As we grieve the coronavirus, look to Mary, the Mother of Sorrows

“Pieta,” by William-Adolphe Bouguereau (Wikimedia Commons)

During Lent, the image of Mary at the foot of the cross is ubiquitous in devotional literature and imagery. Amid the global pandemic of Covid-19 that has spread throughout this Lenten season, calling on the Mother of Sorrows feels all the more urgent. This year, we went beyond giving up sweets and other indulgences in order to remember the story of Jesus’ journey into the desert for 40 days. Instead, we practiced social distancing in the hope that it will slow the spread of this virus. Our contact with our loved ones is now limited to phone calls and video conferencing. Mass is only available via live-streaming. Our entire sense of community has changed within a single season. We are collectively weeping as we watch the death count rise around the world, and it has become difficult to imagine how much worse this outbreak could get.

Those turning to Mary in their sorrow may be surprised to learn that the Gospel of John was the only Gospel to cite Mary as present at her son’s Passion (Jn 19:25-27):

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Near the cross of Jesus stood his mother, his mother’s sister, Mary the wife of Clopas, and Mary Magdalene. When Jesus saw his mother there, and the disciple whom he loved standing nearby, he said to her, “Woman, here is your son,” and to the disciple, “Here is your mother.” From that time on, this disciple took her into his home.

Amid the global pandemic of Covid-19 that has spread throughout this Lenten season, calling on the Mother of Sorrows feels all the more urgent.

This tantalizingly brief observation offers no other details about Mary’s role in or reaction to the Passion. Mary does not speak or weep in this Gospel account. Yet John’s concise description is compelling enough to spark a rich profusion of theological tracts, devotional texts and images, liturgical dramas and other imaginative materials that seek to envision Mary’s experience at the crucifixion, often referring to her as Mater Dolorosa (“Mother of Sorrows”). After all, surely Mary would have said something during her vigil at the cross as she witnessed the death of her son.

Early Christian Meditations

Indicating his curiosity to know more about her experience at the foot of the cross, the fourth-century theologian St. Ambrose noted, “I read of her standing, but I read not of her weeping.” Speculating about her emotions, he added, “She looked with pity on the wounds of her Son.” While this account portrays Mary’s mourning as stoic, other narratives offer elaborate summations of Mary’s emotional laments.

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The planctus Mariae (“Lament of Mary”) was a genre that used imaginative dialogue to help readers empathize with and understand Mary’s grief at the crucifixion. Such prolonged articulations of Mary’s distress were designed to offer a structure for a devotee’s own mode of sorrowful contemplation.

The planctus Mariae (“Lament of Mary”) was a genre that used imaginative dialogue to help readers empathize with and understand Mary’s grief at the crucifixion.

The earliest planctus Mariae was most likely “Mary at the Cross,” composed in the sixth century by Romanos the Melodist, a Syrian hymnographer who imagines Mary trying to prevent Jesus from taking up the cross. In response to her weeping, Jesus inquires: “Why do you cry, Mother? Why do you let yourself lose your good sense like the other women?” This first planctus positions Mary as crying so much that Jesus’ intervention was required to assure her of the necessity of his death. Christ continues to offer assurance to her: “Be still, Mother, calm your anguish: laments do not become of you whom was said full of grace. Do not abandon such a title to sobs.” 

Medieval Mourning

Early Eastern narratives eventually gave way to a medieval Western tradition that was interested in exploring the story of the Passion from Mary’s vantage point. Widespread interest in the suffering of Christ became an invitation not just to contemplate and meditate on Christ’s agony but also to ruminate on Mary’s tormented state as well. These narratives offered a new understanding of the verbal articulation of Mary’s externalized grief.

For example, one 13th-century lament imagines Mary’s mournful response in this way:

I was tormented by such great sorrow and sadness in death that it could not be expressed in speech.... My voice had nearly gone, but I uttered sighs of sorrow and moans of grief. I wanted to speak, but sorrow broke off the words, for a word is first conceived in the mind, then proceeds to formation by the mouth.

Mary describes the difficulties of articulating her sorrowful experience of watching the crucifixion. Her grief was so overpowering that it limited her ability to speak, even as she attempted to retell the sequence of events of the Passion. 

Many medieval interpretations of the Passion emphasized that Mary’s steadfast obedience to God’s will was not just evident at the Annunciation but in her acceptance of Christ’s death.

Many medieval interpretations of the Passion emphasized that Mary’s steadfast obedience to God’s will was not just evident at the Annunciation but in her acceptance of Christ’s death. Rendering Mary as determined to stay at the foot of the cross, despite the turmoil it will cause her, Odon of Morimond (1116–61), the prior of the abbey of Morimond in northeast France, offers a planctus narrative in which Mary affirms what her role will be at the Passion, stating: “I will be nearer and will stay next to the Cross of my Jesus. I will observe how he leaves this world. I will not abandon him as he is dying.” Here, Mary pledges to remain at the foot of the cross throughout the duration of the crucifixion, despite the heartache it causes her. 

Some authors emphasized Mary’s uncertainty of her role at the Passion, highlighting her humanity. In the “Meditation on the Lamentation of the Virgin,” which scholars date between the late 12th and early 14th century, Mary turns to Jesus, pleading, “O sweetest son, what will your wretched and sorrowful one do, to whom you commended me, miserable, my sweet son?” Mary is conflicted about her desire to halt the events that will lead to her son’s death but also recognizes the Passion’s necessity for the sake of the resurrection and the salvation of humankind. 

In an effort to confirm her willing role in the crucifixion, Mary quickly shifts her attention toward God. Similar to the final words Christ uttered before his death (“Father, into your hands I commit my spirit” Lk 23:46), Mary herself offers Jesus up to God, “O father, holy God, O father, I commend my son into your hands, indeed my lord, as much as I can, and not as much as I ought, for I cannot, because I grow weak and desire to die before the son in your sight.” Mary ultimately affirms her obedience to God’s will and actively cooperates in commending her son over to God. 

What makes these narratives so compelling both to the medieval audience and to us as readers today is that they cast Mary as incredibly vulnerable. As she recalls the agony of witnessing the events of Jesus’ crucifixion, Mary articulates her wish to die alongside him, crying: 

O son, recognize that I am weak, and hear my prayer. It is fitting for a son to hear his desolate mother. Hear me, I beg you. Take me up onto your cross, that those who live as one flesh and love each other with one love might perish in one death.... O dear son, o kind child, have mercy on your mother, hear her prayers. Be no longer harsh to your mother, you who were kind to everyone.

These devotional texts framed Mary as the chief mourner at the crucifixion and positioned her to elicit empathy from and connect with all mourning mothers. 

‘Weep with Me’

At the same time that the planctus genre grew in popularity, other forms of devotional meditation emerged to make Mary’s grief more accessible to a broader audience. The late 13th-century hymn “Stabat Mater” (“The Sorrowful Mother was Standing”) imagined Mary’s suffering at the foot of the cross. Since its medieval creation, the Latin hymn has been set to music by many Western composers and invites us to meditate on the crucifixion from Mary’s perspective:

At the cross her station keeping,
Stood the mournful Mother weeping,
Close to Jesus to the last.

Many of these reflective texts were not only written in Latin but in the vernacular, which allowed a larger population to read and contemplate these texts. The late 15th-century Middle English “Lament of Mary” describes Mary’s grief as not unique to her but experienced by all who contemplated the Passion of Christ. Mary does not view her grief as hers alone but instead invites everyone to participate in communal mourning: “Weep with me, both man and wife; My son is yours and loves you.” Through this invitation, Mary makes her lamentation available to all, instilling a sense of collective grief.

Seeking Mary’s Intercession

As the coronavirus swept throughout Italy in early March, Pope Francis asked for Mary’s intercession at the Sanctuary of Our Lady of Divine Love, praying: “We entrust ourselves to you, Health of the Sick. At the foot of the cross, you participated in Jesus’ pain, with steadfast faith.” His words call to mind the varied expressions of Mary’s grief at the foot of the cross, from standing stoically to articulating her devastating grief, and remind us that Mary maintained her faith, even in her darkest moments.

Her invitation to “come weep with me” grants us permission to collectively grieve and turn to Mary in our time of need.

It is nearly impossible to separate the sorrows of Lent with those associated with this global pandemic. We have found ourselves in an extended period of both Good Friday and Holy Saturday, toggling between life and death. Despite this widespread fear, it is comforting to remember that while Mary had the knowledge of the resurrection, even on that dark Good Friday, she still mourned at the foot of the cross. 

Her invitation to “come weep with me” grants us permission to collectively grieve and turn to Mary in our time of need. It is an invitation to pray for those suffering from this disease, for those who are most vulnerable to the disease, especially our elderly community, for all of the health care workers caring for those in need and for other essential employers who are providing us with basic goods. The days are long, and we are filled with uncertainty. Yet turning to Mary in our Lenten sorrow allows us to pray for her intercession and helps us to see the promise of the resurrection. 

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