Today, the Church celebrates the feast of Our Lady of Sorrows. Although this liturgical celebration goes all the way back to the late 15th Century, there are still many people who do not know about the powerful intercession of Our Lady under this title. To foster a devotion to Our Lady of Sorrows, we need to begin by asking why a devotion to Mary is not enough. Why must there be all these different titles for her and why do we have different feast days attached to the various titles? Certainly it serves the practical purpose of introducing us to her. But there is more to it than that. Once the Church promotes a particular title for Our Lady, it gives the Faithful a right to call upon her under the specific title and to expect her to act. This is why the four Marian dogmas, namely her Divine Motherhood (Mother of God), Immaculate Conception (Immaculata), perpetual virginity (Virgin of Virgins Our Mother), and Assumption (Queen of Heaven and Earth), each carry a title with them. By invoking Our Lady under those particular titles we can expect her to act on our behalf in very specific ways. In this regard Our Lady of Sorrows (Queen of Martyrs) is no different. What makes her specific intercession under this title so important is the fact that living in this “valley of tears”, we are in need of her constant compassion.
There are some very important implications that flow from the Immaculate Conception and help us to know Mary as Our Lady of Sorrows more fully. Recall that Mary in the Immaculate Conception was preserved from the stain of Original Sin. Put another way, because of the grace Our Lord merited on the Cross, he redeemed His Mother before her birth. One could then assume that the Immaculate Conception made Mary immune from pain and death since they are consequences of Original Sin. Now this is partially true in that the pain and death that Our Lord and Our Lady suffered were not a result of Original Sin but stem from human nature itself. It was only by grace that Adam was exempt from pain and death in the state of Original Innocence. Both Jesus and Mary voluntarily accepted suffering and death—He in his vocation as Redeemer, she in order to unite herself with Him in her role as the New Eve.
The fact that suffering and death were in a sense voluntary for Our Lady is something we should not overlook. By reflecting deeply upon this truth, we will fall more deeply in love with the Lord’s most precious gift to us. It actually made her more sensitive to suffering than we could possibly imagine. As fallen creatures we suffer from a darkening of our intellects, a weakening of our wills and our passions have the capacity to run wild. By not inheriting a fallen human nature, Mary had perfect integrity of soul. Her soul was perfectly ordered so that she had no ignorance, her will was always ordered to love of God, and her passions were always under the control of reason and will. This means her emotions were more intense than ours, not less. She was never ignorant of the evil of sin. As the “handmaid of the Lord” her heart was always consumed by a love of God. Our imperfection often makes us insensible to evil and our hearts are consumed by love of self.
Hidden in this is a great law in the spiritual life. Suffering is always proportionate to one’s sanctity. Being holy one naturally feels all things more acutely, including the evil of sin. Mary, as the holiest of God’s creatures then carried a great weight of sorrow. With such a perfect love of God as the One offended by sin and love of her Son Whom sin crucifies she suffered immensely. So too because she had no ignorance her sorrows were also proportionate to her intellectual enlightenment. When we suffer we hardly know half our misfortune and in a sense become numb, whereas she was flooded with a light that was painful.
It is not without purpose that the Feast of Our Lady of Sorrows follows liturgically upon the Exaltation of the Holy Cross. Because of all we have said about Mary’s immaculate condition we can say that no one, with the exception of Our Lord could have grasped darkness of the Passion or its horrors more completely than her. While the immensity of her suffering is virtually unimaginable, it is clear that without being given a singular grace, Mary would have died from them. All that is required for martyrdom is the willful acceptance of suffering sufficient to cause death even if God preserves the martyr through a singular grace. As an aside this is why the Church has revered St. John the Evangelist as a martyr even though he did not die in the caldron of boiling oil. So too the Church considers Mary a martyr as St. Bernard says “Mary was a martyr not by the sword of the executioner, but by bitter sorrow of heart.”
This is no mere “white” martyrdom but as Queen of Martyrs her martyrdom was greater than all the “red” martyrs. In the first place, the martyrs all had to endure sufferings of body. Mary’s sufferings were primarily of the soul, a perfect soul whose sufferings would have spilled over into her body. While all the martyrs suffered the torments inflicted upon them, the love of Christ made their sufferings somehow sweet. We read in story after story of the martyrs how they were martyred in a sense of bliss. There was none of this in Mary’s martyrdom. She had to watch her only Son suffer—the same Son she knew to be most innocent and lovable and God incarnate. Because of His role as Redeemer she also knew that she could do nothing to alleviate His suffering, but instead she was to suffer with Him. We often will hide our sufferings from those we love because we do not want them to suffer watching us suffer. This means that Mary was keenly aware that her presence on Calvary only made Jesus’ suffering worse, which in turn increased her sadness all the more.
In commenting on the anguish endured by the mother of the Maccabees who witnessed the martyrdom of her sons, St. Alphonsus Liguori says that anyone can understand that the sufferings of children are also borne by their mothers who witness it. So Our Lady suffered all the scourges, thorns, nails and cross in her heart. He says that “the heart of Mary became as it were a mirror of the Passion of the Son.”
Her martyrdom was also greater because it lasted the longest. He begins not in the Passion, but in the prophecy of Simeon when he promised that a sword would pierce her soul (Lk 2:35). From that moment on, she knew that Our Lord would be contradicted in all things. So while Abraham suffered great anxiety for three days knowing his son was to die (Gn 22) and David for seven days (2Sam 12:14-31), Our Lady suffered in silence for 33 years knowing that her Son what to die and ignominious death. She submitted herself to the will of God and bore all these things in the silence of her heart (Lk 2:51). In fact when Our Lady revealed herself to St. Bridget she said there was not a moment after that point in which this knowledge did not pierce her soul—“As often as I looked at my Son, as often as I wrapped Him in His swaddling-clothes, as often as I saw His hands and feet, so often was my soul absorbed, so to say, in fresh grief; for I thought how He would be crucified. My eyes filled with tears, and my heart was tortured with grief.”
Her martyrdom did not end at the Resurrection either, but continued after as well. Given the horrors that she witnessed she would not have wanted to see any of His Passion go to waste. Each time she encountered someone who rejected her Son and His Church she would relive the ugliness of His Passion because the suffering for those souls would have been in vain. This is why she is also the Mother of Mercy wanting to see the fruits of the Passion applied to as many people as possible.
Given all this, the Church gives us this day devoted to Our Lady of Sorrows so that we might show our gratitude to Our Lady by meditating upon her dolors and showing pity for her in her sorrow. There are two principal fruits that come from this. The first is that those who call upon Our Lady of Sorrows shall grow in true self-knowledge. This flows directly from Simeon’s prophecy that through her sufferings “the thoughts of many hearts may be revealed” (Lk 2:35). Secondly, by meditating upon her sorrows we will grow in sorrow for our own sins. Finally through our growth in the knowledge of Our Lady’s share in the sufferings of Our Lord keeps her from being seen a mere instrument but a true Mother and co-Redemptrix.
Our Lady of Sorrows, cause of our joy, pray for us!