(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 Seventh Sorrow: The body of Jesus is placed in the tomb
After this, Joseph of Arimathea, secretly a disciple of Jesus for fear of the Jews, asked Pilate if he could remove the body of Jesus. And Pilate permitted it. So he came and took his body. Nicodemus, the one who had first come to him at night, also came bringing a mixture of myrrh and aloes weighing about one hundred pounds. They took the body of Jesus and bound it with burial cloths along with the spices, according to the Jewish burial custom. Now in the place where he had been crucified there was a garden, and in the garden a new tomb, in which no one had yet been buried. So they laid Jesus there because of the Jewish preparation day; for the tomb was close by.
Miracles in red
I have stood at the graves of many people who have died. I never take for granted this privileged moment of praying over a hole in the ground just before the casket is lowered into the earth. This is a sacred time in the life of every family and every group of friends. I have crisscrossed the country in my ministry and yet the gravesite remains a familiar and holy moment in my relationships with family members no matter in what state death takes place.
Each family comes to the gravesite with their own emotions and ways of dealing with death. Each person grieves differently. The actual practice of burial is becoming less frequent in our culture and Church. However, when we all stand near the open hole in the earth in the middle of the cemetery, the reality of death is made sure in our souls.
People react to this moment with their own stories and emotions. Some people are deaf to the prayers being said because of the guilt they feel concerning the dead person looking at the casket for the last time. Others come to the grave with a spiritual freedom that seems to hover lovingly among the other mourners. Sometimes in the stark cold of winter, the regrets of family seem to pile up along the casket higher than the snow drifts in the cemetery. In the summer months, the anger of grief is often more brutal than the summertime sun and heat in August days.
At the gravesites of loved ones, people wait for miracles. People wait for the miracle of grief to be removed from the young spouse of the deceased. They wait for a way to cope with the loss of child. Some people wonder how they will financially survive after a young father’s death. No matter the circumstances of death, the survivors often wait for something new to happen. People wait to know for themselves that death does not have the final word. The gravesite often brings reconciliation among siblings and forgiveness from children. Gravesites so often heal past aggravations and mend family battles. Miracles happen so often at the gravesites of loved ones.
My brother and his family and I buried our mother on a beautiful July morning in the Midwest. I was living in Portland, Oregon at the time and on the flight back to Indiana, I reflected on what the moment would be like to bury my own mother. I realized during the flight that I had said goodbye to her for over thirty years. I had left for the seminary at age eighteen. I had spent over half my life moving across the country and always saying goodbye to my mom.
As I reflected back on my relationship with my mother on the airplane flight home, I realized that in all of those years, my mother always waved goodbye to me with both hands. However, it took this moment of her death for me to realize that was her way of blessing me. I had never had the insight until I was preparing to say goodbye at her gravesite.
I told the story of her waving goodbye during the homily at her funeral in Edwardsburg, Michigan. After the Mass, we drove to the cemetery over the state line in Osceola, Indiana. After we gathered around the open grave, we collected our lives and prayer one last time for my mother. My mother’s sister and two brothers were seated near the gravesite for the final farewell. After the singing and the ritual prayers, I invited all of us to wave goodbye to my mother, Rosemary. It was a profound moment of prayer for the entire family and me. It was as simple, human gesture that every person there recognized. I only then realized that she had waved goodbye to all the family in the same way throughout the years.
Immediately after our wave goodbye, I took off the liturgical stole I was wearing and held it in my left hand along with the ritual book of prayers. In a flash, a woman approached me and grabbed my right hand. She took my hand and arm and placed it on her breast. She stood extremely close to me and whispered that she was a seer. She told me that she had felt my mother’s passing. She came to the cemetery to tell me two things that my mother wanted to tell me.
This African-American woman wearing a bright red dress told me that my mother loved the white flowers that I gave her for the funeral. However, she told me that my mother would have preferred pink. I stood there next the mound of dirt that would cover my mother’s casket in complete shock. In fact, I had sent my mom white flowers for years. I also knew that her favorite color was pink.
She also told me that I did not have to know her name or where she was from. The seer then grabbed my hand even more tightly and slowly stated to me that my mother wanted me to persevere in my priesthood. I stood on the artificial turf covering the uneven mound of dirt for my mother’s grave and tried to steady myself and took a deep breath. I could not believe what was happening. The woman clad in bright red then let go of my hand and walked away into the crowd of people, got into her car and drove out of the cemetery.
Mary waited by the tomb of Jesus waiting for the next move. The mother of Jesus waited for the miracle that would change everything, that would turn her pain into healing. Our Lady of Sorrows waited patiently for some new event that would change her suffering into perseverance.
I received confirmation that day from my mother’s wishes to persevere in my priesthood. This was the same message I received from Mary, Our Lady of Sorrows years before coming back into active ministry. I am grateful for the miracles at gravesites and new beginnings.
How can we learn from Mary, Our Lady of Sorrows to persevere in our vocations of prayer and service in the world? How can we rely on Mary’s fidelity to her son, Jesus?
How can we serve people with a new understanding that suffering and death gives way to life in God? How can we model our faith to people in doubt?