Standing at the Foot of the Cross with Mary
April 20, 2012
Standing at the Foot of the Cross with Mary
Homily for Good Friday Religious Sisters of Mercy, Domus Guadalupe 6 April 2012 + J. Augustine Di Noia, O.P.
“O God, who in this season give your Church the grace to imitate devoutly the Blessed Virgin Mary in contemplating the Passion of Christ, grant, we pray, through her intercession, that we may cling more firmly each day to your Only Begotten Son and come at last to the fullness of his grace.” (Roman Missal, alternate collect, Friday of the Fifth Week of Lent). My brothers and sisters in Christ. Although silence would perhaps be preferable, this beautiful collect inspires us to turn to Mary again today to find the right words to speak of the Passion of the Lord. “The contemplation of Christ has an incomparable model in Mary. In a unique way the face of the Son belongs to Mary. It was in her womb that Christ was formed, receiving from her a human resemblance which points to an even greater spiritual closeness. No one has ever devoted himself to the contemplation of the face of Christ as faithfully as Mary” (John Paul II, Rosarium Virginis Mariae, §10). We dare not imagine Mary’s state of mind as she gazed on the ruined face of her Son on that terrible first Good Friday. Such meditation may be fit for other settings, but not for the solemn liturgical commemoration of the Lord’s Passion. Here an attitude of serene contemplation of the mystery must prevail, even as, with compunction and sorrow for our sins and the sins of the whole world, we acknowledge the devastation they wrought on the body of our blessed Savior. Contemplating the Paschal Mystery with Mary, we know that the story of Christ’s passion and death ends with his resurrection. If we look for Mary in the passion of Christ, we will find her standing at the foot of the Cross only in the Gospel of St. John. The other evangelists do not mention her presence, but tradition and popular devotion place her as well on the path to Golgotha where she meets her Son as he carries his cross; then at the descent from the cross as she receives his dead body in her arms; and at the end when the body of Jesus is laid in the tomb. Theologians who stress the full participation of Our Lady in the work of our redemption argue that she had to have been present throughout her Son’s terrible ordeal that day—something that is captured beautifully by Mel Gibson’s film The Passion. To be honest, I see no reason to think otherwise. But contemplating the passion and death of Christ with Mary during the solemn liturgy of Good Friday, our attention must focus primarily on her presence at the foot of the Cross. Stabat mater dolorosa. Stabat! Pope Pius IX was struck by this word. In an allocution delivered in 1874, he noted that Our Lady did not claim weakness at the prospect before her, but “as a courageous woman…ascended the summit of Golgotha….Therefore Mary most holy was standing with head raised at the foot of the Cross… while she heard the blasphemies of the soldiers, the ugly jokes of the Pharisees, the insults of the priests, standing and with her eyes turned to her Divine Son, she felt her courage redoubling, even in the fullness of her sorrows. Standing!…she remained a motionless onlooker…as a woman meditating, suffering and hoping” (quoted in James Card. Hickey, Mary at the Foot of the Cross , 15). Stabat mater dolorosa / juxta Crucem lacrimosa /dum pendebat Filius. Allow me to quote another hymn, this one by a Dominican—Blessed Henry Suso’s Christmas carol In Dulci Jubilo (Good Christian Men Rejoice)—to help us see this moment through Mary’s eyes. “Good Christian men rejoice / With heart and soul and voice / Now ye hear of endless bliss: / Jesus Christ was born for this! /He hath op’nd the heavenly door, / And man is blesséd evermore. / Christ was born for this! / Christ was born for this!” When we sing this carol at Christmas, we know that the meaning of these words will be realized on Good Friday and bring us to the foot of the Cross. At the first Christmas, Mary may not have known all this (theologians debate this, of course), but, as Pius IX said, when she saw the sword piercing the side of her Son, “the words of the aged Simeon came back to her: that that dear Child would be a sword of great sorrow which would pierce his Mother’s heart” (ibid.). Christ was born for this, she now knew without doubt, and, turning to us in this solemn commemoration of the Lord’s Passion, she reminds us: Christ was born for this. One of the striking features of the Gospels—which may fittingly be considered to be passion narratives with long introductions—is the way they portray Christ’s intention to go up to Jerusalem in order to fulfill the Father’s will to save us, whatever that might entail for him. Already, as a child, he seems almost to reprove his anxious parents when they find him sitting among the doctors in the temple: “Why were you searching for me? Did you not know that I must be about my Father’s business?” And then, much later, when Mary met him on the way to Golgotha, what would she have seen in his eyes but the determination and resolution to do his Father’s will for our sake? More than the agony of the passion as such, Aquinas rightly insists, it was this inner spiritual disposition, this perfect obedience to the Father, this uncompromising conformity to his will, that, with overwhelming power, wiped out the disobedience of Adam’s race and reconciled us to God. “Pro peccatis suae gentis / Vidit Iesum in tormentis / Et flagellis subditum.” Standing with her at the foot of the Cross, this is what she wants us to see. “For the sins of His own nation / She saw Jesus wracked with torment / All with scourges rent.” As she is the Mother of the Redeemer, at the foot of the Cross she became our Mother too, the Mother of all the brothers and sisters of her Son who would share in the benefits of his bitter but saving passion. Christ was born for this. Our Blessed Mother has the right to tell us what she knows now without any doubt: Christ was born for this. “O God, who in this season give your Church the grace to imitate devoutly the Blessed Virgin Mary in contemplating the Passion of Christ, grant, we pray, through her intercession, that we may cling more firmly each day to your Only Begotten Son and come at last to the fullness of his grace” in communion with the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. Amen. [Image source: Fra Angelico, “Crucifixion and Saints,” Convento di San Marco, Florence.]