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What can Mary teach us about the Passion?

“Stabat mater dolorosa – The Sorrowful Mother was standing.” This is the first line of one of the most celebrated Catholic hymns sung by Catholics for over eight centuries when walking from one station of the Cross to the next. The Stabat Mater teaches us that every fallen child of Adam and Eve benefits from uniting sacrificially with Jesus and Mary. Meditate on the first three stanzas in this blog.

Stand with Mary at the foot of the cross by meditating on the first stanza of the Stabat Mater. Extracted from Meditations on the Stabat Mater.

“Stabat mater dolorosa – The Sorrowful Mother was standing.” This first line of one of the most celebrated Catholic hymns conjures up the sad melody sung by Catholics for over eight centuries when walking from one station of the Cross to the next. Attributed to the Franciscan friar Jacopone da Todi (1230-1306), learned and simple folks alike have contemplated the pious depiction of the crucified Saviour and of his Sorrowful Mother, which culminates in their joint offering at Calvary. The Stabat Mater teaches us that every fallen child of Adam and Eve benefits from uniting sacrificially with Jesus and Mary.

FIRST STANZA

This is a very general description which could just as well apply to any mother, including those of Gestas and Dismas, the two thieves crucified next to Our Lord. Perhaps their mothers also stood by the crosses of their own sons. No doubt they would have suffered grievously to see their sons die in so much pain.

Verse 1

Stabat mater dolorosa

The Sorrowful Mother was standing

The very first word of the hymn is ‘Stabat’ – in English: ‘She was standing’. Upright station as a physical posture expresses the moral strength of the Blessed Virgin Mary, standing firm in her faith and hope. It warns us from the onset against a possible misinterpretation of the pathos which follows: the forthcoming weeping and grieving betray no superficial or weak sentimentality, but saintly compassion after that of God’s own heart ever compassionate for sinners. Since ‘she stood’, as eyewitness St John testifies (John 19:25), artistic depictions of Our Lady swooning at the foot of the Cross are not consistent with Scripture.

Verse 2

juxta Crucem lacrimosa

in tears beside the Cross

Our Lady stands ‘by’ (‘juxta’) the Cross of her Son. Spatial proximity expresses redemptive closeness since the New Eve is associated with the New Adam as our co- redemptrix, in radical subordination to him. By contrast, in the Garden of Eden closeness turned into complicity. The first Eve stood near the forbidden tree whose fruit she shared with the first Adam, for their demise and that of all their posterity.

The New Eve is ‘tearful’ (‘lacrimosa’) as her Son is bleeding. Mary sheds tears while her Son sheds his blood. Both fluids thus express the compassion of their hearts and are life-giving, like heavenly dew and seed.

Verse 3

dum pendebat Filius

as her Son was hanging

The word ‘Son’ (‘Filius’) appears at the very end of this first stanza, while the word ‘Mother’ occurred as its second word. This textual estrangement between the Mother and the Son echoes the pressure of evil trying to separate the loving unity of the two hearts – but in vain as explained in verse 2.

The stanza ends depicting the posture of the Son, hanging, thus offering a suggestive parallel with its opening when the Mother was introduced as standing. Both characters are in a vertical position, but the Mother stands on her feet while the Son hangs on the nails. Standing is to Mary hardly less painful than is hanging for Jesus, though; while hanging betrays no less strength in Jesus than standing does for Mary, since the Lord chose and willed this passive posture to redeem the world through his obedience: “‘And I, if I be lifted up from the earth, will draw all things to myself.’ (Now this he said, signifying what death he should die)” (John 12:32-33).

SECOND STANZA

Verse 4

Cuius animam gementem

Her soul was full of grief

Whereas the first stanza described the scene externally, this second one now introduces us into the very soul of the Sorrowful Mother. Why this important progress into her intimacy? Vain curiosity or impious indiscretion can have no part in it. The only legitimate and fruitful purpose is to better appreciate her grief so as to be shaped by it, her sorrowful heart becoming the mould for our souls as they learn contrition.

Verse 5

contristatam et dolentem

and anguish and sorrow

From a natural perspective, Our Lady suffers by virtue of the bond of motherhood uniting her with her tortured Son. Every mother wants the good of her child. Her Son Jesus is in pain. Hence, his Mother suffers. Since the Immaculate is the only mother uncontaminated by sin, her natural love is considerably purer than the love of any other mother. The natural love of a mother for her child can indeed be tragically stunted, as shown in the millions of unforced abortions when the mother says of her child: “To me this is nobody: you can dispose of it.” Whereas unborn children bear no personal guilt, we sinners do. And yet, Our Lady will not disavow us, on the contrary, she will suffer for us. Her natural grief for Jesus is the vehicle for her supernatural suffering with Him and for us. She knows that He undergoes his Passion freely in order to save us from sin. She wills to support his design fully, thus contributing to our salvation.

Verse 6

pertransivit gladius

for a sword pierced [it]

This sword is the sword of anguish once prophesied by the old man Simeon at the Presentation of the Child Jesus in the Temple of Jerusalem, when he warned the young Mother: “And thy own soul a sword shall pierce, that, out of many hearts thoughts may be revealed” (Luke 2:35). The mention of the word ‘sword’ in this hymn points to Our Lady, albeit indirectly. Although any mother would experience moral pain when witnessing her son’s execution, the reference to the Gospel of St Luke’s prophecy in the Temple narrows the identification to the Mother and Son par excellence. At the Nativity of Jesus, the Blessed Virgin as the New Eve was spared the birth pangs undergone by Eve of old and by all her daughters as a consequence of sin. But at Calvary, Our Lady gives birth in dire pains to the multitude of those to be saved by the death of her Son. The sword of sorrow piercing her soul (with her full and generous consent) establishes within her a motherly bond offered to each and every human for their spiritual gestation until eventual birth into blessed eternity. Here we see a similarity between the sacraments of our spiritual birth represented by the pierced side of Our Lord, and the Mother of all Christians whose heart was also pierced.

THIRD STANZA

This third stanza parallels the miracle of the son of the widow of Nain (Luke 7:11-17):

When he came nigh to the gate of the city, behold a dead man was carried out, the only son of his mother; and she was a widow: and a great multitude of the city was with her. Whom when the Lord had seen, being moved with mercy towards her, he said to her: “Weep not.” And he came near and touched the bier. And they that carried it, stood still. And he said: “Young man, I say to thee, arise.” And he that was dead, sat up, and began to speak. And he gave him to his mother.

At Nain, no doubt Our Lord was moved with compassion not only for the anonymous mother before his eyes, but also and principally for his own holy Mother whose grief at his own death He foresaw. How moving to see Him console in advance his Sorrowful Mother, also a widow, assuring that her only-begotten Son will be given back to her – or her to Him – once risen from the dead.

Verse 7

O quam tristis et afflicta

How sad and how afflicted

This verse describes the pitiable state of mind of the Mother, in sharp contrast with her condition as ‘Blessed’.

But her sadness is never self-centred. On the contrary, it is intercessory and co-redemptive. She weeps on our behalf.

Verse 8

fuit illa benedicta

was that blessed one

This conjures up the happy memories – of the Annunciation; of Our Lady’s Visitation to her cousin Elizabeth with the hymn of joy, Mary’s Magnificat; the glorious Nativity proclaimed by the angels and worshipped by the kings of the Orient; Mary’s successful intervention on behalf of the newlyweds at Cana, obtaining from her Son his first miracle on their behalf – and suggests so many other big and small joys not recorded in the Holy Gospels.

Verse 9

mater Unigeniti

the mother of an only Son

Being the Mother of Jesus is the reason why Elizabeth calls Our Lady blessed: “Blessed art thou among women and blessed is the fruit of thy womb. And whence is this to me that the mother of my Lord should come to me?” (Luke 1:42-43). But Jesus is also called Mary’s ‘firstborn’ because, while she was a biological Mother to Him only, on Calvary she became spiritually the Mother of all the redeemed. This adoption of us by the Mother was commanded by Our Lord when entrusting St John to Mary: “Woman, behold thy son” (John 19:26). Whereas in Bethlehem Our Lady as the New Eve had been spared the penalty of suffering when giving birth to Our Lord, the New Adam, on Calvary she begot us mystically through her sufferings.

Our Lord once referred to the pangs of childbirth leading to motherly joy as an analogy with spiritual desolation leading to eternal joys:

A woman, when she is in labour, hath sorrow, because her hour is come; but when she hath brought forth the child, she remembereth no more the anguish, for joy that a man is born into the world. So also you now indeed have sorrow: but I will see you again and your heart shall rejoice. And your joy no man shall take from you (John 16:21-22).

In his prescience, Our Lord would have known that this would apply to his Sorrowful Mother spiritually begetting us at the foot of the Cross. St John the Apostle, given by Jesus to his Mother at Calvary as the firstborn of their joint sufferings, seems to echo this truth in his Apocalypse when he describes the mysterious Woman, a figure of the Church collectively and of Our Lady individually: “And being with child, she cried travailing in birth: and was in pain to be delivered” (Rv 12:2). It is essential to realise that Our Lady’s moral sufferings made possible her spiritual motherhood towards all the redeemed. Her tears were as essential to beget us to grace, just as her virginal womb was to conceive Our Lord. St Monica had tirelessly prayed for the conversion of her wayward son Augustine. In filial gratitude towards his pious mother, the great doctor of the Church acknowledged himself as “the son of [her] tears”. How much more literally every Christian soul could apply this to Our Lady’s tears at Calvary!

The title of a modern autobiography, A Tear Saved Me, by Angèle Lieby (2014), offers a variation on this theme. The author explains how she was imprisoned in her own body during her artificial coma, unable to show any sign of consciousness while she heard and understood everything around her. Having given up on her, the doctors were about to ‘unplug’ her. Her pregnant daughter spoke in her ear, begging her to recover so as to see her grandchild later to be born. The daughter then saw a tear roll down from her mother’s eye. Her tear proved that Angèle was conscious and saved her. Similarly, the thought of us, her children, caused Our Lady’s tears4 as she kept interceding for us5 after the Accuser had pronounced us morally dead and beyond recovery from sin.

Join our Blessed Mother at the foot of the Cross of her Son

This blog was extracted from our book Meditations on the Stabat Mater.

D844 Meditations on the Stabat MaterStabat mater dolorosa – “The mournful mother was standing”. This is the opening line of the extraordinary hymn attributed to the 13th-century Franciscan friar Jacopone da Todi, which is still a popular Lenten devotion.

In this book Fr Armand de Malleray, FSSP meditates upon the Stabat Mater line by line. This is a book to help the reader to walk the road from Lent to Passiontide to Easter – and indeed from life to death to eternal life – in the company of the most Blessed and Sorrowful Mother, who stands at the foot of the Cross of her Son.

Get your copy of Meditations on the Stabat Mater now.