perfection is found in imitation of the life of the cross: Mary was the most perfect imitator of the way of the cross and in this suffering she found the heavenly joy which comes only from doing the will of God. Thus, whilst St. Alphonsus describes her sorrow as being all encompassing and without ceasing, we can also state that her life was one of heavenly joy.
The Church counts seven sorrows of Mary: the prophecy of Simeon; the flight into Egypt; the loss of her Son in the temple; her meeting with Christ on the way to Calvary; the death of Jesus; the piercing of His Sacred Side and His descent from the cross; Christ’s burial. All of these dolours are united by one point in particular - they are directed to Christ. Mary’s sorrows are not sorrows for her own account, as opposed to the majority of the sufferings which we undergo in daily life. Certainly, she felt a natural and just sorrow at all these events, particularly when witnessing the passion and death of her Son. But more than this is the sorrow she felt which was a sharing in Christ’s sorrow. At each one of these seven occasions, it is concern for her Son which moves her. She gives no thought to herself at all, but unfailing wishes to join herself to Christ. It is for this reason that St. Alphonsus writes thus: “To show the sufferings endured by other martyrs they are represented with the instruments of their torture…Mary is represented with her dead Son in her arms; for He alone was the instrument of her martyrdom, and compassion for Him made her the Queen of Martyrs”.(2)
The sufferings of this sweet, virgin Mother of God are thus transformed into the means by which demons flee and sin is vanquished. With and through Christ, Mary becomes the Co-Redemptrix of the human race, the Mediatrix of graces and the Exterminatrix of heresies. She is the woman who crushes the head of the serpent (cf Gen 3:15) and the humble new Eve who acts with the New Adam. Thus the Epistle of today’s Mass applies these words to the Mother of God: “the Lord hath blessed thee by His power, because by thee he hath brought our enemies to nought”. (Judith 13:22) In dwelling upon each of the seven dolours of Our Lady, we are not commemorating some mournful event, but rather a signal triumph over the devil. Every sorrow endured by that humble Co-Redemptrix serves as a vicious blow to the devil, as Mary united her will to God’s. Through the sorrow she endured at the prophecy of Simeon, the flight into Egypt and the loss of Christ in the temple, she brought glory to God and confounded the devil. Through her willing and loving co-operation with Christ in the entirety of His passion, she planted her heel firmly upon the head of the serpent as she became the channel to the world for the graces which Christ won upon the cross.
Just as God led the Israelites from Egypt with the pillar of cloud and fire, so Mary leads her children through the darkness of temptations and assaults. Thus, in the words of St. Lawrence, “behold the twofold object for which Mary is given to us; to shelter us, as a cloud, from the heat of the sun of justice, and, as fire, to protect us all against the devil”.(3) Her name has become a source of terror to the demons and her virtues, a scourge to the evil spirits. Well then can we pray the words of the Memorare: ‘Remember O most gracious Virgin Mary, that never was it known, that anyone who fled to protection, implored thy help, or sought thine intercession, was left unaided’.
Verily, Mary’s glory is found in her dolours and her sufferings. In turn, these sufferings and her life of sacrifice are centred upon God and the performance of His holy will. Christ was crowned mockingly with a helmet of thorns in his passion: Mary received no such physical torture but her heart was pierced with a sword that was keener than any earthly blade. He endured all and died so that He might perform the will of the Father and ransom fallen man from the slavery of sin. To this Mary united herself completely, not in a subdued or reluctant manner, but joyfully willing that she might receive her sorrows for the glory of God and the salvation of souls.
In this manner, Our Lady of Sorrows becomes the mother of us all. Her sorrow can be understood only by understanding the immensity of her love for God. In fostering a devotion to her under this title, the Church exhorts us to thus imitate her in this virtue. St. Alphonsus teaches that “Mary’s whole martyrdom consisted in beholding and pitying her innocent and beloved Son, who suffered so much. Hence, the greater was her love for Him, the more bitter and inconsolable was her grief”.(4) This is great glory and joy of the dolours of Mary - for they are sorrows precisely because of her perfect love of God and the sorrow she endured from seeing Him so treated. This is the reason why faithful Catholics can and must take such joy and glory in the seven dolours of the Blessed Mother, because each moment of agony she endured was also a moment of perfect union with the will of God, of heavenly joy in being so united with Him, and a moment of absolute rejection of the devil.
What words are truly enough to properly describe each of the sorrows which Mary underwent? Many tomes could not do justice to the awful weight of the suffering and martyrdom which she endured. Nor could they properly convey the truth of the reason for such willing suffering, namely the perfect and most intimate love and union with God. The pages provided for us by the saints, particularly Sts. Alphonsus Ligouri and Louis-Marie de Montfort, are full of immense beauty and can nurture many hours of fruitful meditation. But even these great Marian saints freely proclaim that their words do nothing to truly present the truths about the Queen of Martyrs.
The dolours of Mary the Co-Redemptrix are the glory of the Church. The bitter sorrows which she willingly undertook became her sweetest joys in unison with Christ. Through these, the seven sorrows of Mary, Holy Mother Church calls us all to foster a deeper union with our heavenly Mother. We are urged to meditate often upon the dolours, because by doing so their mysteries will unveil themselves to the fervent devotees of Our Lady. The more that a soul contemplates these particular moments in the life of Christ and His Mother, then the more completely he is filled with an understanding of the intimate, loving, sacrificial union between them. With this knowledge, and with Our Lady of Sorrows as his guide, such a soul is able to imitate the Blessed Mother in willing all things for the sake of God.
1: Frs. Leen and Kearney, Our Blessed Mother, (Dublin, Clonmore & Reynolds, 1947), 63.
2: St. Alphonsus Ligouri, The Glories of Mary, (London, Burns, Oates & Washbourne, 1868), 598.
3. St. Lawrence, De Laudibus Virgines, Ch 12, source in The Glories of Mary.
4: Ligouri, The Glories of Mary, 413.