Thursday, March 21, 2013

Stabat mater dolorosa

Stabat Mater dolorosa /juxta Crucem lacrimosa/ dum pendebat Filius. Cuius animam gementem/ contristatam et dolentem/ pertransivit gladius. (At the Cross her station keeping, stood the mournful Mother weeping, close to her Son to the last. Through her heart, His sorrow sharing, all His bitter anguish bearing, now at length the sword has passed.)

            This famous thirteenth century hymn grasps the heart of the divine drama which it describes.  Here, at the cross, is where the masterpiece of the cosmos reaches the height of divine tension.  That is, if we were to view salvation history as one “song” (with many movements), the cross is that which everything has been moving toward from the beginning, and that which everything flows forth from until the end of time.  Surely there were moments of crescendo and decrescendo, abrupt moments of staccato, and long dramatic vibratos.  However, all of them fail in comparison to the immensity of this moment of profound darkness on the hill of Golgotha, as this somber symphony decrescendos from pianissimo into grand silence (three days of it too).  Stabat mater dolorosa. Through all of this, one thing remains constant: Mary is faithful.  No matter how painful, difficult, strenuous, desolate, or any other word which utterly fails to describe what our Blessed Mother was feeling in those moments, she faithfully stood by her son.  The one who gave birth to the light of the world, now ironically watches as that flame is extinguished.  The crucifixion of our Lord was indeed a great scandal.  And if it was scandalous enough for his believers to leave him to die alone, surely it was even more of a scandal to Our Lady, who was full of grace. If anyone was let down in this moment, it was her.  Even though she was full of grace, she did not yet understand the divine plan, and now more than ever she felt what Simeon had foretold over thirty years prior: “Behold, this child is set for the fall and rising of many in Israel, and for a sign that is spoken against, and a sword will pierce your own soul also, that thoughts out of many hearts may be revealed.”  Surely now many thoughts were being revealed.

            In this year of faith, we are called to reflect in a particular way on the mysteries of what we believe, in a way that will hopefully bear fruit in strengthening our faith.  The more we reflect on faith, and the more our faith grows, the more we notice that faith continues to surprise us.  That is, faith is not always what we think it will look like.  I am challenged every day to live my faith in new ways, many of which I could never have foreseen.  Faith always challenges us to step outside of ourselves and follow that which is beyond.  It calls us to new places, and opens up for us new ways of understanding.  I am sure that Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI is experiencing faith in ways unimaginable to him when he announced this year of faith.  But that is how the Spirit works, it is unpredictable, it is ever new.  And yet, back at the cross, Mary remained faithful to the end.  Surely, this is not what she thought faith would look like.  Yet, this is where faith has taken her, and it is here where she will ultimately discover faith’s meaning.

O quam tristis et afflicta/ fuit illa benedicta,/ mater Unigeniti! Quae moerebat et dolebat,/ pia Mater, dum videbat/ nati poenas inclyti. (O how sad and sore distressed was that Mother, highly blest, of the sole-begotten One. Christ above in torment hangs, she beneath beholds the pangs of her dying glorious Son.)

            Try to imagine Mary’s disposition: the stark irony of the moment while she stood there watching her son crucified and tormented, and yet, at the same time knowing at a deeper level than anyone else, that her son truly is the son of God, and that this was truly God’s plan. Oh, what great contradiction she must have felt! It would have been enough to drive any normal person insane (I know when I try to imagine it in this way that I have to force myself to stop because the pain of contradiction just begins to become too much to bear). And yet she faithfully stood by, trusting in God’s plan, even though she did not quite yet understand.  But hasn’t that always been the test of faith?  Trusting God no matter how absurd the plan seems to be?  Think back to Abraham.  After many years of being unable to have a child with his wife Sarah, he finally had a son, Isaac and then was told to take him up the mountain and offer him as a sacrifice to God.  Of course we all know the story, and how at the last minute God tells Abraham not to sacrifice his son.  But, Abraham surely did not have the foresight to see God’s plan in its entirety as he nervously climbed the mountain with his son saying: “God will provide.” Now, atop this mountain, amidst the heights of Jerusalem, Mary stands there: hoping, praying, perhaps like Abraham “God will provide.”  But God did not provide (well, he does provide, but, he does not come down and save his son), instead Mary hears her son cry out in agony: “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?”

Quis est homo qui non fleret,/ matrem Christi si videret/ in tanto supplicio? Quis non posset contristari/ Christi Matrem contemplari/ dolentem cum Filio? (Is there one who would not weep, whelmed in miseries so deep, Christ's dear Mother to behold? Can the human heart refrain from partaking in her pain, in that Mother's pain untold?)

           After everything they had been through together, this is where it all ended. How can we not be moved by this?  Is this not the ultimate let down?  Surely the Blessed Mother deserved a better way to spend her final moments with her son than this?  But this is precisely the point; this is where faith leads us; this is the alpha and the omega; this is the axis mundi; this is the ontos and the telos; this is the door of faith; this moment contains all meaning, it is the final analysis.  Through the eyes of our Blessed Mother, at the cross, we can begin to understand: something has gone horribly wrong, and must be set back to right.  Faith does not always match up to what we think it will.  Yet, faith does not let us down.  As Jesus drew his last breath, and Mary received his body, she must have felt a desolation like no other.  And yet, she remained faithful.  She did not curse God for taking away her son.  She did not become bitter and resentful.  Rather, she patiently waited for God’s plan to unfold in its entirety.

            As we draw near to Holy Week, let us look to Mary for the strength of perseverance.  Let us learn from her patience in seeing God’s work through to the end—no matter how painful it may become.  Allow yourself to be taken to places you would not have fathomed.  Be open to God, and he will not let you down.  Things may not always look like the way we want them to, but God has our best interests in mind.  The full text of this hymn can be found here: I encourage you to look up the hymn and spend some time with it in reflective prayer. I pray that you find it as fruitful as I have.  May our Lenten sacrifices continue to purify us and prepare us for the joy of Easter. May they continue to transform us and bear fruit in our daily lives, that we may be ready to propose the love of God to every person that we meet. Pray for us O holy mother of God, that we may be made worthy of the promises of Christ.