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Mater Dolorosa: Keeping Company with Mary near the Cross

by | Jun 5, 2016 | Formation, Reflections

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Many English-speaking Catholics of a certain age, will recall the Stabat Mater hymn (“At the cross her station keeping”) that was so much a part of the praying of the “Stations of the Cross” during the Lenten season:

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 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?

Most people think that there is something unnatural about a parent outliving a child, especially when the child’s life has been brutally stolen from the parent.  Perhaps this accounts for the popularity, even if anguished, of the Pieta.  Regarding the presence of the mother of Jesus near the cross, John’s Gospel 19: 25-27 simply states:

Standing by the cross of Jesus were his mother and his mother’s sister, Mary the wife of Clopas, and Mary of Magdala.  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.” And from that hour the disciple took her into his home.

Referring to this scene, Pope Francis notes in MV #24:

At the foot of the Cross, Mary, together with John, the disciple of love, witnessed the words of forgiveness spoken by Jesus. This supreme expression of mercy towards those who crucified him show us the point to which the mercy of God can reach. Mary attests that the mercy of the Son of God knows no bounds and extends to everyone, without exception.

One of the rather tangled questions for biblical scholars as well as theologians concerns the historicity of this scene.  Put bluntly: did this actually happen or is it rather the product of the Gospel writer’s imagination serving some deeper symbolic and/or theological concern?  Ironically one testimony against its historicity, in part, derives from another Gospel in which Mary plays a rather significant role, namely the Gospel of Luke.  It is Luke’s Gospel that contains accounts of the annunciation to Mary and the visitation of Mary to Elizabeth.  Luke’s companion volume, the Acts of the Apostles, places Mary in the upper room at Pentecost.  Luke is hardly quiet regarding Mary (and other women), yet Luke as well as the other synoptic gospels do not mention Mary, the mother of Jesus, standing near the cross.  Though it is certainly plausible that Mary was present at Jesus’ death, in the end we cannot know for sure since we are lacking in multiple attestations regarding this.

Needless to say, John probably has other ends in mind.  Still the scene fires the imagination.  It has given rise to a wealth of artistic outpourings not the least of which are the medieval hymn Stabat Mater (cited above) and the various Pietas.  Catholics are accustomed to praying the sorrowful mysteries of the rosary as well as meditating on the “seven sorrows of Mary” and “Mother or Our Lady of Sorrows.”  The scene has also given rise to a strain within the theology of Mary in which Mary is understood to be co-redemptrix.  If for example, one goes to amazon.com and types in under “books” or kindle “Mary at the Foot of the Cross” a number of books related to the title of Mary as co-redemptrix appear.

We need not here be detained by the issue of the historicity of the scene simply because we cannot know for certain whether Mary was actually near the cross.  What we can say, however, with greater probability is that, historical or not, the scene as found in John’s Gospel serves deeper symbolic and theological purposes.  Due to constraints regarding the length of this meditation we will consider two – one deriving from Raymond Brown and other scholars in Mary in the New Testament; the other from Elizabeth Johnson in her book Dangerous Memories (which is actually excerpted from a larger volume on Mary entitled Truly Our Sister).

The mother of Jesus appears twice in John’s Gospel.  Oddly though, if John’s was the only gospel we possessed we would not know her name since John’s author never names her.  This is hardly surprising since this is the gospel of the “beloved disciple” and we do not know his exact name either.  Both are arguably historical persons but both serve deeper symbolic purposes.  Raymond Brown and other have noted that the presence of one undisputed Marian passage (that is 19: 25-27) in the last half of John’s Gospel is of some import precisely because in that section of the Gospel we are dealing with Jesus “own” in the “hour” in which Jesus would depart to the Father.  (Recall that he spoke about this “hour” as not “yet come” in the earlier scene at Cana.)   As the authors of Mary in the New Testament state, “To introduce the mother of Jesus into this atmosphere is to bring her into the context of discipleship.”  Put simply: Mary finds a place in the circle of disciples.  Furthermore, Jesus gives his mother and the beloved disciple into the care of one another.  Another way to understand this is to suggest that Jesus is reinterpreting family by way of discipleship.

That Mary stands “near” the cross should also not be lost.  Though the synoptic gospels speak of the presence of women at the crucifixion, they are located at a distance from the cross.  Mary is “near” the cross.  This, of course, gives rise to a Christian instinct that has amply and wonderfully served the Christian community, namely, Mary is no stranger to pain and suffering.  She understands partly because she stood by and watched as the then reigning political and military regimes brutally killed her adult child.  As Elizabeth Johnson puts it, “Like them, Mary suffered the anguish of not being able to save her child from the hands of torturers and executioners.” The “them” to whom she is referring? – Latin American, Muslim Palestinian, Bosnian, Afghan and the many other women and more broadly families who have children, brothers, sisters, parents, friends who have disappeared or been murdered.  One imagines Mary standing alongside a mother watching her child die from AIDS.

In the meantime we pray into and work towards a new heaven and new earth in which violence has no place, perhaps most demandingly ever non-violence towards the most violent.  Johnson is correct in noting that on the way to that new world Mary, the mother of Jesus, standing by the cross is truly a “dangerous memory.”

For Further Reading:

Brown, Raymond E., Karl P. Donfried, Joseph A. Fitzmyer, and John Reumann, with others.  Mary in the New Testament: A Collective Assessment by Protestant and Roman Catholic Scholars.  New York/Mahwah: Paulist Press, 1978.

Johnson, Elizabeth A.  Dangerous Memories: A Mosaic of Mary in Scripture.  New York: Continuum, 2004.

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