I made this image some years ago in Rome, in the courtyard of one of the religious houses in the city. The statue depicts Mary, the Mother of Jesus, as She stood beneath the Cross of Her Son. I was struck by Her quiet dignity in that moment, suffering silently and partaking fully in His Passion and Death upon the Cross. In that moment, the prophecy of Simeon was borne out – “and a sword will pierce Your own soul, also” (Luke 2:35).
It is because of the words of this prophecy of the holy man Simeon that we see so many depictions of Our Lady of Sorrows with a sword piercing Her Heart. Indeed, traditional images of the Immaculate Heart of Mary generally show a sword or dagger piercing through that Heart.
We are now very used to the idea of the ‘Immaculate Heart of Mary’ – this is especially so following Our Blessed Lady’s appearances at Fatima in 1917. In the course those six public appearances, the Mother of God revelled a very specific devotion to Her Immaculate Heart and she showed the three children Her Immaculate Heart, encircled by thorns which pierced it; interestingly, however, there was no sword or dagger shown.
The fact that Our Blessed Lady’s Heart is ‘Immaculate’ is a gratuitous divine gift of the Almighty; this quality flows from Her Immaculate Conception and is given to Her in preparation for Her becoming the Mother of Jesus, the Son of God. And so in this sense, Our Blessed Lady did nothing to ‘deserve’ this title – it was an entirely free gift, bestowed upon her by God.
But there is a second title attributed to Her Heart, and it is that of ‘Sorrowful’. And this title, She does indeed deserve; you could, then, call it ‘a title of consequence’ since it comes from Her own freely-chosen actions during Her life on earth.
What He experienced in the flesh, She shared in the Heart.
In his Gospel, Saint John tells us – “Standing by the Cross of Jesus was His Mother” (Jn.19:25). While the Apostles – with the exception of the Beloved Disciple – were in hiding, the Mother of Jesus stood faithfully beneath the Cross, Her Sorrowful Heart participating in the Agony of Her Son. What He experienced in the flesh, She shared in the Heart. She watched His Crucifixion and His Death; and She watched as His Sacred Heart was pierced with the lance, the Blood and Water flowing forth immediately, the sign of His utter giving of Himself. She watched as His Body was taken down from the Cross and placed in the tomb. And it because of all this that we rightly call the Blessed Virgin ‘Our Lady of Sorrows’. She consented to all this at the moment of the Annunciation – Her ‘yes’ to the Almighty extends out to this moment, too, as it did to every moment of Her earthly life, and continuing now in the eternal ‘now’ of Heaven.
It is, therefore, proper and appropriate that we can correctly speak of ‘the Sorrowful and Immaculate Heart of Mary’.
And this motherly Heart, both Sorrowful and Immaculate, belongs to every one of us, for She was given to us by the Lord from the Cross, as Saint John tells us – “When Jesus saw His Mother and the Disciple there whom He loved, He said to His Mother, ‘Woman, behold Your Son’. Then He said to the Disciple, ‘Behold your Mother’.” (Jn.19:26-27). Here, John represents every one of us; it is to each and every soul that Christ gives His Mother, represented here in the person of the Beloved Disciple – and to His Mother the Lord gives all of us, without exception. No-one is excluded from Her motherly care, not even those souls who refuse – for whatever reason – to embrace Her. The Gospel, however, gives us a clue about what we are expected to do with this most precious gift, because John continues – “And from that moment, the Disciple took Her into his home” (Jn.19:27).
All of us can make a place in our hearts for the Mother of God, given to us from the Cross by the Lord. At the same time we are free to choose not to accept this gift – but this in no way diminishes Her love for us, for this is the task given Her by Her Son, that She be our Mother, also.
For many, times of struggle and trial are perhaps where we will most powerfully experience Her tender care for us; after the Cross, She knows all about sorrow and suffering. Our knowing this can make it easier for us to come to Her, especially at those darker moments of life. We know that She understands our sufferings, for She, too, has suffered greatly.
Our Lady of Sorrows teaches us something about suffering, about how to suffer, and what to do with our sufferings, whatever form they may take in the course of our lives. Like Mary, we are asked to stand faithfully at the foot of the Cross and there, to unite ourselves with the Crucified so that we share something of His work through His Passion and Death; and so that in this way, our own little sufferings take on something of the redemptive quality of His infinite sufferings. Our sufferings, when united to those of the Lord, become the means of sanctification; the Cross is the key which unlocks Heaven.
On this feast of Our Lady of Sorrows, may the Sorrowful and Immaculate Heart of Mary especially console and sustain those who suffer in any way, those in darkness and all those who are in the shadow of death.
“At the Cross, Her station keeping,
Stood the mournful Mother weeping,
Close to Jesus to the last..
Through Her Heart, His sorrow sharing,
All His bitter anguish bearing,
now at length the sword has pass’d.”