This Lent I’ve been focusing on the seven sorrows of Mary, which span Jesus’ infancy through his death and burial. The scene that comes back to me over and over in prayer is that of Mary cradling her deceased Son on her lap — the image known as the pietà.
I think it’s a natural reaction, when someone dies, for loved ones to want to see and touch the body of the deceased. In the Little Sisters of the Poor’s mission caring for the elderly and dying, we often see this — family members seem to want to linger, to hold their deceased loved one’s hand or stroke their hair, to give them a final kiss, say a prayer, or share one last story. Sometimes family members need time to let the reality sink in, or perhaps they want to engrave their loved one’s features in their memory.
In Mary’s case, the body taken down from the cross was the Son she had brought into the world and wrapped in swaddling clothes. This was the same body, but now he was so bruised, bloodied and broken that he was nearly beyond human appearance.
Mary must have suffered terribly to see the horrible reality before her eyes, but I’m sure she lingered over each wound, especially the hole in his side created by the soldier’s lance.
Setting aside any theological interpretation, why did the soldier violently stab someone who was clearly already dead? It was brutal and unnecessary, like when a killer stands over his victim firing excessive shots into the body at point-blank range.
How cruelly and disrespectfully they treated Mary’s Son — that final wound was so unnecessary! Was it meant to demoralize those standing at the foot of the cross, or to prove that Jesus was not really the Messiah after all?
Reflecting on this scene makes me think of all the ways that the human body is disrespected in today’s throwaway culture: from abortion, assisted suicide and euthanasia, to pornography, human trafficking, child abuse, war and violent crime, substance abuse, abandonment of the elderly and systemic injustices that leave far too many people without adequate food and water, housing, and basic hygiene and health care.
Already in 2019, we’ve seen the legalization of late-term abortion in New York and Vermont. Similar legislation failed in Virginia, but it is currently being pursued in Rhode Island. In early March, the campaign to legalize physician-assisted suicide advanced in Maryland, and the Patients Rights Council, a national watchdog organization for end-of-life issues, reported that there are assisted-suicide bills pending in 16 states.
As I contemplate the image of the pietà, I feel drawn to place all who suffer and all whose human dignity is violated in Mary’s lap, alongside her crucified Son. I know this seems like a burden too great for one person to bear, but when Jesus confided the beloved disciple to his mother as he hung on the cross, he effectively gave her as mother to all of his followers, in every age.
Mary possesses rock-solid faith, a will of steel and superhuman resilience — after all, who else ever had a sword thrust through their heart and lived? I have no doubt that her arms are strong enough to hold all who suffer like her Son, and her mantle remains broad enough to shelter all who run to her.
During World Youth Day in January, Pope Francis said that Christ continues to suffer and carry his cross “in a society that has lost the ability to weep and to be moved by suffering.” I have no doubt that as long as Christ goes on suffering in his mystical body, Mary his mother will continue to stand beneath the cross — beneath our personal crosses, no matter how numerous or seemingly insignificant — as our refuge and our hope.
Sister Constance Veit is communications director for the Little Sisters of the Poor.