Our Lady of Sorrows, the Sorrowful Mother or Mother of Sorrows, and Our Lady of the Seven Sorrows are names by which the Virgin Mary is referred to in relation to sorrows in life. For a while there were two feasts in honor of the Sorrowful Mother: one going back to the 15th century, the other to the 17th century. For a while both were celebrated by the universal Church: one on the Friday before Palm Sunday, the other in September. Now the feast of Our Lady of Sorrows is celebrated on September 15th in the western Catholic Church. It is a devotion on Mary’s experience of the way in which the prophecy of Simeon came to be:
When the days were completed for their purification according to the law of Moses, Mary and Joseph took Jesus up to Jerusalem to present him to the Lord… Now there was a man in Jerusalem whose name was Simeon. This man was righteous and devout, awaiting the consolation of Israel, and the Holy Spirit was upon him. It had been revealed to him by the Holy Spirit that he should not see death before he had seen the Messiah of the Lord. He came in the Spirit into the temple; and when the parents brought in the child Jesus to perform the custom of the law in regard to him, he took him into his arms and blessed God, saying: “Now, Master, you may let your servant go in peace, according to your word, for my eyes have seen your salvation, which you prepared in sight of all the peoples, a light for revelation to the Gentiles, and glory for your people Israel. The child’s father and mother were amazed at what was said about him; and Simeon blessed them and said to Mary his mother, “Behold, this child is destined for the fall and rise of many in Israel, and to be a sign that will be contradicted and you yourself a sword will pierce so that the thoughts of many hearts may be revealed.” (Luke 2:25-35)
Many early Church writers interpret the sword as Mary’s sorrows, especially as she saw Jesus die on the cross. Thus, the two passages are brought together as prediction and fulfillment. Saint Ambrose in particular sees Mary as a sorrowful yet powerful figure at the cross. Mary stood fearlessly at the cross while others fled. Mary looked on her Son’s wounds with pity, but saw in them the salvation of the world. As Jesus hung on the cross, Mary did not fear to be killed, but offered herself to her persecutors.
In Catholic religious imagery, the Blessed Virgin Mary is portrayed in a sorrowful affect, with seven daggers piercing her heart. These represent the seven traditional sorrows:
- The prophecy of Simeon (Luke 2:25-35)
- The Flight into Egypt (Matthew 2:13)
- The loss of the child Jesus in the Temple (Luke 2:34-45)
- Mary meeting Jesus on the way to Calvary (John 19:26-27)
- Jesus dying on the cross (John 19:30)
- The piercing of the side of Jesus and Mary’s receiving the body of Jesus in her arms (Matthew 27:57-59)
- The body of Jesus placed in the tomb (John 19:40-42)
Franciscan Media offers a very nice reflection on the Seven Sorrow that is well done.