In the month of May, when the Church and the whole world sing of the joy of motherhood, let us spend some time in contemplation of our Pieta from this beautiful perspective.
I remember hearing a priest in Spain say that a mother is something so beautiful that even God wanted to have one. It is a deep and beautiful thought: God, who had everything, who was infinitely happy, didn’t have a Mother! And He wanted to give Himself one in Mary. She begot, according to the flesh, the Son of God; but it is equally true that God prepared for Himself the mother that He wanted, that the Son “conceived” his mother by shaping her according to His will.
From this perspective, we must look at the Pieta in amazement, realizing that the scene Michelangelo has sculpted in this image is the labor of Mary and Jesus. On the cross, from the open side of Christ, the Church is born. Mary’s countenance as she cradles the dead body of Jesus in her arms reminds us of the expression found in the exhausted face of a mother who has just given birth. She has suffered labor pains and the new birth brings her calmness and joy. The face of Christ, peaceful, quiet, restful, serene in its own way, is however, one of a dead man. He has died to give us life and yet He rests, knowing that death is not the end, that when He is resurrected, His sacrifice will reveal its ultimate meaning by delivering the new life of the Spirit to all who receive Him by faith.
But the Pieta also portrays the labor of Mary. Christian tradition has always linked the sufferings of the Sorrowful Mother with the birth pangs of Jesus, who, by the cross, gives birth to the new humanity. St. Alphonsus Liguori writes in The Glories of Mary: “We know that by the merit of her pains Mary contributed to our birth into the life of grace, therefore, we are children of her pain (…). And if there was some relief in that sea of bitterness the Heart of Mary felt, it was knowing that through her pains she was birthing us for eternal salvation.”
From the cross, Jesus gave us all to Mary through his words to the beloved disciple, “Behold your mother.” We must understand these words in their deepest sense: it is not only that the Lord was simply offering us His mother or that He entrusted her to John so that Mary would not be forsaken. Christ was showing to Mary and to us the deeper meaning of his suffering on the cross. It is as if He were saying, “Look at your mother, who is NOW begetting you for the supernatural life. And you, Mother, understand that this suffering is the pain of labor through which you are begetting all men. My passion is your passion. Here, alongside the cross, you are discovering your vocation as the New Eve, as the mother of all the living. Be a mother to them as you have been for me.” In this way, Jesus encourages Mary, helping her to understand that her suffering is not in vain, that it has a purpose: she suffers to give life to humanity.
In the Pieta, mothers have a beautiful model for true motherhood. They are able see Mary through a mother’s eyes and understand some of the pain she endured. They understand that children often cause suffering; not only in childbirth, but throughout life and that the crosses of their children are also their crosses, endured because of the love of a mother for her child. From Mary they must also learn that their children are firstly the children of God and that they must place them in the Lord’s hands, allowing them to embrace His divine will, even if for them it means a kind of death. So many mothers suffer because of their children for so many reasons! The contemplation of the Pieta gives them comfort because they know that Mary understands and that if she did not despair in her pain, they, too, can look to the future with hope.
Let us give thanks to Mary for her generosity, for her acceptance of great suffering to give us the life of grace. Let us imitate her in her complete surrender to the will of God, and as the beloved disciple did, let us embrace her as our Mother, loving her gently and intensely.