Wednesday 24 September 2008

Stabat Mater: a meditation

Imagine your own most beloved daughter or sister, imagine her as perfect as you could ever imagine any woman to be, and imagine that she has suffered the loss of a most beloved child and in a manner that none but the most strong-minded person could ever bear. Imagine, too, that she loved her child more than can be imagined and that you knew and had seen this.

You will still not have any more than but one small inkling of the ocean of pain and suffering caused to the all-loving and all-compassionate Virgin Mother of God at seeing her Son crucified upon the Cross - a Son Whom she knew to be truly her own Son and, at the same time, the very God Himself - innocent, pure, holy and perfect.

From the moment of the Annunciation until the Crucifixion and Resurrection, Mary lived every moment of her life for, and in compassion with, her Son. Her devotion was total and all-absorbing.

We know from our own experience the intense devotion of mothers for their children, a devotion so intense that they can sometimes even sense the suffering of their child from a distance.

Yet there never was a mother who had the same degree of intense devotion for her child as the Blessed Virgin Mary.

We can hardly imagine the suffering of a mother who sees her child suffer and die.

How much the less, then, can we even begin to imagine the intense suffering of the Blessed Virgin as she saw her own Son suffer and die, albeit He was the very perfection and personification of innocence. So great was her suffering that most other mortals could not endure it and would run from it or die of it.

She did neither - although she suffered pain as grim and dire as death itself. Yet she lived. For not only did she suffer more intensely than any other mother, or human being, but she also endured that suffering, uncomplaining and without flinching or resiling, to the end, tasting every bitter morsel for the sake of her Son and for the Redemption of mankind from sin.

In this way she truly was a Co-redemptrix with her Son, not in the sense that she could redeem mankind by any power of her own, but, to the exact contrary, solely by the sovereign command of God Himself, Who asked of her to suffer and compassionate with Him to the bitter end, for the sake of the salvation of all mankind. And so she did, obedient to her Son, Who was also her Lord, Master and God.

The mystery of the suffering of the Blessed Virgin is great indeed - unfathomable - and it is so because that is what God Himself desired and ordained.

In this mystery we see many things but above all we see the extraordinary and limitless humility of God, the God who chose to allow His own creation to participate in His own redemptive sufferings and to share in the sacrifice which only God could provide the grace to achieve.

See that? The Supreme Creator says to a mere created being "I desire that you should suffer with Me and so share in the Redemption that only I, God, could ever have provided for".

He let us do what only He, God, could otherwise do! See the remarkable humility of God so to humble Himself before His own creation, mere man?

This, indeed, is how God has arranged for us to become one with Him and to share eternal life with Him, for He has provided that we - mere mortals and creatures - should partake of the extraordinary act that is required to redeem us from the aboriginal act of defiance and sin that severed the first man from God.

That extraordinary act is the suffering of God upon a Cross to redeem us. Now He allows us to participate in that redemptive act and to add our own sufferings to His in payment of the debt of sin. This is compassion - to suffer with another from the Latin cum ("with") and passio ("passion" meaning suffering).

Only one creature could suffer with Him to the full and that was the Blessed Virgin Mother of God, our Lady St Mary. And she, with meekness and humility, accepted this terrible burden when she responded to the Holy Spirit with the words fiat mihi secundum verbum tuum - "let it be done unto me according to Thy word" - although, of course, she would have uttered it in a dialect of Aramaic. Her fiat shows that she is the utter antithesis of a Feminist.

We, however, are given the opportunity to share some of that redemptive suffering, if we are willing to take it on. We do so by offering up our own weak sufferings to be joined with His and hers.

We do this best when we offer our daily sufferings up at the Holy Sacrifice of the Mass when the sacrifice of the Cross on Calvary is re-enacted in an unbloody manner.

We do this by living the Christian year which is but the annual re-commemoration of the life of Christ from Advent to Nativity, from Cross and Resurrection to the Advent of the Holy Ghost.

This, too, is what our Lady did in her own life, at every instant, as she lived, with perfect compassion and devotion, the life of her Son from the Annunciation to the Cross and Resurrection, unto the very last.

This she did with the greatest intensity at the Crucifixion when, as the ancient Sequence has it:

Stabat mater dolorosa
iuxta Crucem lacrimosa,
dum pendebat Filius.

Cuius animam gementem,
contristatam et dolentem
pertransivit gladius.

O quam tristis et afflicta
fuit illa benedicta,
mater Unigeniti!

Quae maerebat et dolebat,
pia Mater, dum videbat
nati poenas inclyti.

At the Cross her station keeping,
stood the mournful Mother weeping,
close to Jesus to the last.

Through her heart, His sorrow sharing,
all His bitter anguish bearing,
now at length the sword has passed.

O how sad and sore distressed
was that Mother, highly blest,
of the sole-begotten One.

Christ above in torment hangs,
she beneath beholds the pangs
of her dying glorious Son.

We must stand in awe of such a mother, second to none in courage, devotion, patience, strength, grace and love.

If we pray to her and ask her for help, she will ask her Son to give us some of that immense strength which the Lord Himself gave to her.

We can, too, meditate upon her silent, quiet, enduring, powerful but always womanly, strength of will, character and integrity and thank God for it.

I find that I can sometimes do this a little better when I hear the Stabat Mater of Giovanni Battista Pergolesi, especially those opening bars which seem to speak, in their solemn beating as of a suffering human heart, so eloquently of the constancy and loyalty of the suffering Mother of God, standing beneath the Cross. Prepared for the worst and ready to endure it to the bitter end, this greatest of women shows a more perfect long-suffering than even the toughest of soldiers ever exhibited - yet she never loses even the tiniest portion of her complete femininity.

Listen to Pergolesi's great work here, in the powerful voices of soprano, Emma Kirkby, and countertenor, James Bowman:


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