In our journeying to Jerusalem with Jesus, we are aware of a number of encounters that Jesus has all of them disturbing or challenging. There is one in particular, which is much understated. One that is too personal, too emotional to be recorded properly but has been central to Christian devotion since the early church began to relive the Passion of Christ.
I’ve visited the Holy Land fourteen times and found it a deeply disturbing place. Galilee is always relaxing and hopeful. But it is Jerusalem that fascinates and disturbs. It is on the tacky Via Dolorosa that I find myself close to tears and in the shambles we call the Holy Sepulchre that the hair stands up on the back of my neck. The Stations of the Cross are a late medieval devotion popularised by the Franciscans who have been custodians of ‘Terra Sancta’ since Francis established a presence there in his own lifetime. However, the devotion goes back to the early church when a Spanish nun, Egeria, visited Jerusalem in the 5th century and made notes on what she saw. About the time of her visit, Byzantine shrines and churches were built on the traditional sites associated with the Passion of Jesus. One of the most moving remnants of all this is a fragment of a mosaic which now lies ten feet below the present street level. It is very simple design based on a pair of women’s sandals. They face away from the site of the Crucifixion and represent the feet of the mother of Jesus who stands in the crowd looking out for her son as he drags his cross on that terrible journey.
I’ve no doubt that she witnessed her son as he passed by torn and bleeding. So what went through her mind at that terrible moment? Did she recall how she had proudly brought Jesus as a new baby into the Temple when old Simeon had said to her ‘A sword shall pierce your own soul’? Had a dirge rose up in that torn soul of hers as her bleeding child limped passed on his way to public humiliation and death? Maybe she remembered an earlier song when her soul had magnified the Lord as she shared with her cousin, Elizabeth the good news that she was carrying the messiah in her womb. How Elizabeth had shared in that joy revealing that she too at last having a child also. How once these two boys were born, they had shared so much. Theirs was a childhood so full of radical hopes and plans to change the world and save their people from their sins.
As her son falls at her feet, Mary’s heart must have bled and her hopes turned to dust and ashes. And yet she was there for her son and was giving whatever support she could. If his disciples had forsaken him and fled then she at least could watch and pray. In fact, Mary would soon struggle up that green hill to stand at the foot of the cross and watch his last hours. To commemorate that sorrowful station Mary has stood above us here on this and countless other rood screens with that beloved disciple until such piety was torn down at the Reformation.
And now we gather together under one of those screens at this sad hour of Compline. Our souls have sung like that of Mary. Indeed this office originally contained both her Magnificat and Simeon’s Nunc Dimittis. Music offers such consolation and invites us to share in emotions, which are beyond words. Yet it is with words that we have to wrestle and it is in looking to Mary as Mater Dolorosa that we see in her the Word made flesh. As she strains to look on her crucified son, she is witnessing the birth pangs of a new age. The next time we meet her in the scriptures she is singing in the Spirit as the gifts of Pentecost are showered on her and the other disciples. ‘He that is mighty hath magnified me’ she sings and we hail her as full of that grace which signifies that the Lord is with her.