First Lenten Sermon: Mary shows us how to participate in Christ’s sufferings
In his first Lenten Sermon, the Preacher of the Papal Household, Fr Raniero Cantalamessa, OFM Cap., reflects on the kenosis – or self-emptying – of Mary, the Mother of God. The full text of his sermon follows:
“O WOMAN, WHAT HAVE YOU TO DO WITH ME?”
The Kenosis of the Mother of God
First Sermon, Lent 2020
In our Lenten meditations we continue our journey in the footsteps of Mary that we initiated last Advent. This will be a way to put ourselves under the protection of the Virgin in a time of so severe test for all humanity due to the coronavirus pandemic.
We must admit that the New Testament doesn’t tell us much about Mary, at least not as much as we would expect, considering the place the Mother of God was to acquire in the Church. However, an attentive study will show us that Mary figures into the three most important stages constituting the mystery of salvation. In fact, there are three specific stages that together form the great mystery of redemption: the incarnation of the Word, the paschal mystery, and Pentecost.
Mary was present at all three of these fundamental events. She was certainly present at the incarnation, which actually took place in her womb. Mary was present at the paschal mystery, because it is written that she was standing by the cross of Jesus (see Jn 19:25). Finally, she was present at Pentecost, because it is written that the Holy Spirit came upon the apostles while they were with one accord devoted to prayer together with Mary, the mother of Jesus (see Acts 1:14). Mary’s presence in these three key moments of our salvation cannot have been by mere chance. They guarantee her a unique place beside Jesus in the work of redemption. Mary was the only one of all mankind to witness and take part in all three of these events.
On this second part of our journey let us follow Mary in the paschal mystery and allow her to guide us to a deeper understanding and participation in Christ’s sufferings. May Mary take us by the hand and encourage us to follow her along the way as she tells us, like a mother talking to her children gathered round her, “Let us also go, that we may die with him” (Jn 11:16). In the Gospel, these words were uttered by Thomas, but it was Mary who lived them.
She Learned Obedience from What She Suffered
In Jesus’ life, the paschal mystery didn’t begin when he was seized in the garden, and its duration wasn’t just the Holy Week. His whole life, from the moment John the Baptist greeted him as the Lamb of God, was a preparation for Passover. According to St. Luke’s Gospel, Jesus’ public life was a slow and relentless journey toward Jerusalem, where he would accomplish his “exodus,” that is his departure from this life (see Lk 9:31).
Parallel with the journey of the new obedient Adam, the journey of the new Eve developed. For Mary too, the paschal mystery began rather early. Simeon’s words on the sign of contradiction and the sword that would pierce her heart had already been a premonition, which Mary kept in her heart together with all the other words. The aim of the present meditation is to follow Mary during Jesus’ public life and to see her as our model during this period.
What happens normally when a soul called to holiness has been filled with grace? What happens when that soul has generously said yes in faith and has willingly started to do good works and cultivate virtue? A period of purification and deprivation follows. The dark night of faith arrives. And we shall see that in this period of her life, Mary is our guide and model precisely in how we should behave when it is “pruning time” in our lives.
In his encyclical Redemptoris mater, written for the Marian Year, the Holy Father, John Paul II, rightly applied to Mary’s life the broad category of the kenosis, with which St. Paul explained the earthly event of Jesus: “Christ Jesus, though he was in the form of God, did not count equality with God a thing to be grasped, but emptied [ekenosen] himself” (Phil 2:6-7). “Through faith,” the Pope wrote, “Mary is fully united to Christ in his self-emptying. . . . At the foot of the Cross Mary shares through faith in the shocking mystery of this self- emptying.” This self-emptying was consummated at the foot of the cross, but it had started much earlier. Even in Nazareth and especially during Jesus’ public life she advanced in her pilgrimage of faith. It is obvious that even then she suffered “a particular heaviness of heart, linked with a sort of night of faith.”
All of this renders the events concerning Mary extraordinarily meaningful for us; it restores Mary to the Church and to humanity. We must joyfully acknowledge the great development there has been in devotion to Mary, which those of us who have lived the time spanning Vatican Council II cannot but be aware of. Before the council, the fundamental category through which Mary’s greatness was explained was that of privilege, or exemption.
It was thought that she had been exempted not only from original sin and corruption (privileges the Church defined in the dogmas on the Immaculate Conception and the Assumption), but it was even believed that Mary had been exempted from the pangs of childbirth, from fatigue, doubt, temptation, ignorance, and (worse still) even from death. In fact, some believed that Mary didn’t die before being assumed into heaven.
All these things, it was reasoned, are consequences of sin, but Mary was sinless. They didn’t realize that instead of associating Mary with Jesus, they were totally dissociating her from him who, although he was without sin, had wanted to experience all these things: fatigue, sorrow, anguish, temptation, and death for our sake. All of this was reflected in the iconography on the Blessed Mother in the way she was depicted in statues, paintings, and pictures, generally as a disincarnate and idealized creature of a beauty that was often purely human and that any woman would love to possess—as a woman, in brief, who seems to have barely touched the earth.
Nowadays, since Vatican Council II, we no longer try to explain Mary’s unique holiness so much through privilege as through faith. Mary “advanced in her pilgrimage of faith.” This doesn’t diminish Mary’s greatness; rather, it increases it beyond measure. Before God, the spiritual greatness of a person in this life is not in fact measured so much by what God gives as by what God asks of the person. And as we shall see, God asked a lot of Mary, more than of any other person, more even than he asked of Abraham.
In the New Testament there are very powerful statements about Jesus. One of these says that “we have not a high priest who is unable to sympathize with our weaknesses, but one who in every respect has been tempted as we are, yet without sinning” (Heb 4:15); another statement tells us that “Although he was a Son, he learned obedience through what he suffered” (Heb 5:8). If Mary followed her son in his kenosis, these words, with the due distinctions made, apply to her also and are the key to understanding her life. Although she was the mother, Mary learned obedience through what she suffered.
Was Jesus perhaps not obedient enough in childhood or did he not know what obedience was, so that he had to learn it through what he suffered later on? No, “learn” in this context means what the Bible generally means by “know,” that is to say, the practical meaning of “experience” or “relish.” Jesus practiced obedience and grew in it because of what he suffered. An ever-greater spirit of obedience was necessary to overcome ever-greater trials and temptations, to the supreme trial of death.
Mary, too, learned obedience and faith; she grew in both through what she suffered, so that with all confidence we may say of her that we have a mother who is able to sympathize with our weaknesses, our fatigue, and our temptations, one who was tempted as we are, yet without sinning.
Mary in the Public Life of Jesus
In the Gospels there are references to Mary which, in the past when the idea of privilege dominated, created a certain sense of uneasiness among believers and which now, instead, seem to be milestones in Mary’s pilgrimage in faith. We have therefore no reason to disregard or smooth over with convenient explanations.
Let us start with the loss of Jesus in the Temple (see Lk 2:41ff.). This was the beginning of the paschal mystery of deprivation for the mother. In fact, what did he say to her when they found him? “How is it that you sought me? Did you not know that I must be in my Father’s house?” (v. 49). “How is it that you sought me?”—words that placed a different will between Jesus and Mary, an infinitely more important will, making every other relationship secondary, even his filial relationship with her.
Later on, Mary is mentioned at Cana in Galilee right at the beginning of Jesus’ public life. We know the facts. What did Jesus answer when Mary discreetly asked him to intervene? “O woman, what have you to do with me?” No matter how we try to explain these words they still sound harsh and mortifying. Once again they seem to place a distance between Jesus and his mother.
All three of the Synoptic Gospels relate this next episode, which took place during Jesus’ public ministry. One day while Jesus was preaching, his mother and his brethren came to talk with him. Just like any mother, his mother was probably worried about his health, because the preceding verses recount that he could not even eat because of the crowd (see Mk 3:20). A small detail to note: Mary, his mother, had to beg even for the right to see him and talk with him. She didn’t take advantage of being his mother to push her way through the crowd. Instead, she remained standing outside, and it was others who went to Jesus and said, “Your mother and your brethren are outside asking for you.” But here too, the important thing is what Jesus said: “Who are my mother and my brethren?” (Mk 3:33).
We already know what he then went on to say. Let us place ourselves in Mary’s shoes, and we shall be able to sense the humiliation and suffering these words caused her. We now know that they were words of praise rather than reproach for his mother, but she didn’t know it or, at least, she didn’t know it at that moment. For her they held only the bitterness of refusal. There is no mention of Jesus going out to talk to her. More likely than not Mary had to go away without seeing her son or speaking with him.
Another day, St. Luke relates, a woman in the crowd raised her voice in an enthusiastic outburst toward Jesus, exclaiming, “Blessed is the womb that bore you, and the breasts that you sucked!” This compliment would be enough on its own to make any mother happy, but Mary, if she was present or came to hear of it, couldn’t dwell on these words long enough to relish them because Jesus hastened to correct the woman at once and said, “Blessed rather are those who hear the word of God and keep it!” (Lk 11:27-28).
Let us look at one last example. At a certain point in his Gospel, St. Luke mentions Jesus’ female followers, and he names some holy women who had been blessed by him and who “provided for him out of their means” (see Lk 8:2-3), that is to say, they looked after his and the apostles’ material needs, preparing meals for them, washing or mending their clothes. How does this concern Mary? She was not mentioned among these women, and we all know how much a mother longs to do these little things for a son, especially if he is consecrated to the Lord. It was the total sacrifice of her heart.
Such a precise and coherent series of facts and words cannot be there just by pure chance. Mary, too, had to go through her kenosis. Jesus’ kenosis consisted in this: instead of asserting his divine rights and prerogatives, he deprived himself, becoming a servant and appearing before all as a man just like any other man. Mary’s kenosis consisted in the fact that, instead of asserting her rights as the Messiah’s mother, she let herself be deprived and appeared before all as a woman just like any other woman.
The fact that he was God’s Son didn’t spare Christ all kinds of humiliations, just as the fact of being God’s mother didn’t spare Mary all kinds of humiliations. Jesus said the Word is what God uses to prune and clean the branches: “You are already made clean by the word which I have spoken to you” (Jn 15:3), and this is the way he “pruned” his mother. Was this not, perhaps, precisely the sword that would one day pierce her heart, as Simeon had predicted?
Mary’s divine maternity was also a human experience; there was a carnal aspect to it in the positive sense of the word. That son was her son, her only treasure and her only support in life. But she had to renounce all that was humanly exciting in her calling. Her son himself saw to it that she gained no earthly benefit from her motherhood. Although she was his mother, she followed Jesus as if she were not. Once his ministry had started, Jesus had nowhere to rest his head, and Mary had nowhere to rest her heart.
To her already great material poverty Mary added a spiritual poverty to the highest degree. This spiritual poverty consisted in accepting total deprivation of all privileges, in not being able to count on anything, neither on the past nor the future nor revelations nor promises, as if these were not her affair and had never taken place. It’s a kind of “dark night of the memory.” It consists in forgetting oneself—or, better, in being unable to recall the past, no matter how much one tries—and in straining forward only toward God and living in pure hope. This is the true and radical poverty of spirit, which is rich only in God and even then is rich only in hope.
Toward his mother Jesus behaved like a clear-minded and demanding spiritual director who, having sensed he is dealing with an exceptional soul, doesn’t allow the soul to waste time or to dwell on a lower level amidst natural sentiments and consolations. If he too is a holy man, he draws the soul on without rest toward total deprivation in view of union with God. Jesus taught Mary self-denial. He directs all his followers in all centuries through his Gospel, but he directed his mother personally and orally.
On the one hand, he let himself be led by the Father by means of the Spirit wherever the Father wanted: into the desert to be tempted, up the mountain to be transfigured, into Gethsemane to sweat blood. He said, “I always do what is pleasing to him” (Jn 8:29). On the other hand, Jesus led Mary in the same “race” to do the Father’s will.
Mary, Jesus’ Disciple
How did Mary react to the way the Son and God himself dealt with her? Let us read again the texts we have recalled. We shall note that never was there the slightest hint of her will being in opposition to God’s, or of objection or self-justification on Mary’s part; there was no attempt ever to get Jesus to change his mind! There was absolute docility.
Here we see the unique personal holiness of the Mother of God, the highest marvel of grace. To realize this, all we have to do is make a comparison with St. Peter, for example. When Jesus informed Peter that rejection, passion, and death awaited him in Jerusalem, Peter rebuked him and said, “God forbid, Lord! This shall never happen to you” (Mt 16:22). He was worried about Jesus but also about himself. Mary wasn’t worried about herself.
Mary remained in silence. Her answer to everything was her silence. Mary’s silence was of another quality. This was clear at Cana in Galilee when, instead of being offended, Mary understood through faith and perhaps from the way Jesus looked at her that she could insist, so she said to the servants, “Do whatever he tells you” (Jn 2:5). Even after the harsh words Jesus used when they found him in the Temple and which Mary didn’t understand, it is written that Mary was silent and “kept all these things in her heart” (Lk 2:51).
The fact that Mary kept silent doesn’t signify that everything was easy for her and that she didn’t have to overcome difficulties. She was free from sin, not from struggle and from what saint John Paul II calls “ the particular heaviness of heart, linked with a sort of night of faith”. If Jesus in Gethsemane had to struggle and sweat blood to get his human will to adhere fully to the Father’s will, is it surprising that his mother had to face agony too? One thing, however, is certain: under no circumstance whatsoever would Mary have wanted to turn back. When certain souls, led by God along similar paths, are asked if they want to pray for it to end and go back to being as they once were, they immediately answer, “No!”, no matter how perturbed they are and even at times on the verge of apparent desperation.
Having contemplated Mary as mother of Christ, in Advent, let us now contemplate her as his disciple. Concerning Jesus’ words, “Who is my mother? . . . Whoever does the will of God is my brother, and sister, and mother” (Mk 3:33-35), St. Augustine commented:
Didn’t the Virgin do the Father’s will, she who believed in faith and in faith conceived, was chosen for salvation to be born for us among men, and was created by Christ before Christ was created in her womb? Holy Mary did the Father’s will completely; and therefore it is more meritorious for Mary to have been Christ’s disciple rather than Christ’s mother. It is worth more, it is a greater privilege, to have been a disciple rather than Christ’s mother. Mary was happy because before giving birth to a Son, she had carried the Master in her womb. . . . This is why Mary was blessed, she had listened to God’s Word and practiced it.
In the flesh Mary is therefore only Christ’s mother, but spiritually she is his sister and mother.
Are we therefore to think that Mary’s life was one of constant affliction, a dismal life? On the contrary. Judging it in accordance with the lives of the saints, we must say that day by day Mary discovered a new kind of joy, with respect to the maternal joys of Bethlehem or Nazareth, when she pressed Jesus to her breast and he pressed himself to her cheek. The joy of not doing her own will. The joy of believing. The joy of giving to God what for him is the most precious thing, just as, also in relation to God, there is greater joy in giving than in receiving. The joy of discovering a God whose ways are inaccessible and whose thoughts are not our thoughts but who, because of this, makes himself known for what he really is: God, the Holy One.
A great mystic who had had similar experiences, saint Angela of Ffoligno, spoke of a special joy at the very limit of human understanding, which she called the “joy of incomprehensibility” (gaudium incomprehensibilitatis). This consists in understanding that one cannot understand, but that a God who could be understood would no longer be God. This incomprehensibility gives rise to joy rather than sadness because it shows that God is even richer and greater than anything you can imagine and that he is “your” God! Joy such as this is what the saints possess in heaven and what, according to St. Angela of Foligno, the Blessed Virgin must have experienced at times even in this life.
From our meditation on Mary during the public life of Jesus we can take a consoling assurance: We have a mother who is able to understand our weakness having been “tempted” herself in every way, like us, except sin. Now that she lives glorified in heaven at the side of her Son, she can stretch out her hand and pull us in her wake, saying to us with even more truth than the Apostle, “Be imitators of me, as I am of Christ” (1 Cor 11:1).
In this time of great suffering let us turn to the Mother of God with the prayer so dear to the Christian people: