Then Simeon blessed them and said to his mother Mary, “This child is destined for the falling and the rising of many in Israel, and to be a sign that will be opposed 35so that the inner thoughts of many will be revealed—and a sword will pierce your own soul too.” Luke 2:35
During my time as a seminarian at St. Philip’s Episcopal parish in San Jose, Good Friday was an almost frenetic day of activities. It began in the wee hours of the morning where I would take my turn watching with Jesus at the vigil in the garden, then on to Livermore Labs to engage in the Good Friday vigil for peace at the place where atomic weaponry capable of destroying the Good Creation was being assembled. From Livermore my friends and I would return to St. Philips to pick up the cross and the booklets for the annual ecumenical Stations of the Cross in nearby Alum Rock Park.
Good Friday always ended with the commemoration of the Three Hours leading up to the death of Jesus. It was a somber, quiet service that included readings, meditations and veneration of the cross after which the parish emptied out, the lights turned off and the candles all extinguished.
On my third Good Friday at this parish in 1994, I had been studying Franciscan theology at the seminary across the street from my own Episcopal seminary in Berkeley. One of the figures we studied was Jacapone da Todi. When I read his laud entitled “The Lament of the Virgin,” I knew it would have to be read at the Good Friday vigil.
A Sword-Pierced Heart
I have always been struck by the pain that Mary must have endured as the mother of Jesus. Over the years, Mary has been constructed in many utilitarian ways ranging from the medieval female role model of the Virgin counterpoised against Eve, the Whore, to the imperial images constructed of Mary as the Queen of the Universe (whose shrine is a tourist attraction here out by Disney World).
None of these make much sense to me. It is the trembling, unwed teenage mother of this child “destined for the falling and rising of many….a sign that will be opposed…” who must have been absolutely terrified as the venerable Simeon foretold her baby’s future that I understand. The pain of seeing your child die before you must, indeed, be much like a sword piercing one’s very soul.
For these eyes of mine have seen the Savior
whom you have prepared for all the world to see..
I recruited a classmate from the seminary, my dear friend, Deidre, to read the part of Mary and I read the part of the messenger. Standing on opposite ends of altar in the center of the parish, we hurled these anguished words to one another and the people assembled. To this day, this laud and the memory of that Good Friday vigil still pierces my own soul. And so I offer it to you this day of lamentation and loss with a number of images that have moved me:
“Holy Mary, mother of G-d, be with us sinners now and at the hour of our death.”
Jacapone da Todi, “The Lamentation of the Virgin,” The Lauds
Lady, Queen of Heaven, they have taken your son.
Hurry, come and see – they are beating Him,
Whipping Him brutally; they will kill Him.
How can this be? My son, who has done no wrong,
My hope – how could they have take Him?
Judas betrayed Him for thirty pieces of silver;
For him, a good business deal.
Magdalene, help! Help me – Oh, the anguish!
They have taken him prisoner, just as I was told.
Lady, Queen of Heaven, come rescue Him.
Quick, they are spitting on Him;
Now they’re taking Him before Pilate.
Pilate, I beseech you, do Him no harm;
I can show you that those who accuse Him lie.
Crucify Him, crucify Him! According to our law
He who claims to be king must be punished.
Listen to me, I beg of you, LOOK AT ME!
Have you ever seen any suffering like mine?
Will you not be moved to pity?
Bring out two thieves to be His companions;
Crown the pretender, crown Him with thorns!
My Son, my Son, my Son, my loving lily,
Who can console me in my anguish
Son, whose gentle eyes once smiled on me,
Why do you not answer me?
Why hid from the mother who nursed You?
Lady, here is the cross
On which they will raise
The true Light of the world.
O cross, will you take my son from me?
And what will you accuse Him of,
Since he had done no wrong?
Hurry, O sorrowful one,
They’re stripping your son,
They will nail Him to the cross.
If they have stripped Him of His garments,
Let me then see His bloody wounds!
Lady, they’ve taken one of His hands,
Pressed it against the cross,
And the nail has ripped through the flesh.
They’ve taken the other hand,
Stretched it out on the cross,
And the pain spreads and grows.
Lady, they’ve taken His feet
And nailed them to the tree;
They’ve broken all His bones and joints.
Oh let me begin to chant the dirge,
My son has been taken from me.
O Son, my fair Son,
Who was it that killed You?
Oh, that they had ripped out my heart,
That I might not see Your torn flesh
Hanging from the cross!
Mother, why have you come?
Your agony and tears crush Me;
To see you suffer so will be My death.
My anguish is not without cause;
Oh my Son, Father and Spouse,
Who was it wounded and stripped You?
Mother, weep no more; stay and help
Those dear to me, the friends I leave behind.
Son, do not ask this of me; let me die with You.
Let me breathe my last here at Your side.
A common grave for son and mother,
Since ours is a common agony.
Mother, my heart in tears, I commend you into the hands
Of John, My chosen one; call him you son.
John, here is My mother, take her with love;
Have pity on her,
They have pierced her heart.
My Son, You have breathed Your last;
Son of a mother frightened and dazed,
Son of a mother destroyed by grief,
Tortured, tormented Son!
Son without peer, fair and rosy cheeked,
To whom shall I turn now that You have left me?
Why did the world so despise You?
Gentle and sweet Son, Son of a sorrowful mother,
How cruelly You have been treated!
John, my new son, your brother is dead:
The sword they prophesied has pierced my heart.
They have killed both mother and son,
One cruel death for both,
Embracing each other and their common cross!
Post-Script: La Pieta
In 1990, I visited the Vatican with my husband, Andy, and my family. We had split up to see whatever struck our fancy in the Basilica of St. Peter. I had attended a eucharist with German tourists under the massive dome and baldachino and then headed out to the graves of the popes below the altar. With some time on my hands, I saw a crowd of people near the doors and decided to see what they found so interesting.
As I got closer, I first saw the plexiglass protective barrier around a sculpture which soon swam into focus. It was the Pieta. Named for both the pity of a Mother holding the body of her dead son as well as her piety in remaining at this place of suffering even as all the male disciples had run away and hidden, Michelangelo’s masterpiece is absolutely stunning.
I found myself breathless as I drew closer to get a good look at the sorrowful face of Mary, a sword having indeed pierced her very soul. Many people around me were overcome with emotion. Out of the corner of my eye I spotted a woman silently weeping. I turned to get a better look and immediately recognized her.
It was my own Mother.
Suddenly, the Pieta became real for me in a very profound sense. There is no pain like the loss of one’s child. Things are not supposed to happen this way. And when they do, there are no words to describe the pain. Michelangelo’s capturing of this moment is very powerful in its loving detail and yet its simplicity. And for that moment, watching my Mother weeping at this image of a lost son, I had just an inkling of what it feels like to have a sword pierce your very soul.
Harry Scott Coverston
If the unexamined life is not worth living, surely an unexamined belief system, be it religious or political, is not worth holding.
Most things worth considering do not come in sound bites.
For what does G-d require of you but to do justice, and to love kindness, and to walk humbly with your G-d? (Micah 6:8, Hebrew Scriptures)