Since 2002, the new Missal has offered a second Opening Prayer or Collect for today – the Friday of the 5th week of Lent. It was used at the beginning of the Mass – for the first time in English, since it only became available in translation with the recent English Missal. Its reference to Mary makes it appropriate for this church dedicated to her.
‘O God, who in this season give your Church the grace to imitate devoutly the Blessed Virgin Mary in contemplating the Passion of Christ, grant, we pray, through her intercession that we may cling more firmly each day to your Only Begotten Son and come at last to the fullness of his grace.’
This is a very beautiful prayer. It reminds us of Mary’s share in Christ’s suffering.
Its first thought is that Mary is the type, the figure, the model of the Church. She was the first to make what we call the Lenten journey, or rather pilgrimage. Mary was, after all, the only person in the Gospels who lived through the whole of Jesus’ life, from his conception to his death, and on to his resurrection and ascension. Figures like Joseph and John the Baptist had died before Jesus completed his own life, the apostles on the other hand only knew him from the time of his baptism in the Jordan. Only Mary lived through it all. And that historical fact is a kind of outward sign of her inward connection to her Son, her clinging to him. Mary lived the following of Christ, the journey or pilgrimage of faith, as no-one else. And in her living of it, she leads all of us. The Church follows Christ after her, in the wake of her faith. And ‘in this season’, as the Prayer puts it, the Church is given the grace to ‘imitate [her] devoutly…in contemplating the Passion of Christ.’ After Jesus himself, after God the Father, no one felt the Passion more than Mary. No one entered it more deeply. Or rather into no one else did the Passion and Death of her Son enter so deeply. Did she even look the same after standing under that Cross?
‘Give your Church the grace to imitate [Mary] in contemplating the Passion of Christ’, asks the Prayer. What does ‘contemplate’ really mean? There is an old phrase from the mystical tradition of the Church: divina pati – ‘to suffer or undergo the things of God’. That’s what Mary happened to Mary at the foot of the Cross: she ‘underwent divine things’. ‘And a sword will pierce your own soul too,’ old Simeon had said to her many years before (Lk 2:35). It was that sword ‘that pierces to the division of soul and spirit’ (Heb 4:12); it was the Word of God himself hands pierced by the nails who pierced his mother’s heart. These are things beyond us. Mary was Jesus’ mother, and ‘mothers are the greatest lovers,’ said St Thomas Aquinas. What does any mother go through at the suffering of her child? Wouldn’t she infinitely prefer to take it on herself? But this suffering – and Mary knew this – was something more than ordinary suffering. Jesus’s was more than a personal suffering. It was a suffering with us and for us. It was a suffering of all human suffering. It was a suffering only divinity could carry. There was something unlimited about it. And Mary knew that, and agreed to it, incomprehensible though it was. She opened her heart and mind to it, it came into her, and it took away everything that was simply her own – even her motherhood, her right to protest at the injustice done to her son, her longing to undergo it herself. She knew, however intuitively, that her Son was taking on the sins of the world and the suffering they entailed, and that only he could do this. All that was left to her was to consent to his death, as she had consented in the beginning to his birth. She knew there was something divine here, and that she could only undergo it.
Christian devotion has tried hard to imagine this. We think of the Stabat Mater, its words and many musical settings, or Henryk Górecki’s Symphony of Sorrowful Songs, with its first movement devoted to a 15th c. lament of Mary: ‘O my son, beloved and chosen, share your wounds with your mother.’ Or the iconography of Mary with her heart pierced by seven swords. But these are merely attempts. Centuries before the Cross, Israel had seen the destruction of its city and temple, and turned its pain itno poetry in the Lamentations of Jeremiah: ‘What can I say for you, to what compare you, O daughter of Jerusalem? What can I liken you to, that I may comfort you, O virgin daughter of Zion? For vast as the sea is your desolation; who can restore you?’ (Lam 2:13). But it must have been beyond all these things. Perhaps it’s the experiences of other saints that can take us closest. A woman who knew Edith Stein, St. Teresa Benedicta of the Cross, the German Jewish convert and nun, in the last times before her life was ended in Auschwitz, wrote this of her:
‘She hardly ever spoke, but would often look at her sister Rosa with a sorrow beyond words. As I write it occurs to me that she probably understood what was awaiting them….. in my opinion, she was thinking about the suffering that lay ahead. Not her own suffering – she was far too resigned for that – but the suffering that was in store for the others. Every time I think of her sitting in the barracks, the same picture comes to mind : a Pieta without the Christ.’
In someone like Edith Stein, I think, we see the Church of the 20th c. living our Prayer – contemplating Christ crucified in his own people. But if we’re contemplating Mary at the foot of the Cross contemplating her Son, there is something else. And it’s the very thing we are called to imitate. The disciples, most of them, had run away. Mary, and the other women – two of them also called Mary – ‘were standing’ (Jn 19:25). They didn’t flee, they didn’t faint. They stood. What does that mean beyond its obvious meaning? There’s a line in Isaiah that gives the answer: ‘If you do not believe,’ said the Lord to the wavering Ahaz, ‘you will not stand’ (Is 7:9). If these women, if Mary most of all, were standing, it’s because they, and she most of all, believed. Her contemplating, her undergoing of the things of God, her suffering vast as the sea, never left the circle of her faith. Rather, it was inwardly shaped, accepted, overcome by her faith, her hope, her love. In the 2nd book of Maccabees, there’s a Jewish mother who sees her seven sons martyred because of their faithfulness to the God of Israel. ‘She endured it, we read, resolutely because of her hopes in the Lord’ (2 Mac 7:20). And she says to her boys, ‘I do not know how you appeared in my womb; it was not I who endured you with breath and life… It is the creator of the world, ordaining the process of man’s birth and presiding over the origin of all things, who in his mercy will most surely give you back both breath and life’ (2 Mac 7:22-23). If that anonymous woman could believe in resurrection even then, how much more Mary. ‘Near the cross of Jesus stood his mother,’ and into that faithful heart, vast as the sea, there came not just the sword of suffering, but the words, ‘Woman, behold you son!’ (Jn 19: 25, 26). There came each and all of us, the Church. There came the Resurrection.
‘Dear friends, said Pope St Leo one Holy Week, when Christ is lifted up by the Cross, our mind’s eye should not light just on what evil men could see… They could see nothing in the Crucified Lord beyond their crime… Our minds, however, enlightened by the Spirit of Truth, should recognize with a pure and free heart the glory of the Cross shining in heaven and on earth. They should see with interior penetration what the Lord said just before his Passion, “The hour has come for the Son of man to be glorified”’ (Sermon 59, 6).
So it was with Mary, surely. She had such a faith. She clung to her son in the middle of his suffering. And in faith she saw his glory. So, may we go up to and through Holy Week, up to the Cross and through the Cross to the Resurrection, with our hand in Mary’s hand, learning her faith.
And so the prayer ends: ‘grant, we pray, through her intercession that we may cling more firmly each day to your Only Begotten Son and come at last to the fullness of his grace.’
St Mary’s, Blairs
30 March 2012