While contemplating the Pieta in the Vatican on a pilgrimage to Rome, a mother in my group asked me: “How did she do it? How was she not angry?” I realized that these questions are not easily answered and since then, I have been meditating on Our Lady of Sorrows to be better able to reply.
Let us contemplate the Pieta for a moment. What could be more sorrowful, more painful, than a mother holding her only son — her son who is dead — in her arms? Pope Francis stated: “At that moment, at the foot of the Cross, none of us could say which was the cruelest passion: whether that of an innocent man who dies upon the gibbet of the Cross, or the agony of a mother who accompanies him in the last moments of her son’s life.”
The Pieta is the visible manifestation of the worst fruit of sin: death. On full display is all the sorrow, suffering, and pain that death brings. By external appearances, it seems that Satan has won: the promised Messiah has been murdered and His disciples have been scattered.
Is suffering and death really the last word, however? Is the Pieta only about suffering and death? Let us look more intently and gaze deeper into the mystery of Our Lady of Sorrows. Is not the Pieta also the visible manifestation of Our Lady’s unshakeable faith and trust?
All too often when looking upon human tragedy and sin, our gaze is too superficial. As Christians we are privileged to look upon reality – with its grandeurs and its sorrows – through the prism of faith. Our faith expresses itself through unconditional trust, so let us take one step further in our contemplation of the Pieta and try to imagine how Mary gazed upon her Son through the eyes of her faith. Only then can we answer the question: “How did she do it?”
St. Pope John Paul II can help us imagine Our Lady at the Cross. We recall that at the Annunciation, she received the promise of the Archangel Gabriel: “[the] Lord God will give him the throne of David his father, and he will rule over the house of Jacob forever, and of his kingdom there will be no end” (Lk 1:32-33). Mary certainly remembers these words, for Luke reminds us twice that Our Lady remembered all the events that were happening – the nativity and the visit of the shepherds (Lk 2:19) and the finding of the boy Jesus in the temple (Lk 2:51).
Now, there is clearly a dilemma: the promise of the Angel says nothing about crucifixion. in fact, taken at face value the words of the angel promise an eternal kingdom upon the throne of David in Jerusalem. But Mary stands at the Cross – an unlikely substitute for a throne – in what would seem a complete contradiction to the promise given her by the Archangel.
Satan loves to point out contradictions to tempt us to not trust in God. I imagine that Satan must have tempted Our Lady (without success): “You were promised that He would be King! Look at Him now: do you really believe He is the Son of God? God’s promises aren’t true. Give up!” How often Satan tempts us in the same way, trying to show us how God’s promises ultimately do not happen because in the end there is only pain and death. Looking back after Easter, Christians understand that the Cross precisely is Jesus’ throne, from which He reigns as King.
Did Our Lady understand the plan of the Father in all its details? Scripture tells us that she did not (Lk 2:50). Like us, Our Lady walked by faith, not by sight (2 Cor 5:7). Despite the contradictions she saw visibly with her eyes, Our Lady remained firm in her faith in the word spoken to her by the Archangel.
The visible expression of her steadfast faith is her standing beneath the Cross. St. John Paul II described her standing in this way:
“By using the verb ‘to stand’, which literally means ‘to be on one’s feet’, ‘to stand erect’, perhaps the Evangelist intends to present the dignity and strength shown in their sorrow by Mary and the other women. The Blessed Virgin’s ‘standing erect’ at the foot of the Cross recalls her unfailing constancy and extraordinary courage in facing suffering.”
Our Lady shows us what to do when confronted with the Cross in our daily lives: stand in faith and trust. How often we do many other things instead! Basic human instinct in the face of evil and danger is fight or flight. All the Apostles fled in fear (Mk 14:50). To avoid being crucified with Jesus, Peter denies Him three times (Lk 22:54-62). Our Lady exhibits no such fear — she even walks through the crowd to meet her Son along the Way of the Cross and stands by Him confidently at Calvary. While Peter opposes the Cross (Mt 16:23) and even uses his sword to defend Jesus (Jn 18:10), Mary does not fight nor rebel.
No. Mary neither fights nor flees. She stands in faith and trust, in complete silence, offering her pain to the Father as her plea for mercy. The sword certainly pierced her heart (Lk 2:35), for while Jesus victoriously descended into Hell to bring victory, Our Lady remained to hold the sacred Body of her Son. The lance pierced Jesus’ Heart, but He had already died. In her sorrow, that lance also pierced Our Lady’s Heart and renewed her pain. What unimaginable pain must have seared Our Lady’s heart!
“How did Mary do it?” She stood in faith and trust. She held onto two seemingly opposite realities: the word of God and the awful reality of sin in the world. Where we often give up, either fleeing in fear or fighting in rebellion, Our Lady stood. Pope Benedict XVI, describing Christian faith, says that our faith must face all of reality. Otherwise, it is not faith. “In contrast to that, true believing means looking the whole of reality in the face, unafraid and with an open heart, even if it goes against the picture of faith that, for whatever reason, we make for ourselves.” Often, we do not want to see the full reality of sin and death, that our faith not be shaken. As did all but one of the Apostles, we hide from the reality of the Cross – not having the courage and patience to stand with Mary, as did John.
True faith takes God the Father at His word, staking one’s whole life upon His promises, which He fulfills in due time (Dt 7:9). We know, however, that for the Father’s plan to be fulfilled, there must be suffering and pain. How often, like the disciples walking to Emmaus, we initially believe, but are weakened and scandalized by the Cross (Lk 24:13-35). Like the seed sown in thin soil, the seed of our faith often sprouts, but dies because of a lack of root and depth (Mt 13:5-6).
Our Lady’s faith took deep root. When the winds blew and the storm came, her house remained on solid ground (Mt 7:25). Except for her Son, Our Lady experienced more pain than anyone else – and also had more faith and trust. The two are related. She could endure such pain because she never doubted the Father’s goodness and never lost hope in His mercy. “Mary’s hope at the foot of the Cross contains a light stronger than the darkness that reigns in many hearts.” Mary’s trust — exemplified in her living faith and hope at Calvary — conquered the darkness of sin and death. Her trust can conquer that darkness in our own hearts, too!
The more trust we have, the more capable we are of carrying the Cross and bearing pain. In a word, to trust means to be willing to take Jesus at His Word – that we must take up our Crosses and follow Him (Lk 9:23). Our Lady trusted and so lived her life based on that Word, and her trust was rewarded with the Resurrection.
“How did she do it?” She trusted. She never took her eyes off the Lord. She was not absorbed in her pain. She confronted the darkest parts of reality with that trust, and her trust conquered Satan. She stepped on the head of the serpent – Satan – by her trust. The Pieta is not an image of sorrow alone. It is an image of the victory of trust over distrust.
Editor’s note: This article is adapted by the author from his new book, Stepping On The Serpent: The Journey of Trust With Mary. It is available through Shop Mercy, which supports Marian priests and brothers at the National Shrine of the Divine Mercy.