Our Lady’s Compassion in Passiontide

Mary is already at the foot of the cross, gazing with love and compassion at her Son

(photo: Register Files)

On the liturgical calendars of the 1962 Roman Missal and of the Anglican Ordinariate, the Friday of Passion Week includes a Mass especially devoted to the Blessed Virgin Mary at the Crucifixion, a week before Good Friday. Passiontide begins the Sunday before Palm Sunday which is the Fifth Sunday of Lent in the Ordinary Form of the Latin Rite—that’s why some parish churches have veiled their statues and crucifixes.

Jesus, teaching in the Temple, is in greater danger every time he confronts the Pharisees and the Scribes. Mysteriously and because of His authority, the Sanhedrin’s guards don’t or can’t arrest Him, and at the end of the Gospel reading for Passion Sunday, St. John tells us that “They took up stones therefore to cast at Him, but Jesus hid Himself, and went out of the Temple” (John 8:59). Because He hid Himself, we hide the statues and other images, including any of the Blessed Virgin Mary.


The Stabat Mater’s Compassion

There are actually two Masses available to be celebrated on the Friday of Passion Week: for that Friday and for the Commemoration of the Seven Sorrows of the Blessed Virgin Mary. (In the Anglican Ordinariate, it is called Saint Mary in Passiontide.) On the 1962 calendar, there are two Commemorations of the Seven Sorrows of the Blessed Virgin Mary: this one and one on Sept. 15, after the Feast of the Triumph of the Cross. As the Roman Catholic Daily Missal from Angelus Press notes, the Mass during Passiontide “especially commemorates the Compassion of Mary” while the feast on Sept. 15 expresses “the devotions to the Seven Sorrows.” (p. 1162)

The prayers and readings for the Passion Week Mass describe Mary, Virgin and Mother standing beside the cross as Jesus dies: the sword that Simeon had predicted would pierce her heart has struck its blow. Her Compassion for her Son is her sharing in His Passion—her “Com-Passion.” The Introit is simply the passage from St. John’s Gospel in which Jesus entrusts Mary to John’s care and names John her son; the Collect unites us in her sorrows and in the “merits and prayers” of the saints who have united their suffering and prayer by the cross as they intercede for us; the Offertory also asks Mary to intercede for us: “to speak good things for us and to turn away His anger from us.”

            The Epistle is taken from the Book of Judith (13: 22, 23-25), applying Uzziah’s praise of that Old Testament heroine after she had beheaded Holofernes to the Blessed Virgin Mary:

Blessed art thou, O daughter, by the Lord the most high God, above all women upon the earth. Blessed be the Lord Who made heaven and earth, because He hath so magnified thy name this day, that thy praise shall not depart out of the mouth of men, who shall be mindful of the power of the Lord forever . . . . (p. 1163)

Any attentive Catholic hears the echoes of Mary’s Magnificat in that reading, indeed of the accounts of the Annunciation and Visitation in St. Luke’s Gospel.

The Gospel for the Mass repeats and completes the Introit from the St. John’s Gospel: Chapter 19, verses 25 through 27, while the Gradual and the Tract before the Gospel reading again emphasize how Mary stood beneath Jesus on the cross, “full of sorrows and tears,” citing Lamentations 1:12: “O all ye that pass by the way, attend, and see it there be any sorrow like to my sorrow.” (p. 1163)

Before the Gospel, however, the Stabat Mater (“At the Cross Her Station Keeping”) is chanted as a Sequence—like the Sequences before the Gospel on Easter Sunday, Pentecost and Corpus Christi. Some parishes sing the individual verses between the Stations while praying the Way of the Cross, but as a Sequence, the sorrow, suffering, agony, and compassion of Mother and Son are emotionally palpable—and there are more several more verses.

Giovanni Pergolesi composed one of the most famous settings of the Stabat Mater in the last weeks of his life in 1736. Many other composers, from Palestrina to Pärt, including Haydn, Scarlatti (father and son), Rossini, Verdi, Dvorak and Poulenc have written musical settings that are choral, operatic, romantic or dramatic. The text of the sequence is usually attributed to Jacopone da Todi, OFM and the most familiar English translation is by the 19th century Oratorian, Father Edward Caswall.


Processions and Penitence

In Malta, Spain, Mexico, Panama, Colombia, Peru, Guatemala, and the Philippines the Friday of Passion Week—the Friday of Sorrows or Viernes de Dolores—is celebrated with processions and other public, prayerful and penitential events.

Even though our current Roman Calendar does not include the Commemoration of the Seven Sorrows of the Blessed Virgin Mary this week, there is an optional Collect on the Friday of the Fifth of Lent which prays “that we may cling more firmly each day to your Only Begotten Son” as we “imitate devoutly the Blessed Virgin Mary in contemplating the Passion of Christ.” Throughout the weekday Masses in the Fifth Week of Lent, Preface I of the Passion of the Lord is used: Holy Week is just days away and the greatest liturgical week of the year is coming, culminating in the three most solemn days of the year: Holy Thursday, Good Friday and Holy Saturday.

Mary is already there, at the foot of the cross, gazing with love and compassion at her Son, “the Lord Jesus . . . the Redeemer . . . He Whom the whole world doth not contain” (from the Gradual). Our Mother of Sorrows, pray for us!