This week we’ll celebrate two important feasts: the Exaltation of the Holy Cross, on September 14, and the following day, September 15, we’ll remember Our Lady of Sorrows. Two days linked forever in meaning, inseparable, poignant.
September 15 also happens to be my birthday. And for a long time, as long as I was old enough to realize who I shared the day with, I felt a little – cheated. I mean, it’s a bit of a downer to liturgically “celebrate” all the bitterness in Mary’s life on a day for celebrating your own. Not that I ever thought it should be all about me, but as a child, it just didn’t seem quite fair. To enter the world as Mary grieved at the Cross.
Eventually I made peace with it. And then I considered it an honor to be born on a Marian day, whichever one it may be. Forever I’ll be tucked into that title, a little footnote on her calendar. And as I got older, the meaning of suffering, hers and my own, took on its own strange beauty and could be appreciated. At least, I reasoned, I have a patroness in all the little crosses I drag reluctantly as I shuffle along, hopefully heavenward.
But today I came to love it.
Suddenly, in my Suburban. A flash of clarity at a stoplight, that came, like most good things, while meditating on the rosary. It was this: Our Lady of Sorrows is the Cause of Our Joy.
These are both ancient titles of Mary, but I had never held them together in my heart before, each one like a mirror reflecting the other, returning its own light. Each one meaningless, really, without the other. There is no value in suffering without it’s little sunday at the end, and there is no joyful redemption without the cross. There just isn’t. It’s one of those paradoxes our faith is famous for.
First, Our Lady of Sorrows, the woman who tasted bitterness at the prophecy of Simeon, when she hears that a sword would pierce her heart, already fear stabbing her. But then, as always, a yes. Each sorrow a yes. Specifically, we remember seven: The Prophecy of Simeon, the Flight into Egypt, the Loss of the Child Jesus in the Temple, their Meeting on the Way to Calvary, Jesus’ Death on the Cross, Mary’s Reception of His Body, And the Placing of His Body in the Tomb. Those are the big ones. And all the little piercings, too, each step he took away from her, into the crowds that would kill him, each soul that rejected him, each sin she saw, each one was an ache. But every time there is the yes, the giving away of herself into the will of God. Every sorrow was sealed with a “fiat” that gave it eternal power. Until finally it would culminate at the foot of the Cross, with her leaning into that will with a silent agony we can only imagine.
And then. In that darkest hour, in the horrible silence as heaven held its breath, He spoke. “Woman, behold your son…behold your mother.” In that extreme grief, there was yet another yes. And we all flooded into her heart, hollowed out by humility and suffering. The day he wrenched eternal life back for us, he gave us the source of his own human life – he handed us his Mother. And we won twice.
So that’s one reason she’s the Cause of Our Joy. Because in another act of generosity only possible for God Himself, she is ours. Our Lady. In the most anguished hour of all her sorrows, we received a gift that the angels would envy if they could envy. We share her with them as a Queen, but only to us can she be a Mother. In all things she shares our life and loves us with unspeakable tenderness. Once we have become her children, we feel the warm gentle weight of her gaze that makes life bearable even in its most difficult days. “Our faith tells us that here below, in our present life, we are pilgrims, wayfarers,” says St. Josemaria Escriva. “Our lot is one of sacrifices, suffering, and privations. Nonetheless, joy must mark the rhythm of our steps. ‘Serve the Lord with joy’ – there is no other way to serve Him.” Every shimmering joy, each a foretaste of the eternal that awaits us, is from her spoon.
She is also the Cause of Our Joy because by the design of God, it is only through her that He came. Christ, our salvation, came through this little vessel and we are so forever grateful. From the first, the big “Fiat” spoken to Gabriel, divinity took flesh within her and finally, our salvation was underway. She is the first chapter in the book of eternal life. Joy itself comes to the world, and only through Mary. St. John the Baptist was the first to feel it, leaping with joy as a unborn baby as he felt their presence, even as she herself exclaims, “My soul magnifies the Lord, and my spirit rejoices in God my Savior!” (Luke 1:47)
Appropriately, then, we rejoice too because she is honored in heaven and earth. She is given a seat next to her son, she is crowned Queen of Heaven, the final victory is given to her. “A great marvel appeared in the heaven: a woman, dressed with the sun, with the moon at her feet, and on her head a crown of twelve stars.” (Revelation 12:1) If our Mother is Queen, then we take heart. St. Josemaria Escriva reminds us that we are prompted to “acknowledge the basis for this joyful hope. Yes, we are still pilgrims, but our mother has gone ahead, where she points to the reward of our efforts. She tells us we can make it. And, if we are faithful, we will reach home.” So she is the Cause of Our Joy because she is a sign of our salvation. What we hope for she holds high as a promise fulfilled.
Finally, and this is the difficult part, but what brings it all full circle – Our Lady of Sorrows is the Cause of Our Joy because, Fr. John Hardon said, “She enjoyed the happiness of suffering with Christ, suffering for Christ, suffering like Christ. How the meaning of happiness is taught us by the mother of God…happiness on earth is a measure of our living lives of sacrifice as Our Lady did. When we address Our Lady as the Cause of Our Joy, we mean it… She is the Cause of Our Joy because our joy will depend on how faithfully we allow Mary to teach us what it means to be happy.”
What he’s saying is this: if joy is union with God, then there’s a cross in it for us. No cross, no joy. We can run away from it, and maybe there’ll be a little relief in the distractions of the world, but no real joy. Only by leaning in, as she did, can true joy be found, and once we do, we find that being so close to a God who suffered too takes on a certain sweetness. No Sunday sunrise without Friday’s slow fade. No Queen of Heaven without the Sorrowful Mother.
I guess then, it is a “happy” birthday after all. In the most joyful sense of the word.