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Queen of Seven Swords: A Lenten reflection
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Queen of Seven Swords: A Lenten reflection

Wednesday 11 March 2020

Bishop Peter Elliott

The Mother of Jesus stood at his cross. She stood; she did not swoon, as some artists depict her. Nor was she alone, for the disciple St John stood beside her. She took her stand with her Son, and with us, her brothers and sisters in the Church of all time.

Gazing at her Son as he poured out his life, Mary’s mind must have gone back across the years to the Temple at Jerusalem. Obedient to the Law of Israel, with Joseph she had brought her first born to dedicate him to the Lord. The life of each first-born male belonged to God and they had to ‘redeem’ him, or buy him back, offering pigeons, the humble sacrifice of poor folk.

Then Simeon spoke: Behold, this child is set for the fall and rise of many in Israel, and for a sign of contradiction. And your own soul a sword shall pierce, that out of many hearts, thoughts may be revealed.

Mary’s heart was pierced at the cross. But it is not only on Calvary that she is the Mother of Sorrows. Simeon’s words echo through her whole life, concentrated in particular moments of suffering. This is reflected in the devotion of her seven sorrows.

First there was Simeon’s prophecy itself. This would be no surprise for the Mother of the Messiah, the Suffering Servant. Words can penetrate more than physical pain.
The second sorrow is the flight into Egypt. The Holy Family flees from the murderous King Herod. Their pain is fear, not for themselves, but for Jesus. In our world thousands of refugee mothers live in fear.

The third sorrow is the loss of the boy Jesus in the Temple. This began as fear for his safety, and then was compounded by his words when they found him: ‘Do you not know that I must be about my father’s business?’—the union of Mary’s Son with God the Father in our salvation.

In the fourth sorrow the saving work is well underway. Mary has followed Jesus to judgment and he has been condemned. She encounters him carrying his cross. Their eyes meet. In silence two hearts unite in one purpose. She shares in his work, culminating in the fifth and greatest sorrow. He is crucified and dies for us. ‘At the cross her station keeping …’ The solemn music says it all.

Artists have depicted the sixth sorrow, the lifeless body of Jesus laid in Mary’s arms—above all Michelangelo in his Pieta in St Peter’s Basilica, Rome. Images of the Pieta in other cultures are harsher, more dramatic. At that moment her mind would have gone back to the words of Simeon—and she would remember a babe in arms.

The seventh sorrow is peaceful. No drama, just placing the shrouded body of Jesus in the cool, perfumed tomb. As the stone rolls across the entrance, her pain is loss. She is one with all the mothers who have buried children across the centuries. Yet she mourns in hope, the hope we will celebrate in the rites of this Holy Week. New fire of Easter is kindled and the blazing paschal candle reveals the risen Body of the Lord who leads us out of darkness into light.

At Fatima, Mary’s sorrows were revealed in her ‘immaculate and sorrowful heart’. Her sufferings reflect her Son, the sinless Lamb. They are bound together, Jesus and Mary, in purity, innocence, but that only makes the suffering more intense. In Jesus and Mary we encounter the most mysterious form of human suffering—the pain of the innocents.

We are faced with dilemmas. Why do the innocent suffer? That child with cancer, victims of child abuse, little ones put to death at Auschwitz or in Iraq, Syria, Pakistan …. We cannot make sense of this, yet God enters their pain. God experienced all of this in Jesus, the innocent Lamb ‘given up’ for us.

Mary’s seven sorrows are not just moments to make us feel sad or sorry for ourselves. People who carry crosses, or whose loved ones suffer, can say, ‘Well, Mother, you understand’. But Mary wants us to go further, to learn that her sufferings and ours are a source of power. They draw power from the suffering of Christ our Redeemer.

Mary’s life was the journey of the perfect disciple of Jesus Christ, the supreme Christian—this makes sense of her sorrows. They become moments of faith, grace and power. In each of them she is not a passive victim but an active agent. She does not merely endure suffering. Rather she takes up suffering and uses it for God, for others. 

In a small volume of poems published in 1926, The Queen of Seven Swords, the recently converted English author, Gilbert Keith Chesterton, explored Mary’s sorrows. He wrote that ‘... the heart of the swords, seven times wounded, was never wearied as our hearts are.’

We draw strength for our wearied hearts from her courageous heart. We take our stand with her at the cross. We bring our sufferings to our loving Father, offering them for others, for the living and the dead. In the generous spirit of Mary, we fix our eyes on Jesus crucified and risen.

So we can share in the work of Christ’s Redemption. With Mary each of us can be a co-redeemer. We do not do this by our own efforts. For her, and for each one of us, grace is what matters. Then let us open our hearts to the Holy Spirit and ask to be used by God as co-redeemers. We will discover that what we call the ‘sorrows’ of Mary are moments of grace and glory, victories of the Queen of Seven Swords, the dawning of the kingdom of her Son.
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