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Song of the Sorrowful Mother

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“Give sorrow words,” writes Shakespeare in Macbeth (IV, 3, 209). Yet, in moments of great sorrow, this is often impossible to do. Words fail to come. In such instances, it is song, not speech, that allows us to give voice to grief, to lament, and perhaps, even in the depths of darkness, to discover the faintest glimmer of hope.

On this feast of Our Lady of Sorrows, the Church sings words of solace and comfort to the silent Virgin Mother who stands at the foot of her dying Son’s Cross. The ancient sequence Stabat Mater Dolorosa, sung in many churches today before the proclamation of John’s Gospel (19:25–27), allows us to stand with Mary at the foot of the Cross. This sequence, known in translation as At the Cross Her Station Keeping, is more familiar within the context of Lent, when it is often sung during communal recitations of the Stations of the Cross, yet today’s feast constitutes its original liturgical context.

Just as numerous artists have depicted the Sorrowful Mother at the foot of the Cross, so too have many composers set the Stabat Mater Dolorosa, contemplating this moment of agony and tenderness by creating heart-rending music. Giovanni Battista Pergolesi composed arguably one of the most beautiful and evocative settings of the Stabat Mater Dolorosa in 1736. Even now, 280 years later, this music still has the capacity to move listeners with its extraordinary pathos and luminosity.

Today, as we stand with Our Lady of Sorrows at the foot of the Cross, we turn to her, acknowledging our own sorrow in the realization that her Son’s unspeakable suffering is the result of our sinfulness and that of the whole human family. On our own, we cannot adequately give words to such crushing sorrow, and so the Church gives us the gift of words and music in the Stabat Mater Dolorosa, lifting us beyond our own limitations, allowing us to comfort our Sorrowful Mother in the hour when her heart was pierced by a sword (cf. Lk 2:35), and gently reminding us that, in Christ, death does not have the last word. Sorrow will give way to joy.

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.

Oh, how sad and sore distressed
Was that Mother highly blessed
Of the sole begotten One!

Christ above in torment hangs,
She beneath beholds the pangs
Of her dying, glorious Son.

Is there one who would not weep,
‘Whelmed in mysteries so deep,
Christ’s dear Mother to behold?

Can the human heart refrain
From partaking in her pain,
In that mother’s pain untold?

Bruised, derided, cursed, defiled,
She beheld her tender Child,
All with bloody scourges rent.

For the sins of his own nation
Saw him hang in desolation
Till his spirit forth he sent.

O sweet Mother! Font of love,
Touch my spirit from above,
Make my heart with yours accord.

Make me feel as you have felt;
Make my soul to glow and melt
With the love of Christ, my Lord.

Holy Mother, pierce me through,
In my heart each wound renew
Of my Savior crucified.

Let me share with you his pain,
Who for all our sins was slain,
Who for me in torments died.

Let me mingle tears with you,
Mourning him who mourned for me,
All the days that I may live.

By the cross with you to stay,
There with you to weep and pray,
Is all I ask of you to give.

Virgin of all virgins blest!
Listen to my fond request:
Let me share your grief divine.

Let me to my latest breath,
In my body bear the death
Of that dying Son of yours.

Wounded with his every wound,
Steep my soul till it has swooned
In his very Blood away.

Be to me, O Virgin, nigh,
Lest in flames I burn and die,
In his awful judgment day.

Christ, when you shall call me hence,
Be your Mother my defense,
Be your cross my victory.

While my body here decays,
May my soul your goodness praise,
Safe in heaven eternally. Amen. Alleluia.

Listen to the entire work here.

Featured Image: Susanna Fratarcangeli, CC-BY-NC-2.0.

Carolyn Pirtle

Carolyn Pirtle is the associate director of the Notre Dame Center for Liturgy and a composer of liturgical music.