(On September 15, the Church celebrates the Feast of Mary, Our Lady of Sorrows. Our Lady of Sorrows is the patroness of the Congregation of Holy Cross. I will be posting one of the seven sorrows each day leading up to the feast day. This is only part of a larger reflection that has not yet been published. The stories are meant to encourage your own reflection about each of the sorrows found in the gospels.)
The Fifth Sorrow: Jesus dies on the cross
John 19: 25-30
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. After this, aware that everything was now finished, in order that the scripture might be fulfilled, Jesus said, “I thirst.”
There was a vessel filled with common wine. So they put a sponge soaked in wine on a sprig of hyssop and put it up to his mouth. When Jesus had taken the wine, he said, “It is finished.” And bowing his head, he handed over the spirit.
Among the permanent scars
One of my cousins died when I was four years old. He was tragically killed in an automobile accident during his senior year at the University of Notre Dame. I do not remember him but I certainly know how his death left a permanent scar on his mother. From my perceptions and interactions with my aunt for years after his death, my aunt never fully recovered from his death. As I grew up, I saw within her deep brown eyes the sadness and anger she carried throughout her life. She tried to cover up her grief since the family never spoke of his death at least in my presence. The public death opened deep wounds for her, wounds of grief that she would have rather kept secret. My aunt carried his public death and her secret grief all the way to her own grave.
I always sensed that my cousin’s success in college was an identity that my aunt cherished and even wanted for herself. His life and abilities covered up for her the past mistakes she had made in past marriages and her struggles to make a living. His sudden death ripped apart any pretense of her life, leaving her only the grief to form the rest of her life. The death of her only son on the cross of an automobile accident became a wound that she later carried and pondered in secret. The secret revealed itself in her anger toward other people, restlessness toward life itself. I learned from her anger and her hidden grief even as a young child. I learned the sacred bond of death between a mother and her child; the permanent scar never fully heals in the mother’s wound. My cousin’s death and my aunt’s grief carved an awareness within me that allows me to be attentive to other mother’s who grieve their children.
Jesus’ tragic and raw death on the cross in front of his mother must have devastated her. The public death became the fulfillment of Simeon’s prophetic words, the prophetic words that Mary had pondered in her heart all those years. His words that she had carried within her heart were now fully known among her family and everyone who had known Jesus. There was no hiding her grief. Her life was stripped of all pretenses and her future with her only son. The public accusations, the scourging and now his bloodied, dead body for all people to see on the cross were more than she could comprehend. I am sure she could not have imaged the cross on which her son hung in death.
Several years ago I celebrated the funeral of a man who committed suicide. He was a year younger than me. He shot himself in his home. His family was aware of his long-term depression, everyone except his mother. She is the person I focused on as I prayed at the altar during the very emotional funeral. Her fiery, black eyes seemed to stand out to me from the packed church. These eyes were full of grief and unbelief that such a thing could happen to her beloved son. At the same time, her tear-filled eyes shown to the rest of us that her faith was being tested but her profound faith would still win out even through the death of her son.
She was elderly and could not grasp the severity of his disease or accept the fact that he could do nothing more to change his suffering. She thought he could snap out of his disease or just have happy thoughts that might ease his pain. This sobbing mother lived in another state and was not directly involved in her son’s daily anguish and pain. She could not comprehend that her son had been hanging on the cross of depression for more than thirty years.
The sobbing, sorrowful mother could not understand that her son had to die on the cross of mental illness. The stigma of mental illness still permeates the perceptions of many people including the mother of this man who took his own life. Many people believe that depression can be shaken off by pulling ourselves up by our own bootstraps, by getting hold of reality and getting busy or by believing in God more and focusing on the good qualities of life. However, this cross of mental anguish does not go away from these common beliefs. The anguished mother’s son died because this disease of depression overcame him. His death was not his fault.
The crosses on which many people die seem so unfair and untimely. In that same year, I also buried a twelve year old child who died of a horrific illness that slowly took away all of his muscle control. The disease began taking over his life just as he was old enough to leave the house and start school. His family showed him Jesus, surrounding him with compassion and teaching him of Christ’s love. This cross was so visible to strangers as they witnessed his contorted body. The pain in the family brought some to a deeper reliance on God and brought others to walk away from the Church. His cross will remain among his extended family, splintering his family for many years to come.
The painful vision of a parent witnessing the death of a child never fades into memory. Life is not supposed to be that way. Parents are to pass life on to their children and those children are to pass life on to the next generation of children. However, that is not the reality of life for so many parents who loose their child in death, in the many ways the cross reveals itself in our day and time.
I admit that I stand with parents at the death of their children as an outsider. I will never fully understand the devastating grief. I can only focus my gaze with Mary on the various crosses where people die and empty myself as Mary did in the belief that death does not win in the end. In the years that it takes for people to let go of love, on the relationship between Jesus and Mary can heal the grief of parents and families. I stand by and watch as a bystander waiting for miracles.
Mary’s sorrow reaches its pinnacle on Calvary. She journeyed through her son’s life hearing from Simeon that sorrow would pierce her heart and change her life. Her son is dead, hung on a tree for reasons that seem unfathomable and unreal. At the foot of the cross, she gives her entire life to God once again. Her questions become hidden among her tears and anguish. In the conclusion of a child’s life, any mother comes to silence in the weight of her grief.
How can Mary help you stand among events, circumstances and dreams that have died?
Whose death in your family or friends do you stand next to and grieve?