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Voices Online Edition
Vol. XXVI, No. 4
Advent - Christmas 2011

Mother of Sorrows - Cause of our Joy
The quiet heroism of our Blessed Mother

by Rita Joseph

(Rita Joseph’s address to a Marian conference in Toowoomba, Australia, November 5, 2011, appears here, slightly edited, with her permission.)

There is a Maronite Catholic legend that has been passed down in my family that can be traced back to the 12th century when our forebears founded the little village of Kfarsghab high in the mountains near the great cedars of Lebanon. When my grandfather came to Toowoomba in 1896, he could recite by heart the Book of Genesis as it was handed down orally through the centuries. It included a legend about Adam.

When told by God that he would have to leave Paradise and earn his bread by the sweat of his brow, suffer sickness, pestilence and other natural disasters, and finally would have to die, Adam began digging a hole in the ground. God said to Adam, “What are you doing?” Adam replied, “I’m digging my grave. If I am to die in the end, then it’s not worth living. I may as well lie down and die right now”. And then, the legend goes, God looked on Adam with great pity and sadness and love, and in His great mercy, God granted Adam and his descendants the “gift of forgetfulness”.

But that “gift of forgetfulness” was no longer needed once God, keeping His promise to Adam, sent us the New Eve, the woman who would crush the head of the serpent beneath her feet and who would bear for us an infinitely greater gift, a Savior, a Redeemer, God’s only Son, His beloved Son. This is truly a gift to remember, a gift we would want to remember, and a gift we can receive in the Holy Mass every day of our lives. The Lord of Hosts had kept His promise. As Isaiah foretold, the Lord of Hosts

will remove the mourning veil covering all peoples, and the shroud enwrapping all nations, He will destroy death forever. The Lord will wipe away the tears from every cheek, He will take away His people’s shame everywhere on earth…. That day it will be said: See, this is our God in whom we hoped for salvation, the Lord is the One in whom we hoped. We exult and we rejoice that He has saved us. (Isaiah 25:6-10)

So when Mary, carrying this promised Savior in her womb, visits her cousin Elizabeth, a great canticle of joy and thanksgiving explodes in the exultation and rejoicing of the Magnificat.

My soul magnifies the Lord
And my spirit rejoices in God my Savior;
for He has regarded the low estate of His handmaiden;
For behold, henceforth all generations shall call me blessed;
for He who is mighty has done great things for me,
and holy is His name.
And His mercy is on those who fear Him
from generation to generation.
He has shown strength with His arm,
He has scattered the proud in the imagination of their hearts.
He has put down the mighty from their thrones,
and has exalted those of low degree;
He has filled the hungry with good things,
and the rich He has sent empty away.
He has helped His servant Israel, in remembrance of His mercy,
as He spoke to our fathers, to Abraham and to his posterity forever. (Luke 1:46-55 – RSV-CE)

Jesus, our Savior, was born to us through Mary; and on the night before He died, He took bread and wine and made it into His own body and blood. He gave us Himself, to be here with us in the Blessed Sacrament here on earth in perpetuity — till the end of the world. ‘‘Do this”, He said, ‘‘in memory of me”.

And so with this great gift of remembrance that brings Jesus back to us, physically and spiritually, body, blood, soul, and divinity, we no longer have need of Adam’s forgetfulness, of losing ourselves in daily routine of interminable distractions to enable us to face our destiny.

Whenever we come to Mass, Jesus becomes present before us on the altar at the Consecration. As if in another Calvary, Jesus sacrifices Himself — is offered for us and by us to the Father. We receive Him in Holy Communion, and remember in the presence of the Lord His great gift of salvation; and we rejoice in the Lord and are glad. How blessed we are to live in the Year of the Lord 2011 — AD Anno Domini!

And when did this Year of the Lord begin? These years of extraordinary grace began when the Archangel Gabriel appeared to Mary. As Pope Benedict recently said:

Mary was fearful, but the angel of the Lord spoke a word of comfort to her: ‘‘Do not be afraid, Mary, for you have found favor with God.” So Mary is able to respond with her great ‘‘yes”. This “yes”, by which she accepts to become the handmaid of the Lord, is the trusting “yes” to God’s plan, to our salvation. And she finally addresses her ‘‘yes” to us all, whom she received as her children entrusted to her at the foot of the Cross (John 19:27). She never withdraws this promise. And so she is called happy, or rather blessed, for believing that what was promised her by the Lord would be fulfilled (Luke 1:45).1

Pope Benedict goes on to say ‘‘… we may join Mary in her ‘yes’, we may adhere trustingly to the beauty of God’s plan and to the providence that He has assigned to us in His grace. Then God’s love will also, as it were, take flesh in our lives, becoming ever more tangible. In all our cares we need have no fear. God is good”.

“In all our cares we need have no fear. God is good”. No more the despair of Adam, no more of Adam’s paralyzing self-pity that could see no point in enduring the hardships of life. Poor Adam, his intellect clouded by sin, could not see that these hardships were being imposed by God not only as just punishment for sin, but offered mercifully as a second chance to expiate that sin, a second chance for Adam and for all of us his descendents to regain Paradise.

The joy of salvation is the joy of forgiveness, the joy of hope in the resurrection and of going home to heaven — the joy of purpose in life again, the blessed relief of finding and understanding a true purpose and meaning to all the pain and sorrow and suffering we encounter on earth.

It is from this joy in remembering always God’s goodness to us that we find the hope and courage to persevere; that we find dignity and worth and deep satisfaction in our work, in our families, and in our communities. Life is good and it is worth living — and Heaven, our final destination, is worth the struggle. Now we need each day to remember all the good things the Lord has done for us. Every day we need to remind ourselves of why God made us — to know, love, and serve Him here on earth and to be happy with Him forever in Heaven. It is now our duty to remember — and to strain toward God, to long to be safe at home with Him. As Saint Paul writes in his letter to the Corinthians, quoting Isaiah, “eye hath not seen, nor ear heard, neither hath it entered into the heart of man, what things God hath prepared for them that love Him” (I Corinthians 2:9).

Clearly here, we’re not talking of a superficial “McHappy” kind of happiness that comes with material things, good health, well-being, success in life — rather we’re speaking of a deep abiding joy that comes from being forgiven by God, being loved by Him who counts the very hairs on our heads; the deep abiding joy of being in the presence of the Lord in the land of the living.

So why in the Litany of the Blessed Virgin Mary do we call Our Lady “Cause of our joy”? Because she is the immediate cause of this immense change in human life on earth — from Adam’s despair after the Fall to our hope today. In Jesus Christ’s great mission to save all mankind, Mary was there from the beginning. From Mary’s first fiat, “Be it done unto me according to Thy word”, to the birth of Jesus in Bethlehem, through the flight into Egypt and finding Jesus in the Temple, to her signalling her Son at the wedding in Cana that it was time for Him to begin His public ministry, Mary was with Him. She was with Him on the road to Calvary — and finally at the foot of the Cross where she heard His last words: Consummatum est — “It is finished”.

The mother of Jesus was born without original sin. Thus, she had no need of that “gift of forgetfulness” that God had given to the fallen Adam, in the Maronite legend. We celebrate Mary’s Immaculate Conception every year on December 8. Spared of original sin through God’s grace, Mary was born with and retained the perfect human intellect first given to human beings in the Garden of Eden. Her intellect was not clouded as all others after the Fall.

After the visit of the shepherds to see her newborn Baby ‘‘Mary kept all these things, pondering them in her heart” (Luke 2:19), and after finding her boy Jesus in the Temple, again ‘‘His mother kept all these things in her heart” (Luke 2:51). This pondering was at a higher level than anything we could manage — no doubt she came over time to understand very fully and clearly just how great a sacrifice her son would have to make to fulfill the scriptures. She knew her Isaiah. She knew how her son’s life would have to end.

With unclouded intellect, and yet in all the vulnerability of their inherent humanity, both Mother and Son knew fear and dread intimately. As the time for her son’s sublime act of obedience to the Father drew inexorably nearer, in almost every conscious moment, she knew as our Lord knew with a terrible drumbeat of certainty the great agony of body and soul that He was soon to accept freely for the sake of all mankind. In all human history, there has never been nor ever will there be an agony as great as that agony which Jesus endured for us in the Garden of Olives.

His mother, too, suffered heroically. For this Mary has been called ‘‘the highest honor of the human race”. I call her, in my private devotions, ‘‘Little Mother of Sorrows” — because even with her brave ardent heart and her gallant soul she was so very vulnerable, so very small to be called to bear the great burden of sorrow that God had asked her to share with her Son, the Redeemer of the whole human race.

When Mary first took her little newborn son up to the temple, she left behind her the joy of His birth in Bethlehem with the glorious angel choirs singing ‘‘Gloria in excelsis Deo”. Simeon held the infant Jesus in his arms, and blessed God saying “mine eyes have seen your Salvation” — and he warned Mary that a sword would pierce her heart — her tender heart, full of new wonder-filled love for her tiny baby son. Mary didn’t fear the sword for herself but for this tiny new son who was “destined for the rise and fall of many” (Luke 2:33-35).

And then back in Bethlehem after the visit of the Magi and the warning in Joseph’s dream, ‘‘Herod is searching for the child to destroy Him” (Matthew 2:13), once again Mary’s tender heart constricted with fear, not for herself but for her defenseless little son. How many times over those sixty weary miles towards safety in Egypt did Mary turn to look behind her for Herod’s murderous soldiers? How often did she hold her little one closer all the time praying to keep Him safe?

And then when Jesus was twelve, He went missing — lost for three days. Again a wave of fear enveloped Mary as she and Joseph searched desperately for Jesus. Was this how His life was to end? So soon? At the tender age of twelve? Was this the sword already, the sword to pierce His mother’s heart?

Not yet. Two remissions.

But then the third time, when her son was thirty-three, the sword did come with swiftness and utter devastation. How quickly bad news travels to a mother worried about her son — her son had been arrested, her son had been scourged, her son had come before Pontius Pilate, her son had been condemned to death.

How quickly Mother Mary reached her son on the road to Calvary. He had just fallen for the first time and then there was His mother. They looked at each other and what passed between mother and son was beyond words. He knew now she was there in the crowd: she was there for Him, walking every step of that hard last road with Him.

She saw the garment that she had lovingly made for Him sticking to the dried weals of blood on His back. How it hurt her to see this — her son being hurt so viciously, He who with pity and compassion had healed and cured so many. But she knew that He was carrying a cross made heavy with the sins of the whole world to the end of time. She knew for whom He carried that cross, for whom He allowed Himself to be nailed to it. And then, suspended from the cross in utter agony between heaven and earth He asked the Father to forgive us. He said, ‘‘Woman, this is thy son”, thus He gave His mother to be our mother in giving her to His beloved disciple, John (John 19:26,27).

Upon His death, Jesus was laid in His mother’s arms. Did Mary remember then the first time she held Him in her arms in the stable in Bethlehem? And now thirty-three years later, she holds Him in her arms for the last time. Tenderly, she wipes away the dried blood and spittle from His dear face; gently, very gently, she tries to remove the cruel thorns from His sacred head. Her heart broken, her sorrow beyond tears.

Mary sees her son laid in the tomb, and in exhaustion and numbing grief she walks back into Jerusalem in the desolation of a world without her son. And she wakes to the terrible emptiness of Holy Saturday. Many of us, I think, can recognize her grief — utterly bereft. In the days after the death of someone we love, the joy of the Resurrection seems unbearably far off. Jesus has “descended into Hell”, as we say in the Apostles Creed, and the world has darkened into a horribly sad and graceless place of fear, heartbreak, and dread, where evil appears to have triumphed.

But we remember the Resurrection is never more than three days away — however those days are measured.

We must never forget that Mary, the “little Mother of Sorrows” who accepted God’s will for her to become the Mother of His Only Begotten Son, and thus through the birth and life and suffering and death of her Divine Son we are born into a new world, a wondrously changed world, where we now have the promise of the Resurrection. We are born now into a world where death has been conquered and opens the way to eternal life.

How privileged we are to be people of the Resurrection! To encounter Jesus in the Sacraments, to receive His forgiveness and healing; and to receive the Holy Spirit, our Wisdom, our Comforter, to bless us and to renew our courage, to relight our joy in living in God’s presence, our trust in His Divine Providence!

Baptism has brought us back to be children of God again, back from that desolate place of estrangement from God outside the Garden of Eden. And the Sacrament of Reconciliation gives us the blessed relief of being forgiven by Jesus Himself: ‘‘Your sins are forgiven you — go and sin no more”. How heavy are the hearts of those who cannot or will not ask for forgiveness! How appalling to carry our sins on through our lives, accumulating and festering, a foul burden growing ever heavier as we journey toward the grave. What joy is ours when we leave the confessional with new hope, freed from sin and at peace with God and our neighbors again!

Every hour of every day, somewhere in the world a priest is saying the words of the Consecration at Mass: ‘‘this is my body; this is my blood… Do this in memory of me”. And once again Jesus is here on earth for us and in communion with us. And we are not alone. We are not afraid: He is with us as He promised.

I began with the ancient legend in which Adam and Eve could not bear the great sorrows they had brought upon themselves — with the loss of Paradise, they wanted to throw the towel in right there and then and lie down and die.

Now, I finish with a true story of legendary courage of a small group of missionary Sisters of Our Lady of the Sacred Heart, who were captured by Japanese soldiers in 1941 in the Pacific Islands and were imprisoned in camps under appalling conditions. They were first in tunnels in Vunapope being bombed by allied aircraft with great loss of life, and then moved to Ramale, a malaria-ridden internment camp at the bottom of a gorge in a fierce jungle where they endured extreme physical hardships, cruelty by their captors, incessant rain and deprivation.

The sisters who survived told their own story in a book (now out of print), Red Grew the Harvest, published in 1947. How did they survive? Here is the answer in their own words:

Our Lord knew just how much need we had of Him.

What of us who remained? Not even in the darkest hours, not even during the most furious bombardments were we left without the glorious strength of the Mass and daily Holy Communion. The altar wine, which we rescued from the mission store when the Japs went off around the Coral Sea way, lasted all through the three and a half years of captivity. The Fathers said Mass in turn, using the smallest amount of wine possible. Under normal circumstances flour remained fresh for a mere six months or so and that only by means of sunning and sifting and various other devices. Yet during these hard and bitter years it remained fresh and white and lovely without any of the above precautions. There is only one explanation — the fulfilment of the promise in ‘‘I will not leave you orphans”. Our Lord knew just how much need we had of Him.

During those days one learned to pray without ceasing. Death was always at hand. In the tunnel-days at Vunapope a little grotto was scooped out in the wall and a poor Tabernacle placed therein. So things went on until in Remale we could once again have a little chapel … a frail grass-roofed little chapel… God and eternity seemed very near.

Here, each community had its turn at watching and praying before Our Lord in the Blessed Sacrament, Who in His condescending love had come to share our confinement. How, in those days, the liturgy of the Mass impressed us. How the holy words came alive with new meaning: ‘‘Let the sighing of prisoners come in before Thee, O Lord.” “Going they went and wept, casting their seeds. But coming, they shall come with joyfulness, carrying their sheaves”. ‘‘Though I shouldst walk in the midst of the shadow of death, I will fear no evils: for Thou art with me.”

But it was all to end — the long, long waiting for news that never came, the uncertainty as to when the nightmare would end, the weakening strength and its consequent depression of spirit.

It was Mary, Queen of Heaven, who spoke the glorious peace-giving It is finished. For on August 15th [the Feast of the Assumption of the Blessed Virgin Mary], peace came to the Pacific. Three weeks later coo-ees* [arrived] from the top of Ramale Gorge. We were rescued! The Australians had come!

Of their kindness to us who shall speak? The best tribute is silence, since all words are inadequate.2

This story tells far better than I can how even in the most extreme circumstances, Mary, with her understanding heart, never abandons us. Whatever our troubles, when we turn to her and ask for her prayers, she will ask Jesus for whatever we need: she will turn to her son and say; ‘‘They have no wine” (John 2:3) and He will refuse her nothing. Our Blessed Mother, through her quiet heroism, brought Jesus to us, to stay with us in the Blessed Sacrament ‘‘even to the end of the world”.


1 Libreria Editrice Vaticana translation of the Angelus address by Pope Benedict XVI at the Freiburg airport, September 25, 2011.

2 Red Grew the Harvest, Eds. F.M.D.S.C, Sydney, Pellegrini, 1947, pp. 77-78. Missionary experiences during the Pacific War of 1941-5 as related by the Sisters of Our Lady of the Sacred Heart. This book is compiled from eye-witness accounts by missionaries who survived the experiences described. The recital of these experiences remains exactly as recounted by the individual missionary sisters. The chapters first appeared as a series of articles in the Melbourne Advocate.

* The Australian term “coo-ee” describes the sound of a loud outcry that could reach across a long distance; but, as here, it also refers to Australian soldiers, after a famous recruiting drive by soldiers during World War I, in which the men called out “coo-ee!” to encourage others to enlist. — Ed.

Rita Joseph, of Canberra, Australia, is a member of the editorial board of Voices who has represented family concerns at United Nations conferences. She writes and lectures on social issues, and has made a special study of the Holy Father’s writings on family and on women. She has lectured at the John Paul II Institute for Marriage and Family Studies in Melbourne. Her book Human Rights and the Unborn Child was published in 2009.

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