Stabat Mater dolorósa
Juxta crucem lacrimósa
Dum pendébat Fílius.
Deep into a mid-November evening, 1976, the young Msgr. Jack Baer, pastor of St. Anne’s in San Bernardino for less than three years, lay dying of cancer in St. Bernardine’s Hospital. A priest for almost twenty years, his life was one of giving, sustained by divine courage and unshakeable faith. He had taken that final turn and become very restless and excited. But then his mother, my grandmother, came into the room, kissed him and said, “It’s alright, Mother’s here.” Very slowly he died, in peace.
Every year on this day we call Good, we hear sung to ancient threnodic tones the tragedy of God’s Son dying on a tree. So many travesties, so much hypocrisy, such intense anguish—all at the service of so beautiful a redemption, and yet perhaps the most tragic character of all stands there silently, almost without notice.
At the cross her station keeping
Stood the mournful mother weeping
Close to Jesus to the last.
It was in this Gospel, the Passion according to John, that we heard that the Mother of Jesus stood at the foot of the cross, so close that He could speak to her, in an agonizing rasp, and expect to be heard. Ask yourself for a moment, How is it possible that any mother in such a situation could actually stand?!
The interior life of the Mother of God is one of the sweetest mysteries God ever designed. We know she was human. But the inspirations of the Holy Spirit in her soul, the suppleness of her response, and the power of her sufferings and love so closely mirror Christ’s that we would almost think her divine.
Who was ever so closely united with Christ in spirit as was His Mother? Who could possibly have known Him better, or loved Him more? Who else would have seen Him stretched on the cross, and thought of Him bound and lying in a manger? Who more than her felt the inborn anxiety of needing to keep her Child alive while watching Him die? Who else knew His heavenly birth from all eternity, and that this was therefore the greatest possible sin ever committed? Who else but her standing right next to the cross could see and hear and smell—and feel in her soul—that He had suffered more than any other man? Then who else could possibly have offered Him consolation—and peace—in His death?
What was she doing, standing there? Suffering. To be the Mother of God means to be the Mother of Sorrows, just as to be the Christ and Savior means to be the Man of Sorrows. Holiness means being conformed to Christ Jesus, to His inner life, to His virtues and grace and merit, as much as we are able. There was nothing in her, like there is in us, to narrow her heart, to focus on self, to prefer a lesser grace. To stand at the foot of the cross meant becoming like her Son more than it ever had before. The acts of His soul were the acts of her soul, but while He could not grow in grace even as He merited our redemption, she who was always full of grace did grow in grace even as she—in her own way—merited our redemption.
That is what redemption is all about. Sin steals from God the love man owes Him. Christ offered His Father more love through His Passion than all the love mankind’s sin ever stole from Him. And so did His Mother. Such love merits a reward. The reward Jesus earned in strict justice through His Passion, and the reward she asked for out of compassion, were the same reward: our redemption.
What was she doing, standing there? She had to accept as the will of God what she had known from the Annunciation would be the fate of her Son. She read the Scriptures; she knew the prophecies. All of them, St. Peter says, all of them foretold the Messiah would suffer. She had to accept this and let it happen, let it be done according to His word.
But it was not enough simply to surrender. Like any of us in our sufferings, she had also to offer up her sufferings, offer up herself. She could not offer herself in His place, as she might have otherwise preferred, but she had to offer herself in union with Him. Like any of us, her sufferings draw their value and efficacy from being united to His. We would have wanted to be annihilated so as not to endure one more moment of such pain. But she had to pray to last in her sufferings for as long as He wanted, and for the same reason He wanted.
Neither was it enough both to surrender to the facts of history unfolding before her eyes and to offer herself as a victim to God’s love. She had to go farther, infinitely farther, and actually will to offer her Son as the sacrifice for sin. The acts of His soul were the acts of her soul. Jesus offered Himself; she had to offer Him. She had to want Him to suffer; she had to want Him to die.
There is no strength, no force, no power recorded in human history as that which steeled her heart to stand there, to endure this sorrow, this suffering, to stand there and do this. “The grief of Mary was so great,” says St. Bernadine of Sienna, “The grief of Mary was so great that, were it divided among all men, it would suffice to cause their immediate death.”
And so what was she doing, standing there? Helping Him die. “It’s alright, Mother’s here.”
She who could not be torn from Her Son in His agony in the flesh will not be torn from His suffering in us. She has invested too much. She helps us die to ourselves, to our sins, to this world. Let us stand with her. She encourages us, brings us peace in pain, makes us love into the void. Let us stand next to her with confidence. Her presence cannot be doubted, her strength cannot be bested, and her prayers cannot be stopped. Let us stand with her. She is always standing there with us.
Given 4/7/23 at St. Michael’s