When Jesus saw his mother and the disciple whom he loved standing nearby, he said to his mother, “Woman, behold, your son!” Then he said to the disciple, “Behold, your mother!” And from that hour the disciple took her to his own home.
John 19:26-27 (ESV)
To her, he would always be the baby in the manger. Even up there, beaten, bloodied, and humiliated, he was still her little boy. And now he’s hurt; now he’s dying. I cannot really understand or feel the sufferings of Christ — the grand passion of our Lord, the alienation of the only-begotten Son from his eternal Father. But I understand Mary. I’m a parent. My heart breaks when my children get a cold or scrape their knees. I cannot imagine, I do not want to imagine, I will not imagine watching one of them die. The memories must have flooded into her mind: his first steps, his first words, his first miracle. She could close her eyes and see his smile, the way he crinkled his nose when he was thinking, the small mole on his left wrist. She remembered what it was like when she had first felt him stir in her womb, how the sheer miracle of it all was almost too much to bear. That overwhelming joy had caused her to burst into song.
And now this. The ultimate horror. God’s promise to Israel, the hope of the world, and her little boy dying on a cross. There is no word big enough to contain this, not sadness or heartbreak or grief or despair. The God that had appeared in blinding light and had filled her womb was now shrouded in darkness, leaving her empty, alone. The Mater Dolorosa. Motherhood is suffering, of course. It is about slowly letting go, first through birth and then through the transitions of life all the way to adulthood. But what a letting go this is! It is a final release of vanity and false hope — all the vainglorious ideals of a triumphal, militant messiah. This is the cost of salvation: only everything.
The early Church declared Mary to be the Theotokos “the Mother of God” or “the God-bearer”. Thus she became a symbol for the Church and, by extension, for each one of us. We are all called to carry Christ within us just as she did. Therefore, we are also called to suffer as she did, to bear the burden of motherly sorrow.
But there’s one part of the story I omitted. As Jesus hung upon the cross, he looked down upon his mother and knew her sorrow, more than you or I ever could. He also saw John, the disciple whom he loved. And with some of his final breaths, he gave them to each other. The suffering Christ cared, even then, for the widows and orphans. Even on the cross, especially on the cross, he comforted and restored. Jesus did not leave his mother alone. He gave her to John and, by extension, to the church. We are still called to care for and be cared for by his mother (and ours). We care for her by listening to her son, by living his life with him, by suffering alongside her. She cares for us through Mother Church, that mystical body that sustains us all. If we are in Christ, if we are his Body, then Mary is our mother, too. So I pray that we will stand with her today at the cross, hold her close, and love Jesus just as she does.
Below I have included a translation of the Latin hymn Stabat Mater, a 13th-century hymn on this topic that poetically meditates on Mary’s suffering at the Cross. It is blessedly devoid of Marian heresies (perhaps a whiff of the ever-virgin nonsense), and thus encourages a healthy devotion to the Blessed Mother. May entering the sufferings of our Lord’s mother deepen your walk on this Good Friday:
At the Cross her station keeping,
stood the mournful Mother weeping,
close to her Son to the last.
Through her heart, His sorrow sharing,
all His bitter anguish bearing,
now at length the sword has passed.
O how sad and sore distressed
was that Mother, highly blest,
of the sole-begotten One.
Christ above in torment hangs,
she beneath beholds the pangs
of her dying glorious Son.
Is there one who would not weep,
whelmed in miseries so deep,
Christ’s dear Mother to behold?
Can the human heart refrain
from partaking in her pain,
in that Mother’s pain untold?
For the sins of His own nation,
She saw Jesus wracked with torment,
All with scourges rent:
She beheld her tender Child,
Saw Him hang in desolation,
Till His spirit forth He sent.
O thou Mother! fount of love!
Touch my spirit from above,
make my heart with thine accord:
Make me feel as thou hast felt;
make my soul to glow and melt
with the love of Christ my Lord.
Holy Mother! pierce me through,
in my heart each wound renew
of my Savior crucified:
Let me share with thee His pain,
who for all my sins was slain,
who for me in torments died.
Let me mingle tears with thee,
mourning Him who mourned for me,
all the days that I may live:
By the Cross with thee to stay,
there with thee to weep and pray,
is all I ask of thee to give.
Virgin of all virgins blest!,
Listen to my fond request:
let me share thy grief divine;
Let me, to my latest breath,
in my body bear the death
of that dying Son of thine.
Wounded with His every wound,
steep my soul till it hath swooned,
in His very Blood away;
Be to me, O Virgin, nigh,
lest in flames I burn and die,
in His awful Judgment Day.
Christ, when Thou shalt call me hence,
be Thy Mother my defense,
be Thy Cross my victory;
While my body here decays,
may my soul Thy goodness praise,
Safe in Paradise with Thee.
– Translation by Edward Caswall, Lyra Catholica (1849)