The Church presents us with another beautiful matching of a Feast of Our Savior and a Memorial of Our Mother Mary this month (like the pair of Hearts, Sacred and Immaculate, following theof Corpus Christi in June). The Feast of the Exaltation of the Holy Cross is on September 14; the memorial of Our Lady of Sorrows follows on September 15. The pairing of these celebrations, even in their different levels on the liturgical and sanctoral calendars, properly guides us in our devotion and love of Our Savior and Our Lady. Both celebrations have a long history and are worthy of meditation.
The Feast of the Triumph of the Cross was observed in Rome in the late seventh century to commemorate the recovery of the Holy Cross by the Byzantine Emperor Heraclius in 629. St. Helena, Constantine’s mother, had found the True Cross in Jerusalem in the fourth century but the Persians had captured it and returned it after Heraclius defeated the Persian king Khosrau. The emperor returned it to Jerusalem, and this feast recalls that event.
But on a deeper level, of course, the Feast recalls Jesus’ triumph over death and the fulfillment of His great statement, “When I am lifted up from the earth, I will draw everyone to myself.” (John 12:32, which serves as the Communion). The liturgy of the Mass for this Feast includes both triumph and sorrow in the readings and prayers, since Jesus both suffers His Passion and defeats sin and death. From the Book of Numbers, the First Reading recalls the story of Moses and the bronze Seraph, raised on a pole—when the people Israel who had been grumbling against God for their sufferings, looked up to the serpent, they were healed of the serpent bites God had sent to afflict them.
The Responsorial Psalm is a poetic reminder of how God has forgiven His people for their betrayal:
But they flattered him with their mouths
and lied to him with their tongues . . .
But he, being merciful, forgave their sin
and destroyed them not . . .
The Second Reading is the great hymn of Jesus’ humility and exaltation from St. Paul’s Letter to Philippians, “Though he was in the form of God . . . he emptied himself . . . he humbled himself . . . becoming obedient to death, even death on a cross.” After this falling movement in the reading, Jesus rises:
Because of this, God greatly exalted him
And bestowed on him the name
That is above every name,
That at the name of Jesus
Every knee should bend,
Those in heaven and on earth and under the earth,
And every tongue confess that
Jesus Christ is Lord,
To the glory of God the Father.
(In the Extraordinary Form of the Latin Rite, also known as the Tridentine Rite, the congregation genuflects at the words “Every knee should bend”.)
And finally in the Gospel from St. John, Jesus makes the connection between Moses and the Seraph and Himself, as He tells Nicodemus that He must be lifted up so that those who believe in Him will have eternal life. From that passage comes the great John 3:16: “For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him might not perish but might have eternal life.” Just to continue this paradox of suffering and triumph, the Church used to mark the Ember Days of fasting that followed this feast on Wednesday, Friday, and Saturday.
September 15 then recalls the sorrow of Our Lady at the foot of the Cross as the fulfillment of Simeon’s prophecy at the Presentation of Jesus in the Temple: “and you yourself a sword shall pierce so that the thoughts of many hearts may be revealed” (Luke 2:35). The Gospel for Mass that day may be either the description of “his mother and the disciple . . . whom he loved” standing by the cross of Jesus (John 19:25-27) or the Presentation in the Temple (Luke 2:33-35). The sequence “Stabat Mater”–often sung while praying The Stations of the Cross–may be chanted after the Psalm. The readings and prayers of the Mass focus on Mary’s special sorrows, but also on her glory, as the verse proclaims, “Blessed are you, O Virgin Mary; without dying you won the martyr’s crown beneath the Cross of the Lord.”
Devotion to Our Lady of Sorrows became very popular in the monastic Cistercian and mendicant Servite orders in the thirteenth century. The memorial was first celebrated by the Servites; then Pope Pius VII added it to the Roman Calendar in 1814; Pope St. Pius X moved the memorial to September 15 in 1913.The Servites gave us the Chaplet of Our Lady of Sorrows encouraging meditation on seven events in the life of Mary:
- The Prophecy of Simeon (Luke 2:34-35)
- The Flight into Egypt (Matthew 2:13)
- The Loss of the Child Jesus in the Temple (Luke 2:43-45)
- Mary Meets Jesus on the Way to (from the Stations of the Cross)
- Jesus Dies on the Cross (John 19:25)
- Mary Receives the Body of Jesus in Her Arms (Matthew 27:57-59)
- The Body of Jesus Is Placed in the Tomb (John 19:40-42)
In religious art, Our Lady of Sorrows is depicted in three ways: as the Stabat Mater, standing by the cross, in the Pieta as an object of pity (most famously in Michelangelo’s sculpture, but also very movingly in Mel Gibson’s The Passion of the Christ), and as the Mater Dolorosa, Mother of Sorrows, often with seven swords (the seven sorrows) piercing her Immaculate Heart.
As the Entrancefor the Feast of the Exaltation of the Holy Cross proclaims, “We should glory in the Cross of our Lord Jesus Christ, in whom is our salvation, life and resurrection, through whom we are saved and delivered” (based on Galatians 6:14) even as we mourn with Our Lady: “At the Cross her station keeping/Stood the mournful Mother weeping/Close to Jesus to the last.”
Stephanie A. Mann is the author of Supremacy and Survival: How Catholics Endured the English Reformation, available from Scepter Publishers. She resides in Wichita, Kansas and blogs at www.supremacyandsurvival.blogspot.com. Stephanie is working on a book about the English Catholic Martyrs from 1534 to 1681. From August 4 through October 20, she will host a weekly radio program, “The English Reformation Today” on Radio Maria US.