In last week’s blog, Father Jonathan wrote about the Feast of the Birthday of Our Lady.  Without any thought of reciprocation, or ‘quid pro quo’, I nominate what I consider to be another great feast of Mary – ‘Our Lady of Sorrows’ – celebrated annually on this date, 15 September. 

A Picture of Our Lady Surrounded by the Seven Sorrows

It is many years ago, now, that I remember first coming across the title, ‘Our Lady of Sorrows’, though I cannot recall the source of my education, nor can I say that I ever took the trouble to research the name. However, over the years, I have come to know something about the relationship between parents and their children, and in this regard, I cannot conceive of any bond stronger than that foetal-originating connection between mother and child.  More to the point, when someone, or something, hurts, or causes harm to a child, then most would agree that the parents cannot help but suffer, also – in many cases just as much as the child; of such is humanity.  From this kind of standpoint, it is then easy to understand, from Jesus’ life, the many distressing sufferings Mary was to undergo as she followed her child along the ‘path of life’.  After all, they were both human – with human feelings. In that special way, they were no different from any other man or woman.  Certainly then, Mary fully qualifies as ‘Our Lady of Sorrows’.   

The title, ‘Our Lady of Sorrows’ says two things to me.  Firstly, the title itself is quite beautiful, though rather sad, and secondly, in another sense, it is one that speaks of a beautiful Jewish lady, who at God’s invitation, was to become the mother of the world’s redeemer – saviour even – and in so doing endure unbearable ‘heart-piercing sorrows’ along the way.  The old Jewish holy man, Simeon – a God-fearing man who, the Bible Says– ‘lived in Jerusalem’ and ‘was waiting for Israel to be saved’ (Luke 2, v25), happened to be in the Temple when Jesus was ‘presented’ by Mary and Joseph.

Simeon, the Infant Jesus and Mary – Aert de Gelder (1700-10)

Given special insight by God, he recognised Jesus as the Messiah, and then uttered the ‘immortal’ words of the ‘Nunc Dimittis’: 

“Now, Lord, you have kept your promise, and you may let your servant go in peace.  With my own eyes I have seen your salvation, which you have prepared in the presence of all peoples: a light to reveal your will to the Gentiles and bring glory to your people Israel.”   (Luke 2, 29-32) 

After giving them his blessing, Simeon then said to Mary: “And sorrow, like a sharp sword will pierce your own heart.” (Luke 2, v35). 

Our Lady of Sorrows – by Giovanni Bastista Salvi da Sassoferrato – and a Russian Icon 

Our Lady of Sorrows is the title given to Our Blessed Lady by the Church, in order that people should appreciate, the more, the sorrows in her life.  In the same vein, she is also called, ‘Mother of Sorrows’, ‘Our Lady of the Seven Sorrows’, ‘Our Lady of the Seven Dolours’, sometimes simply as ‘Mater Dolorosa.’  The name, ‘Our Lady of the Seven Sorrows’, perhaps gave rise to – or was perhaps derived from – the devotions to Our Lady, consisting of prayers / meditations on each of her ‘Seven Sorrows’: 

  1. The Prophecy of Simeon. 
  2. The Flight into Egypt.  
  3. The Loss of Jesus in the Temple. 
  4. Mary meets Jesus in his way to Calvary.  
  5. Jesus dies on the Cross. 
  6. Mary receives the Body of Jesus into her arms. 
  7. The Body of Jesus is placed in the tomb.

At one time, it was a popular devotion amongst Catholics, to say one ‘Our Father’ and seven ‘Hail Mary’s’, having in mind each of the seven sorrows, and using what was called the ‘Servite Rosary’. This was a Rosary consisting of a ring of seven groups of seven beads, each group separated by a small medal depicting each one of the sorrows of Mary, though in some cases this was just a single bead. A further series of three beads and a medal were also attached to the chain, before the first ‘sorrow’, and these were to be dedicated to prayer in honour of Mary’s tears, as well as to indicate the beginning of the chaplet. Conventionally, the beads were made of black wood, or some other black material, indicating sorrow. Sometime this ‘aid-to-prayer’ was also called the Seven Swords Rosary, this last title referring to the prophecy of Simeon. 

The Feast of Our Lady Of Sorrows, (in Western Christianity), goes back to 1413, and a Synod of Cologne, then celebrated on the Friday after the Third Sunday of Easter, but devotions to Our Lady, in this regard, go back further to 1233, and the founding of the Servite Order – also known as the Servite Friars.  In 1238, this Order adopted the Sorrows of Our Lady as their principal devotion, the prayers to Our Lady being said standing under the Cross.  It was they who developed the Servite Rosary.  There was also the Black Scapular of the Seven Dolours of Our Lady, the black scapular being the symbol of the Confraternity of Our Lady of Sorrows, and this fraternity also owed its origins to the Servite Order. 

Much more recently, Vatican approval was given for Our Lady’s feast to be celebrated more widely, first permission being granted to the Servite Order in 1667, and this was afterwards extended to include the whole of the Latin Church, the feast then being on the Third Sunday in September.  In 1913, Pope Pius X moved the feast to the 15 September, the date it still occupies today.  In the ‘days of yore’, people used to gather to honour Our Lady by singing (or praying) the ‘Stabat Mater’ – the words of which are quite beautiful. ‘Stabat Mater’ is often taken to mean ‘Mother standing by the Cross’. There are around 60 translations of the text, into different languages, and a number of them have been set to music by the great composers, Haydn, Palestrina, Pergolesi … … 

The following is an English rhyming translation by Beatrice Bullman: 

Mother bowed with grief appalling must thou watch, with tears slow falling, on the cross Thy dying son!
Through my heart, thus sorrow riven, must that cruel sword be driven, as foretold – O Holy One!
Oh, how mournful and oppressed was that Mother ever-blessed, Mother of the Spotless One:
She, whose grieving was perceiving, contemplating, un-abating, all the anguish of her Son!
Is there any, tears withholding, Christ’s dear Mother thus beholding, in woe – like no other woe!
Who that would not grief be feeling for that Holy Mother kneeling – what suffering was ever so?
For the sins of every nation she beheld his tribulation, given to scourgers for a prey:
Saw her Jesus foully taken, languishing, by all forsaken, when his spirit passed away.
Love’s sweet fountain, Mother tender, haste this hard heart, soft to render, make me sharer in Thy pain.
Fire me now with zeal so glowing, love so rich to Jesus, flowing, that I favour may obtain.
Holy Mother, I implore Thee, crucify this heart before Thee, guilty it is verily!
Hate, misprision, scorn, derision, thirst assailing, failing vision, railing, ailing, deal to me.
In Thy keeping, watching, weeping, by the cross may I unsleeping live and sorrow for his sake.
Close to Jesus, with Thee kneeling, all Thy dolours with Thee feeling, oh grant this – the prayer I make.
Maid immaculate, excelling, peerless one, in heav’n high dwelling, make me truly mourn with Thee.
Make me sighing hear Him dying, ever newly vivifying the anguish He bore for me.
With the same scar lacerated, by the cross en-fired, elated, wrought by love to ecstasy!
Thus inspired and affected let me, Virgin, be protected when sounds forth the call for me!
May his sacred cross defend me, he who died there so befriend me, that His pardon shall suffice.
When this earthly frame is riven, grant that to my soul is given all the joys of Paradise! 

Our Lady of Sorrows – pray for us. 

I am very fond of this feast day, and it teaches me how Our Lady was able to remain fixed only on God, and, in Him, on others, especially her Son Jesus, also God, whom she had to ‘lose’ on the Cross when he said those immortal words to her and St. John: “Woman, behold your son, Son behold your Mother”. That was a sword all right, spoken by HER son to her.  She must also have received her son in the Eucharist, after his Resurrection, and remained one with Him also, in her relationships with him present in all those around her. But she had lost him, too, in another way. There is something ‘big’ here that is also very mysterious. 

Father Jonathan. 

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