Shepherd's Voice September 2020


The Feast of the Sorrows of the Blessed Virgin Mary celebrated on September 15 close on the heels of the Feast of the Exaltation of the Cross on September 14 is a call to gaze on our Blessed Mother and learn from her the way of discipleship whereby we embrace the Cross and not run away from it. Her sorrows speak to us as we mourn and weep in our own ‘vale of tears’, but they also are a pointer to and assurance of the joys of eternal life –“What the eye has not seen, nor ear heard, nor the heart of man imagined, what God has prepared for those who love him” (1Cor. 2:9). The sorrows of our Blessed Mother were many but they have been numbered as ‘seven’ according to the Biblical tradition of the ‘perfect number’. Which are these seven sorrows?
The First Sorrow: The Prophecy of Simeon: “Behold, this child is appointed for the fall and rising of many in Israel, and for a sign that is opposed (and a sword will pierce through your own soul also), so that thoughts from many hearts may be revealed” (Lk.2:27-35). This searing announcement of their child’s destiny certainly took both Mary and Joseph by utter surprise and perhaps threw them off balance but Mary preserved these words in her heart as she had done from the moment of her ‘fiat’ (Lk. 1:38) and together with Joseph surrendered herself to God’s will. Thus her fears were overcome as she let go into God’s hands to be instrument of his Divine Plan for the world.
We cannot escape the ‘Simeon announcement’ in our life too. When everything seems to be cruising comfortably well an unexpected ‘bad news’ can throw us out of our comfort zone and bring pain, struggle, suffering, grief and turmoil as we look into the future. It is at a moment like this that we need to be grounded in God as Mary was and learn from her the power of prayer and silence. Both Mary and Joseph teach us the evangelical quality of taking one day at a time and living it fully with gratitude to God for everything that we enjoy in life. We cannot take anything for granted; everything is God’s gift.
The Second Sorrow: The Flight into Egypt: “Now when they had departed, behold, an angel of the Lord appeared to Joseph in a dream and said, ‘Rise, take the child and his mother, and flee to Egypt, and remain there until I tell you, for Herod is about to search for the child to destroy him’” (Mt. 2:13). This was a puzzling dream, nonetheless a warning from God that Herod was after the child to kill him; hence the parents had to flee into Egypt in the dead of the night to save the child without bothering about the hazards of the journey, the comforts along the way and the accommodation in a foreign land. All of a sudden they had become refugees and migrants, like the millions in the world today, especially the poor and marginalized. Our own country witnessed, and continues to witness, the horrible plight of the poor and deprived migrant labourers who had to trek home thousands of kilometers after the lockdown on March 25. And, exactly like the Holy Family, thousands of them are returning to the cities once again in search of employment.
There are various kinds of ‘Herods’ in our life who force our ‘flight into Egypt’ and necessitate radical decisions in life with an unknown future. These ‘Herods’ can be destructive situations, persons, relationships, ideologies, memories, our own habits and patterns of behaviour, etc. etc. Our fleeing is often a stepping into the unknown, into insecurity, but trusting in God we need not fear at all as Mary and Joseph so beautifully testify in their life. They moved into the unknown in order to find freedom and safety. They faced their fears and accepted the consequences of leaving a harmful situation with God as their chief source of strength and sustenance.
The Third Sorrow: The Loss of Child Jesus in the Temple: “And when the feast was ended, as they were returning, the boy Jesus stayed behind in Jerusalem. His parents did not know it, but supposing him to be in the group they went a day’s journey, but then they began to search for him among their relatives and acquaintances, and when they did not find him, they returned to Jerusalem, searching for him” (Lk. 2: 43-45). It was the most panicky situation for Mary and Joseph when they realized that their son Jesus was lost; and for Mary her mind was abuzz with the worst kind of thoughts – has he been kidnapped and sold as a slave, is he alive, is he dead? So they retrace their steps back to Jerusalem with all kinds of fears and apprehensions, in tiredness and sadness but without giving up hope in God’s love to work a miracle. And what a joy when they find him, sitting among the learned rabbis and speaking to them! Still, his response to their question was confusing and mysterious, if not downright hurting; yet Mary preserves it in her heart and ponders over it as Jesus grows up and begins his ministry.
We know the anxiety we go through when we lose our loved one/friend in a crowd and the immense joy we experience when we find the one we lost for a while; yet there are many kinds of ‘losses’ we encounter in life. We are not alone in such moments; Our Blessed Mother is there with us sharing our sorrow, anxiety, pain and fear and helping us to turn them into instruments of joy.
The Fourth Sorrow: Mary Meets Jesus Carrying His Cross: “And there followed him a great multitude of the people and of women who were mourning and lamenting for him” (Lk. 23:27). Mary knew that her Son was courageous in standing for the truth of God’s Covenant and that one day he would have to pay the price for his forthrightness. The day came when she heard to her horror that the authorities had convicted him and sentenced him to the most ignominious death on the cross, the death of a political criminal, which he did not deserve at all because he was innocent. In one shuddering gasp she saw her Son carrying the cross in the horror of his pain and their eyes met. In that instant she felt all of his pain as if it was her own and she walked in the suffering footsteps of her Son in silent tears till Calvary. Finally she knew the ‘sword’ Simeon had prophesied.
One of the toughest things in life is to walk the journey of intense suffering of someone who is dear to us. The fourth sorrow of Mary teaches and inspires us how to meet the pain of others and our own pain as well. It was on the journey to Golgotha that she let her Son know by her presence that her love was with him, that she would be walking every step of the way as she entered into his passion and death with him. When we are meeting pain, whether it be that of one we love or our own pain, we are walking in the footsteps of Mary as she walked with her Son on the road to the hill of crucifixion.
The Fifth Sorrow: Mary Stands Beneath the Cross of Jesus: “but standing by the cross of Jesus were his mother and his mother’s sister, Mary the wife of Clopas, and Mary Magdalene” (Jn. 19:25). Mary’s heart was broken even before they reached the pace called Golgotha. Each pain-filled step Jesus took pierced her heart. It was more than a mother could bear, but somehow she did not break completely. That deep, inner strength she had always relied on was there for her on that terrible day. It was divine gift of courage she desperately needed. She stood inside his pain until his last words to his Abba, “Into your hands, I commend my spirit”. She knew he had completed his mission to the last iota.
There is so much suffering in our world. Everywhere people stand beneath the excruciating pain of watching someone suffer and even die. Like Mary beneath the cross of her beloved Son, all that we can do is ‘be there’ and wait with the one who is hurting, offering our love and support. And the crosses people carry are not only physical but also emotional – and emotional wounds are also very painful.
The Sixth Sorrow: Mary Receives the Dead Body of Jesus: “After these things Joseph of Arimathea, who was a disciple of Jesus, but secretly for fear of the Jews, asked Pilate that he might take away the body of Jesus, and Pilate gave him permission. So he came and took away his body” (Jn. 19: 38). Mary was allowed to hold the dead and bruised body of her beloved Son and embrace him for one last time before the entombment, and she had to do it in a hurry as Sabbath was approaching. There was not one place in his body that was not wounded, bruised, cut open!
Mary teaches us how to ‘embrace’ our losses and the losses of others with strength, loyalty and love. She is the Pietà who gathers the ravaged body of her executed Son in her embrace and thereby becomes a metaphor for any one of us, man or woman, when we open the arms of our love to receive suffering and death into our lives. By that generous gesture we become living Pietàs who embody Mary’s compassionate love.
The Seventh Sorrow: Jesus Is Laid in the Tomb: “Now in the place where he was crucified there was a garden, and in the garden a new tomb in which no one had yet been laid. So because of the Jewish day of Preparation, since the tomb was close at hand, they laid Jesus there” (Jn. 19: 41-42). Mary’s heart is filled with gratitude at the kindness of Joseph of Arimathea for offering the tomb in his garden for the burial of Jesus who had none of his own, and also for the kindness of the disciple who brought hundred pounds of myrrh and aloes. She remembered the day Jesus was born - the kindness of the innkeeper had ensured her and Joseph a stable to give birth to Jesus, and the poor shepherds were the first visitors to recognize the Messiah. Why was her Son destined to be born and to die in such poverty and destitution? What was the Kingdom of God he proclaimed and the treasures of eternal life he always spoke about? She felt the final piercing pain of the ‘sword’ Simeon had prophesied long ago as the body of her beloved Son was laid in the tomb and her heart was filled with grief, emptiness and loneliness. Yet she trusts in the divine love to whom she had said her ‘yes’ and moves on in hope believing that the Truth will manifest itself.
‘Tomb’ signifies finality, an end, a permanent goodbye, an irreparable loss - and there definitely are such situations in our life when we have to let go of what has given our life meaning and value. Therefore ‘tombs’ are not always about physical deaths but also about changing situations. Mary Our Blessed Mother teaches us to have faith in something and Someone beyond the finality of the ‘tomb’. Our God will always strengthen us during the time of loss and our faith will give us the reason to have hope though it will not keep us from the painful process of grieving. Nevertheless, faith helps us to let go and move forward with confidence rather than look back with desolation. Mary shows us the way.
[This reflection is based on the book Your Sorrow Is My Sorrow: Hope and Strength in Times of Suffering by Joyce Rupp (Bandra: St. Paul’s, 2003)].

+ Archbishop Anil Couto
Archbishop of Delhi

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