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Feast of Our Lady at the Foot of the Cross

Today the Church and the Servite Order celebrates a Mass, which invites us to take our place at the foot of the Cross with Mary, the Mother of Sorrows.

Popular piety has identified seven “dolors” of the Blessed Virgin: the prophecy of Simeon; the flight into Egypt; the loss of the Boy Jesus; the meeting on the way to Calvary between Mary and Christ; the death of Jesus on the Cross; Mary’s reception of her Son’s dead body; the placing of that body in the tomb. Only the most heartless, insensitive person would not be moved by that list of sorrowful events, as the Stabat Mater plaintively demands:

Who, on Christ’s dear Mother gazing,

Pierced by anguish so amazing,

Born of woman, would not weep?

Who, of Christ’s dear Mother thinking,

Such a cup of sorrow drinking,

Would not share her sorrows deep?

Our Lady’s sorrows and, from a strictly human perspective, her inexplicable joy in the midst of them gives us the confidence to make our own the final verse of the Stabat Mater:

When this earthly frame is riven,

grant that to my soul is given

all the joys of Paradise!

Saint John Henry Newman produced two sets of Stations of the Cross, the longer of which St. John Paul II used on Good Friday of 2001. St. John Newman, the former Protestant, for whom Marian doctrine and devotion had been an initial stumbling block to coming into full communion with the Catholic Church, became one of Mary’s greatest devotees. With great sensitivity, he describes Our Lady’s emotions in the Fourth Station where Mother and Son meet on the road to Calvary. Newman wrote:

Jesus rises, though wounded by His fall, journeys on, with His Cross still on His shoulders. He is bent down; but at one place, looking up, He sees His Mother. For an instant they just see each other, and He goes forward.

Mary would rather have had all His sufferings herself, could that have been, than not have known what they were by ceasing to be near Him. He, too, gained a refreshment, as from some soothing and grateful breath of air, to see her sad smile amid the sights and the noises which were about Him. She had known Him beautiful and glorious, with the freshness of Divine Innocence and peace upon His countenance; now she saw Him so changed and deformed that she could scarce have recognized Him, save for the piercing, thrilling, peace-inspiring look He gave her. Still, He was now carrying the load of the world’s sins, and, all-holy though He was, He carried the image of them on His very face. He looked like some outcast or outlaw who had frightful guilt upon Him. He had been made sin for us, who knew no sin; not a feature, not a limb, but spoke of guilt, of a curse, of punishment, of agony.

Then in language equal to the beauty of Michelangelo’s Pietà, Newman offers this meditation for the Thirteenth Station (The Pieta’), full of empathy but also with holy and hope-filled joy:

The multitude have gone home. Calvary is left solitary and still, except that St. John and the holy women are there. Then come Joseph of Arimathea and Nicodemus, and take down from the Cross the Body of Jesus, and place it in the arms of Mary.

O Mary, at last thou hast possession of thy Son. Now, when His enemies can do no more, they leave Him in contempt to thee. As His unexpected friends perform their difficult work, thou lookest on with unspeakable thoughts. Thy heart is pierced with the sword of which Simeon spoke. O Mother most sorrowful; yet in thy sorrow there is a still greater joy. The joy in prospect nerved thee to stand by Him as He hung upon the Cross; much more now, without swooning, without trembling, thou dost receive Him to thy arms and on thy lap. Now thou art supremely happy as having Him, though He comes to thee not as He went from thee. He went from thy home, 3 O Mother of God, in the strength and beauty of His manhood, and He comes back to thee dislocated, torn to pieces, mangled, dead.

Yet, O Blessed Mary, thou art happier in this hour of woe than on the day of the marriage feast, for then He was leaving thee, and now in the future, as a Risen Savior, He will be separated from thee no more.

In today’s Feast, the Mother of Sorrows bids us to join her once more at the foot of the Cross, which is the altar of the Church, as the Sacrifice wrought once and for all on Calvary is re-presented, renewed for us. Yet another prayer of Cardinal Newman:

O Holy Mother, stand by me now, when Christ comes to me, as thou didst minister to Thy infant Lord—as Thou didst hang upon His words when He grew up, as Thou wast found under His Cross. Stand by me, Holy Mother, that I may gain somewhat of thy purity, thy innocence, thy faith, and He may be the one object of my love and my adoration, as He was of thine.

(These are excerpts [adapted and edited by Fr. Richard Boyle, OSM] from a homily preached by the Rev. Peter M. J. Stravinskas, Ph.D., S.T.D., at the Church of St. Gregory the Great, Plantation, Florida, on 5 March 2020.)