By Fr. Sean McDermott and Fr. Mark Perkins
Today is the feast of the Compassion of the Blessed Virgin Mary, the day when we contemplate the suffering of Mary for her Son. In the painting above, you can see the tender tears of Mary which she shed as she watched the Passion of Our Lord. This feast day always comes on the Friday before Holy Week, giving us an occasion to learn from our supreme example of how to enter Holy Week. Mary's suffering helps us approach the suffering of Christ. This is the suffering that Simeon prophesied at the presentation of the Temple:
And Simeon blessed them, and said unto Mary his mother, Behold, this [child] is set for the fall and rising again of many in Israel; and for a sign which shall be spoken against; (Yea, a sword shall pierce through thy own soul also,) that the thoughts of many hearts may be revealed. Luke 2:34-35
Simeon's prophecy comes true most especially during Holy Week as Mary witnessed her Son suffer an agonizing death. A versicle from the liturgy of the Daily Office for the Compassion puts it so well:
The Passion of the Lord was unto his Mother a sorrow exceeding grievous, for at his death it was like as though she did also die. The iron of the soldier's lance pierced the Redeemer's side, and thence went into the inmost soul of the Virgin Mother.
The Collect as well is beautiful and striking:
O God, in whose passion the sword of grief did pierce the gentle soul of the glorious Virgin Mary, the Mother, that so might be fulfilled the word of thy Prophet Simeon: mercifully grant that we who here do call to mind the suffering whereby she was pierced, may by the glorious merits and prayers of all the Saints who have faithfully stood beneath the Cross, be fulfilled with the blessed fruits of thy passion.
T.S. Eliot's poem, "A Song for Simeon," offers another good reflection upon this meeting and Simeon's words:
Lord, the Roman hyacinths are blooming in bowls and
The winter sun creeps by the snow hills;
The stubborn season has made stand.
My life is light, waiting for the death wind,
Like a feather on the back of my hand.
Dust in sunlight and memory in corners
Wait for the wind that chills towards the dead land.
Grant us thy peace.
I have walked many years in this city,
Kept faith and fast, provided for the poor,
Have taken and given honour and ease.
There went never any rejected from my door.
Who shall remember my house, where shall live my children’s children
When the time of sorrow is come?
They will take to the goat’s path, and the fox’s home,
Fleeing from the foreign faces and the foreign swords.
Before the time of cords and scourges and lamentation
Grant us thy peace.
Before the stations of the mountain of desolation,
Before the certain hour of maternal sorrow,
Now at this birth season of decease,
Let the Infant, the still unspeaking and unspoken Word,
Grant Israel’s consolation
To one who has eighty years and no to-morrow.
According to thy word,
They shall praise Thee and suffer in every generation
With glory and derision,
Light upon light, mounting the saints’ stair.
Not for me the martyrdom, the ecstasy of thought and prayer,
Not for me the ultimate vision.
Grant me thy peace.
(And a sword shall pierce thy heart,
I am tired with my own life and the lives of those after me,
I am dying in my own death and the deaths of those after me.
Let thy servant depart,
Having seen thy salvation.
A Family Devotion
This morning, our family talked about Simeon's prophecy and then looked at an engraving of the crucifixion in the Aelfred Rex Bible Story Book. That engraving, like the one below, beautifully captures the suffering of Mary and prompts us to reflect upon our own response to our Lord's death. As we looked at the engraving, we read the beautiful opening and closing lines of the Stabat Mater, as printed in the Anglican Breviary:
By the Cross her station keeping, stood the mournful Mother weeping, where he hung, her dying Lord. For her soul, of joy bereaved, torn with anguish, deeply grieved, felt the sharp and piercing Sword. ... Mother, fount of all devotion, stir in me thy grief's emotion, let my bears be joined with thine. Let my heart be always burning, still for love of Jesus yearning, let his will be found in mine.
We concludes our family devotion by reading the Collect posted above -- and then reminding our sorrowful four-year-old about the coming joy of Easter Sunday!
Resources on Mary
To help understand the unique and special role of Mary within the life of the Church, I highly recommend reading E. L. Mascall's essay: "Theotokos: The Place of Mary in the Work of Salvation." It offers such wonderful insights into Mary's unique but also exemplar role.
Second, you may listen to a talk that Bishop Chad Jones gave to All Saints over Zoom this past week. He gave a concise but theologically packed overview on the importance of the Blessed Virgin Mary. Listen to it (and the great questions and answers) below or read his notes here.
Third, music is a wonderful aid to help us meditate upon the Blessed Virgin Mary. Here is a wonderful piece by John Sheppard (c. 1515-c. 1559) and a great explanation by Ken Myers over at Cantica Sacra.
And any meditation upon the Blessed Virgin Mary would be lacking without listening to a Magnificat. I posted two modern versions here which are remarkable, but here is a more traditional version by Orlando Gibbons (1583-1625):
I will end with another poem titled "The Mother of God" by William Butler Yeats:
The threefold terror of love; a fallen flare
Through the hollow of an ear;
Wings beating about the room;
The terror of all terrors that I bore
The Heavens in my womb.
Had I not found content among the shows
Every common woman knows,
Chimney corner, garden walk,
Or rocky cistern where we tread the clothes
And gather all the talk?
What is this flesh I purchased with my pains,
This fallen star my milk sustains,
This love that makes my heart's blood stop
Or strikes a Sudden chill into my bones
And bids my hair stand up?
Fr. Sean McDermott is Curate at All Saints in Charlottesville, VA and Editor in Chief of Earth & Altar.
Fr. Mark Perkins is Assistant Curate at All Saints Charlottesville, Assistant Editor of Earth & Altar, and a full-time history teacher.