‘The disciple he loved standing near her’ (Jn 19:25-27)

23rd September 2017

Where am I when I contemplate Jesus’ Crucifixion? Where am I standing? Am I standing at all?

One would normally associate the Feast Day of Our Lady of Walsingham with the joy of the Annunciation – after all, this is the core of Walsingham spirituality. Yet, the Gospel reading chosen for today is of Mary’s crowning sorrow: the crucifixion of her only Son. Perhaps it was chosen principally for the dramatic backdrop of the Reformation and the tragedy of destruction that followed in its wake. Certainly in the Mass Readings, we move very swiftly from the joy of the Annunciation, the first of Mary’s seven joys, in St Paul’s words in the First Reading: “God sent his Son, born of a woman,… to enable us to be adopted as sons” (Gal 4: 4-7) to the harrowing events of Good Friday in the Gospel: “Near the cross of Jesus stood his mother” (Jn 19:25).

Interestingly, there are two medieval hymns which form a diptych-like structure, one mirroring the other; both of which are thought to have been penned by Jacopone da Todi (1230-1306) and both of which are considered to be amongst the seven greatest Latin hymns of all time. The first is ‘Stabat Mater speciosa’ based upon Mary’s joy at the birth of Jesus; and the second, much more well-known, is the ‘Stabat Mater dolorosa’ based upon Mary’s sorrow at the crucifixion and death of Jesus. The ‘Stabat Mater speciosa’ (“The beautiful mother stood”) was lost in obscurity until it was re-transcribed in 1852 in Paris, in a compilation of poetry written by Franciscans living in Italy in the 13th Century. The ‘Stabat Mater dolorosa’ (“The mournful mother stood”) is often sung during Stations of the Cross and was prescribed in 1727 as a Sequence for the Mass of Our Lady of Sorrows (15th September).

In ‘Stabat Mater speciosa’, there are a couple of verses which are of prophetic value:

…For a sinful world’s salvation,

Christ her Son’s humiliation

She beheld and brooded o’er;

Saw Him weak, a child, a stranger,

yet before Him in the manger

kings lie prostrate and adore.

This ‘brooding’ is Mary’s pondering and treasuring in her heart, the contemplative listening to the daily events of life. Mary was only able to do this by remaining still, by ‘standing’ before the gaze of God and allowing his gaze to penetrate, to pierce her heart.

In this account of ecstatic joy, we remember Mary’s first joy at the Annunciation. Here, however, we note that when the Angel Gabriel appeared, his words left her ‘deeply disturbed’ (Lk 1:29). The original Greek for this is διεταραχθη (‘diatarasso’) meaning ‘great disorder’; the word family denotes a deep movement of emotion, akin to that of an earthquake or a tsunami – it is an overthrowing and upturning, an upside-down movement felt deep in one’s gut. This is precisely why the angel tells Mary not to be afraid! The silence that ensues with the words ‘Then the angel left her’ (Lk 1:38) is particularly poignant since it points to the utter stillness of Mary’s heart, the rock-bed of peace, that holds this whirlwind of chaotic emotion. Mary kept still and kept her eyes fixed on the Rock that is Christ, Truth itself. This is how Mary stayed standing.

We can also imagine this profound silence at the Crucifixion, just after Jesus breathes his last. Despite the mocking cries and the tortured sobs of the crowd, there must have been a great stillness within Mary’s heart. We know biblically and historically that there was a seismic earthquake after Jesus’ death, that tore the curtain of the temple in two (cf. Mt 27:51); yet, Mary remains silent throughout. She may well have been suffering seismic shifts of emotion within her soul, yet the peace of his Divine Will reigned in her heart and she knew that the Father’s salvific plan was being fulfilled: “It is consummated” (Jn 19:30).

When I experience horrific hurricanes of emotion – within and without, in those around me – do I have the peace within to remain still? The ‘Stabat Mater speciosa’ pleads the following prayer:

…Holy Mother, deign to bless me,

with His sacred Wounds impress me,

let them in my heart abide…

It is echoed in the ‘Stabat Mater dolorosa’ which repeats:

Holy Mother! pierce me through,

in my heart each wound renew

of my Saviour crucified…

We become conformed to Christ – rather, we allow the Father to form us into another Christ, becoming an ‘adopted son’ – when we stand at the foot of the Cross. This is the place of grace where our hearts can be pierced and blessed, “wounded with His every wound” (‘Stabat Mater dolorosa’) as we fix our eyes like flint on the face of Jesus Crucified. Emotions can hurt and be so painful that we reach out for an anaesthetic; but it is only if we stay standing, and not run away or hide, that we can allow the emotion to do its work of impressing upon our hearts Jesus’ every wound; it is only at the foot of the Cross that our hearts are opened, torn in two, by the earthquake, and become aqueducts of grace for the world. It is only if we feel the hurricane of emotion, that we can begin to see, through all the mess and disorder, the face of God who is our glory – and more often than not, that face will be of one who is ‘weak, a child, a stranger’ (‘Stabat Mater speciosa’) or ‘bruised, derided, cursed, defiled’ (‘Stabat Mater dolorosa’), because this is the blessed disguise of our emotions, this is our own vulnerability and poverty.

The emotion is sent as a messenger, an angel from God, to reveal to us what we really need, what we really love and are afraid of, what we really think of ourselves, others and God himself. It is this angel that frightens us but also strengthens us, giving us our daily bread in the desert – as he did with Elijah (cf. 1Kings 19:3-7), and to Mary (cf. Luke 1:26-38) and to Jesus himself in Gethsemane (cf. Lk 22:39-43). Like Abraham receiving the three angels (representing each Person of the Trinity) in Genesis 18, waiting by the entrance to his tent, so we too are called to that same vigilance of heart, observing the movements of what enters and what emerges. We need to listen and watch for the emotions, the angels sent to us by God, at the entrance to the tent of our hearts, so that we can truly receive the gift that the Lord wishes to bless us and others with. Let us then remain standing with Mary at the foot of the Cross and allow our hearts to be pierced with her joys and sorrows, so that the Father will one day see in us, the wounded heart of his beloved Son.