Sermons, hymns, meditations and other musings to guide our annual pilgrim's progress through the liturgical year.

Sunday, September 15, 2019



According to our five senses alone, the only thing we can experience first-hand, the only perception we have of reality, is what comes to us through our eyes, ears, nose, mouth and touch.  By these means, we feel, we know, we understand only the things that affect ourselves directly.  We cannot have someone else’s experiences, nor they ours.  We can’t see things through their eyes.  When they describe to us what a mango tastes like, we can’t know that taste until we eat a mango ourselves.  And we cannot truly feel someone else’s joy or pain, we can never know the anguish of losing a child, for example, until it happens to us.  And then we must grieve alone.  To be sure, others can shareour sorrow, but not to the extent that wefeel it and live it.  Even our closest friends, our own family even, cannot feel our pain.  Indeed, hackneyed expressions like “I feel your pain” or “I know how you feel” are usually met these days with vigorous objections that “no, you don’t know how I feel”.  Because everyone knows, nobodyreally feels your pain.  Our pain is our own, we are prisoners within our own reality, cut off from the outside world and everyone else in it, made to endure alone the cross that the good Lord allows to be placed on our shoulders.  We may be fortunate enough to find a Simon of Cyrene to help us carry one of them now and again, but it’s still our cross and only ours.
To be able truly to feel, in the fullest sense of the word, the pain of another, is a gift of God.  Perhaps not a gift we really want to have…  But it was a gift that was bestowed upon the blessed, the most holy Mother of God.  A gift that came in the form of a sevenfold sword.
Today is the feast of the Seven Sorrows of Our Lady.  It is unique among the feastdays of the Church in that it is celebrated twice in the course of each year, once on September 15, and then again on the Friday of Passion Week.  And twice a year we call to mind our Blessed Mother’s Seven Sorrows.  The Prophecy of Simeon, the Flight into Egypt, the Loss of the Child Jesus in the Temple, Mary Meets Jesus on the Way to Calvary, Jesus Dies on the Cross, Mary Receives the Body of Jesus in Her Arms, the Body of Jesus Is Placed in the Tomb.  We make the seven Stations of the Sorrowful Mother, we say her Chaplet, maybe we even meditate deeply, profoundly, on her sorrows.  We shake our heads in sympathy, maybe we even shed a tear, a tear of genuine sorrow, perhaps mingled with that nasty sense of pride that always seems to spoil our most heartfelt devotions, precisely because we give ourselvescredit for having such ‘godly sympathy’ with others.  What pitiful creatures we are.
But with all the sympathy we’re able to muster, do we dare to presume, dare to claim that we actually feel ourselvesthe sorrow that Our Lady felt when she lost her Son in the temple?  Do we honestly have the audacity to believe that our poor attempts to grasp the extent of her grief come anywhere near what she felt as she met Jesus on the road to Calvary, or as she stood at the foot of the Cross and watched him fight for his last dying breath, or as they placed his limp and lifeless body in her arms just as she had once held him tight in that cold stable in Bethlehem so many years before?
No.  We are prisoners as I said.  We cannot leave our own skin and completely take on the sufferings of another.  We cannot feelwhat they feel.
But Our Lady can.
On that day when, with the faithful St. Joseph, she took our Lord to the temple in Jerusalem for the very first time, to present her newborn Son to God, Our Lady gave him into the hands of an old and venerable man of Jerusalem, to whom God had promised that he would not taste death until he had first seen the Messiah.  The old man, whose name was Simeon, was filled with the Holy Ghost, and prophesied, saying:  “Mine eyes have seen thy salvation which thou hast prepared before the face of all people, to be a light to lighten the Gentiles, and to be the glory of his people, Israel.”  We celebrate this event at Candlemas, February 2, and it is the fourth Joyful Mystery of the Rosary.  But… and yes, there always seem to be a “but”, those joyful mysteries always seem to have an element of sorrow mingled in, just as our own joys are so often mixed with some degree of suffering.  According to the Gospel of St. Luke, St. Simeon then blessed them and spoke to Mary, the Child’s Mother.  The words he now uttered must have chilled the heart of this Mother who listened, “keeping all these sayings in her heart”.  This second prophecy of St. Simeon pierced that heart:   “Behold,” he said, “this child is set for the fall and rising again of many in Israel; and for a sign which shall be spoken against; (yea, a sword shall pierce through thine own soul also,) that the thoughts of many hearts may be revealed.” This Prophecy of Simeon is the first of the Seven Sorrows of Our Lady.
These Seven Sorrows were that special gift from God that enabled Our Lady to feel anguish beyond that experienced by any other mortal.  It was the gift of the sword, a sword that was to pierce her heart seven times, each wound more painful than anything you or I have ever known.  The first three sorrows were her own:  this prophecy of Simeon, the flight into Egypt, and the loss of the Christ Child in the temple.  They are all intimately connected with her relationship with her Son Jesus.  The other four sorrows all took place on a single day, the most awful day in human history.  It was the first Good Friday.  Jesus had gone through the agony in Gethsemane the previous night.  He had been abused and spat upon all night along. He had been scourged beyond mortal endurance, crowned with thorns.  We can only imagine what a terrible sight he was as he now dragged his Cross painfully up the hill to the place where he would be executed. 
And as he got nearer to Golgotha, this great Creator of the starry skies, who as well as being God was also a Man, felt as many other a man might feel. He just wanted his Mother.  With each tortuous step he looked around for that familiar face in the crowd.  And then, as he turned a corner on that Via Dolorosa, suddenly there in front of him she stood.  Their eyes met, and this Mother took in the spectacle, her Son, bruised, wounded, disfigured beyond recognition, covered with sweat and blood and spittle—and you can imagine her gut-wrenching reaction.   The sudden intake of breath, the gasp of horror, the hand clasping involuntarily to her mouth to stop the cry of anguish from escaping.  And she beheld the Lamb of God, that taketh away the sins of the world.  And she felt his pain.
Not only her own pain of compassion, which God only knows must already have been worse than anything the strongest man could endure without passing out. But she felt hispain too.  Here was the most unique and exquisitely painful aspect of that sword with which she had been gifted by God.  That she could actually experience herself the pain of her Son.  That she is able, unlike us, truly to feelthe pain of another.  This is true “com-passion”—suffering with.  She doesn’t merely share his pain, she actually feels it.  The pain of the torn flesh on his back where he had been scourged. Her own back feels the sting of each one of those stripes.  The pain where the thorns had been driven into her Son’s head.  Now her own head is split apart by that same agony.  His crown presses down upon her brow.  His cross weighs heavily on her shoulders. His nails pierce her hands.
Listen to these three verses from the hymn of today’s Vespers:
They took thy Son with scorn, with scourges him assailed,
And crowned him with the thorn, and on the Cross then nailed;
There with him thou wast torn—each hateful mockery
And cruel wounding wounded thee. 
The spitting and the blows; bearing the crushing Cross;
The nails, the thirst and woes; the dice that gamesters toss;
The death wrought by his foes;—whate'er his pain might be
Was also suffered there by thee. 
So, by him standing nigh, thou on that blood-stained hill
A thousand deaths didst die, obedient to his will;
As Simeon did descry, the sword of agony
Transfixed thy soul and martyred thee.
Although we cannot come close to experiencing the sorrow and pain felt by our Blessed Mother, we can be assured that shewas not held back by these same limits.  Where our hearts are cold, hers is burning with love and compassion. Where often we have to force ourselves to share the pain of another, Our Lady feelsthis pain herself in her very nature.  She is no prisoner of the limits of her own experience.  So when her divine Son takes on his shoulders the weight of suffering mankind; when “surely”, as the prophet Isaiah says: “he hath borne our griefs, and carried our sorrows”, so too does the Mother bear our griefs and carry our sorrows, she who feels all his pain, and endures all his torments with him.  
And so here, finally, we come to this great and lasting truth, and tremendous consolation.  Among the last words of our divine Saviour from the Cross, we hear him say:  “Woman, behold thy son.”   And St. John accepts the Mother of Jesus as his own.  Not on his own behalf only, but on behalf of the teeming millions who will make up the mystical Body of Christ, and call upon Mary as their Mother.  When you feel pain, when you feel sorrow, when you think you can no longer bear the cross you have been given, look around you.  You find sometimes the sympathy of friends and family, but it is fleeting and relatively superficial.  Look around you again.  Look around you as Jesus looked around on the road to Calvary.  Look until you turn that corner and there! “Behold thy Mother”. She is there waiting for you.  She alone will feel your pain as you do.  She alone will be able to assume your burden of suffering.  How consoling to know that there is someone who truly knows what you are going through, and strengthens you with her love and merciful compassion.  Lay at her feet your anguish, your torments.  To her send up your sighs, as you mourn and weep in this vale of tears.  
No longer merely describing your pain to another, you are now actually sharingit.  Ask yourself, how can I ever despair knowing that the Mother of God, myMother, is standing at the foot of my Cross, feeling my pain?  Stabat Mater dolorosa
Never deliberately thrust that sword of pain into Mary’s immaculate heart by committing sin, or by displeasing her or her Son in any way.  Instead, try and make reparation for your sins by prayer and penance—gladly take on some voluntary little sacrifice as her Son sacrificed everything for you.  Make every effort to help others with their burdens, especially the crosses that they find hardest to endure.  Be compassionate.  Share their grief, their suffering as genuinely and fully as you can.  And in return, remember from this time forth that with your Blessed Mother to share your crosses, your own yoke will indeed be easy, and your burden light.



By Fr. Edward Caswall, 1814-78

Come darkness, spread o’er Heav’n thy pall,
And hide, O sun, thy face;
While we that bitter death recall,
With all its dire disgrace.

And thou, with tearful cheek, wast there;
But with a heart of steel,
Mary, thou didst his moanings hear,
And all his torments feel.

He hung before thee crucified;
His flesh with scourgings rent;
His bloody gashes gaping wide;
His strength and spirit spent.

Thou his dishonour’d countenance,
And racking thirst, didst see;
By turns the gall, the sponge, the lance,
Were agony to thee.

Yet still erect in majesty,
Thou didst the sight sustain;—
Oh, more than Martyr! not to die
Amid such cruel pain!

Praise to the blessed Three in One;
Oh, may that strength be mine,
Which, sorrowing o’er her only Son,
Did in the Virgin shine!



Devotion to the Sorrowful Virgin began in thirteenth century Florence, when seven professionals withdrew from the world of business to serve God in a life of penance and prayer.  They had a particular devotion to our Lady, and founded a new religious order dedicated to her service.  They were named, appropriately enough, the Order of Servites, and their prayer was focused specifically on a form of the Rosary that recalled the following sorrows our Lady endured in union with her Son.

1.  The Prophecy of Simeon.
2.  The Flight into Egypt.
3.  The loss of the Christ Child in the Temple of Jerusalem.
4.  The Meeting with Jesus on the Way of Cross.
5.  The Crucifixion of Jesus on Mt. Calvary.
6.  The Piercing of the Side of Jesus with the Lance, & his Descent from the Cross.
7.  The Burial of Jesus by St. Joseph of Arimathea.

This form of the Rosary became extremely popular between the years 1347 and 1351, when members of the Servite Order actively promoted its use during the period of the Black Death, a terrible plague that wiped out a large percentage of the population of Europe.  The Servites were given permission to celebrate a new feast in honour of these Seven Sorrows, and it is this same feast that was later formally approved by Pope Pius VII and which we celebrate today.

These so-called Servite Rosaries are readily available online.  To say this Chaplet, begin with the Sign of the Cross and an Act of Contrition.  On the first bead, announce the First Sorrow (from the list above), say the Our Father, then say a Hail Maryon each of the seven beads that follow, concluding with the invocation Sorrowful and Immaculate Heart of Mary, pray for us.  Repeat this formula for each of the Sorrows.  After the invocation at the end of the Seventh and Last Sorrow, say three Hail Marysdedicated to our Lady’s tears, and conclude as follows:
V.  Pray for us, O Virgin most Sorrowful.

R.  That we may be made worthy of the promises of Christ. 

Let us pray.  Lord Jesus, we now implore, both for the present and for the hour of our death, the intercession of the most Blessed Virgin Mary, Thy Mother, whose holy soul was pierced at the time of Thy passion by a sword of grief. Grant us this favor, O Saviour of the world, Who livest and reignest with the Father and the Holy Ghost, world without end. Amen.