‘And You Yourself a Sword Will Pierce’

Meditations on the Seven Sorrows of Mary

Fra Bartolommeo, “The Presentation in the Temple,” 1516
Fra Bartolommeo, “The Presentation in the Temple,” 1516 (photo: Public Domain)

During Lent, many people walk the Stations of the Cross as a way to draw closer to Christ on the road to Calvary. The 14 Stations begin with Jesus being condemned to death and end with his burial. As the feast day of Our Lady of Sorrows draws near on Sept. 15, we have an opportunity to meditate on the Seven Sorrows of Mary and better understand the depths of the suffering she endured in carrying her own cross.

First Sorrow

The first sorrow unfolds when Mary and Joseph take their infant son to the Temple to fulfill the 40-day obligation of purification after his birth. An old man, Simeon, sees the baby and rushes over to cradle the infant in his arms. He calls the baby “a light for revelation to the Gentiles, and glory for your people Israel” (Luke 2:32).

The parents are amazed at these words, but then a shadow falls when Simeon says to Mary: “This child is destined for the rise and fall of many in Israel, and to be a sign that will be contradicted (and you yourself a sword will pierce) so that the thoughts of many hearts may be revealed” (Luke 2:34-35). How heavy her heart must have become upon hearing this ominous prediction.

Second Sorrow

The Flight Into Egypt is Mary’s second sorrow, which was surely intermingled with fear. One night, Joseph awakened her with a dire warning that came to him in a dream. It seems King Herod was fearful their baby would threaten his throne and wanted to kill him. How the young mother must have struggled in the darkness to get her precious baby ready for a journey. How sad to uproot their lives and leave behind their home. How frightening the journey had to be, as the parents prayed Herod’s soldiers weren’t following them.

Third Sorrow

The sword of sorrow stabs the third time when her son is 12. Every year the family goes to Jerusalem to celebrate the Passover, making the journey with relatives and friends. One year, on the way back from Jerusalem, they couldn't find their boy. Imagine the cold terror that seized the parents’ hearts when they realized Jesus was left behind in Jerusalem.

Any parent who has lost sight of a child for five minutes in a crowd can imagine their shock. They went back to Jerusalem to look for Jesus, and their panic probably reached a fever pitch after three days. How relieved she and St. Joseph must have been when they found Jesus safe and sound in the Temple.

Despite their relief, they were upset that Jesus hadn’t told them his plans. “Son, why have you treated us so?” his mother asked. “Behold, your father and I have been looking for you anxiously.” His reply: “How is it that you sought me? Did you not know that I must be in my Father’s house?” (Luke 2:48-49).

Jesus was doing his Father’s will, which was teaching in the Temple, an action that separated him from his loving parents. This makes sense for one who would later say, “My kingdom is not of this world.” In the Temple, Mary never forgot this moment: “His mother kept all these things in her heart” (Luke 2:51).

Fourth Sorrow

Twenty-one years passed before the fourth sword pierced Mary’s heart. Jesus was 33, with crowds clamoring for his healing touch wherever he went, but also hated by the scribes and Pharisees. One night, an apostle, most likely John, rushed into her home to convey the terrible news of Jesus’ arrest.

Like any mother, she probably didn’t sleep that night, picturing her son in a dungeon. Perhaps she reflected on Simeon’s words about Jesus being a “sign of contradiction.” People turned against him because his words clashed with their treasured beliefs. He said the meek will inherit the earth, the poor will be blessed and the rich will have trouble getting into heaven.

The next day, when Mary opened the door to John, the look on his face said everything. How she must have wept when he told her Jesus had been sentenced to crucifixion. On the day of his execution, we can imagine her in the crowd, her heart racing when she saw her beloved son nearly fainting beneath the cross. Tears drenched her face at the sight of his bruised limbs, the thorns impaling his head, and the look of abandonment in his eyes.

Fifth Sorrow

Then the fifth sorrow unfolds, as Mary watches Jesus brutally nailed to the cross. She hears his cries of agony and the cruel taunting of the crowd. He needs water, but she can’t slake his thirst. He is gasping for air, and she yearns to give him breath, as she once gave him life. A moment of light pierces the darkness when Jesus, in a tender act of love, entrusts his mother to St. John’s care: “Woman, behold your son” (John 19:26).

Sixth Sorrow

After Jesus dies comes the sixth stabbing of the sorrowful sword, when his lifeless body is placed in Mary’s arms. She cradles him against her as if he were her baby again. She uses her garment to wipe the tears and blood from his face. Her own hands bleed as she removes the razor-sharp thorns from his head.

Seventh Sorrow

All too soon, Joseph of Arimathea comes to take Jesus’ body away for burial. This is the seventh sorrow, because entombment has a nightmarish sense of finality. Anyone who has lost someone they love dearly knows the pain of walking away from the grave. She has faith that he will rise from the dead, but right now her heart is shattered.

Perhaps now Mary realizes the full impact of her reply to the angel: “Be it done to me according to your word” (Luke 1:38). In bowing to become the Handmaiden of God and bear his only Son, she accepted a share in the Son’s suffering. She became the perfect example of a follower of Christ, who said, “If you would be my disciple, pick up your cross daily; and come, follow me” (Luke 9:23)/ She followed him into Egypt, to Jerusalem, to the cross and to the grave. She followed him into eternity. On her feast day, let us pray for the courage and faith to be true disciples of Christ, as our Blessed Mother truly was.