As I wandered the streets of Italy last week on our family vacation, I became aware of all the Madonna art seemingly every few steps – on walls, in churches, in courtyards, in tiny alcoves. Paintings, sculptures, ancient, modern, simple, elaborate, colorful, plain, peaceful, painful.
I am a person of the Christian faith, though not Catholic. I am used to seeing brown-bearded, friendly-eyed pictures of Jesus. And like most Protestants, I don’t own a crucifix. No, we remove Jesus making it a clean and tidy cross. Pain-free, worry-free art. And Mary is not often seen outside the nativity, where she calmly sits beside Joseph and a few farm animals looking adoringly at the little bundle in the manger. So seeing Mary front and center repeatedly over the course of 10 days during Lent, no less, forced me to ponder the weight this mother carried so long ago.
Today, the fifth day of Holy Week, is Maundy Thursday, which commemorates the last supper Jesus had with his disciples before the three days of his passion, death, and resurrection. Madaleine L’Engle captures Mary’s heart during that time in a poem called Three Days:
When you agree to be the mother of God
you make no conditions, no stipulations.
You flinch before neither cruel thorn nor rod.
You accept the tears; you endure the tribulations.
But, my God, I didn’t know it would be like this.
I didn’t ask for a child so different from others.
I wanted only the ordinary bliss,
to be the most mundane of mothers.
I was particularly struck by this work of Madonna art in a church we happened upon in Montepulciano. The daggers in Mary’s heart as she looks over her battered son made me cringe.
When I first saw the mystery of the Word
made flesh I never thought that in his side
I’d see the callous wound of Roman sword
piercing my heart on the hill where he died.
How can the Word be silenced? Where has it gone?
Where are the angel voices that sang at his birth?
My frail heart falters. I need the light of the Son.
What is this darkness over the face of the earth?
Nothing can touch the emotional depiction of Mary holding her crucified son in Michelangelo’s masterpiece Pieta, currently housed in St. Peter’s Basilica, Vatican City. Her face, downcast and sad, yet showing grace and resignation.
The Madonna art I saw in Italy has made the greatest story in history relatable to me all over again. We would all love to bypass the pain and anguish part and get straight to the joy part – the empty tomb part – but that’s not real life and it’s not the whole story. While the focus of this season should remain on Jesus and his sacrifice, let us not forget the supporting characters … because they are us.
We are the mothers wondering why we were directed towards such a difficult path … one leading to pain, loss, and grief. We cry out for our hurting children. We don’t know if our hearts can handle the weight placed upon them. We look for hope in the darkness, but can’t seem to find it. We see His wounds and don’t yet realize they are all for us … that by his wounds we are healed. The clouds fog our view and dim the world.
Dear God, He has come, the Word has come again.
There is no terror left in silence, in clouds, in gloom.
He has conquered the hate; he has overcome the pain.
Where, days ago, was death lies only an empty tomb.
The secret should have come to me with his birth,
when glory shone through darkness, peace through strife.
For every birth follows a kind of death, and only after pain comes life.
His life is hope to the broken-hearted mothers. Redemption for the lost sons and daughters. Peace to the worriers. Comfort to the grieving. Whether your wounds are fresh or the scars of past injuries have faded, don’t just give a sideways glance at Good Friday. Take a look at Jesus on the cross. See his grieving mother and his disciples. Sit along side them and join your tears with theirs. Know that you are not alone. But also know that joy is coming.
We don’t know a lot about Mary except that she was the one person at both the birth and death of Jesus. We also know she was willing and available, no matter the cost. She knew a sword would pierce her soul, yet she carried on. Yes, she was forced to travel the hopeless valleys, but she was eventually lifted up by her very own Son.