Mary, the Model
by Frederick W. Marks
It is suffering, more than anything else, which clears the way for the grace which transforms human souls. Pope John Paul II
Mel Gibson’s film The Passion of the Christ created a sensation. Box office receipts soared, exceeding all expectation, and one of the questions still being asked is "why?" The film is brilliant from an artistic standpoint. It also received a great deal of advance publicity due to its controversial nature. But beyond such factors lies something totally unique.
At a certain point in time, someone of inestimable stature chose to lay down His life in atonement for the sins of mankind. Such a thing had never been done before. It has never been done since. Jesus’ action was at once so singular and so compelling that it should tell us something about Gibson’s success. Any serious discussion of The Passion must come to grips with the meaning of suffering. Why did Christ suffer? Why do we suffer? What do we know about the results of pain, and what does it mean to suffer as a Christian?
St. Thérèse of Lisieux once wrote that suffering is "the very best gift" God can give us, adding that "He gives it only to His chosen friends." She actually prayed for it, as St. Dominic and others had done. But her saying is not an easy one, given our deep-seated instinct for self-preservation. We learn from childhood how to relieve every imaginable type of pain. Aspirin and Bengay are household words, and all of us know where to go when we have a toothache.
In a sense, we are quite right. Our body is the temple of the Holy Spirit and without health we couldn’t put bread on the table or carry on a normal apostolate. Did Paul of Tarsus not ask God to remove a "thorn" in his flesh? Surely, we offer similar prayers. The only difference is that we may be less philosophical than the man from Tarsus when God declines to give us what we want. Like Thérèse, Paul realized that suffering borne with faith can work to great advantage. "Power," he wrote, "is made perfect in weakness" (2 Cor. 12:9).
It is important to remember, when we encounter discomfort of any kind, that God is in charge. He will never send us more trouble than we can bear. Nor will he send us anything not in our long-term best interest. Even atheists will allow that certain kinds of pain can be useful. Appendicitis, if not attended to immediately, is potentially fatal. Thus, when we feel a stabbing sensation on the right side of our abdomen, we are grateful for the warning. In the same way, fatigue produces soreness that, in turn, signals the need for rest.
Most problems with pain stem from a lack of faith. We don’t know, for example, when awakened in the middle of the night by a bad stomach upset, that the pain will soon subside and that it will never mount beyond our level of tolerance. Nine times out of ten, it is the uncertainty that hurts the most. And this is where prayer comes in. When we go to God for help, we can be sure that He is listening, and that, though He may put us to the test, we will emerge from the ordeal stronger, happier, and humbler.
Some pain is self-imposed. When we sin, for example, we do penance. During Lent we mortify ourselves. Fasting may cause our system to rebel. Our tummy may rumble. We may experience weakness, headache, or coldness in the hands. Still, we are more fit. Not only are we better able to resist temptation, we are also leaner, more energetic, less susceptible to colds, and more alert. Indian braves on the American frontier used to fast before going on the warpath, and they were fierce. We, too, aim to be in topnotch physical condition. But for the Christian, fasting is mainly about solidarity with the Lord, testing one’s willpower, and having a share in Jesus’ sacrifice on Calvary.
Once we appreciate Lent’s many benefits, the discipline appears less onerous. I remember how my daughter cried the first time I applied alcohol to a scraped knee. Later, after I explained the need to guard against infection, she took it matter-of-factly; she would even ask for it on occasion. I would then tell her with a twinkle in the eye that once one begins to associate pain with well-being, one is well along the path to maturity. The Bible assures us that "the LORD reproves him whom he loves" (Prov. 3:12), and we all know that God, as the best of all parents, is going to dispense tough love.
Mary illustrates the Christian concept of suffering to perfection. She is God’s most highly favored daughter, yet never was a woman more heavily burdened. Beginning with the awkwardness of her betrothal to Joseph following the visit of the angel Gabriel and ending with the persecution of her son and His followers, she traversed miles and miles of sorrow.
As an expectant mother, she could not find room at the inn. Nursing an infant, she was driven into exile. How chagrined she must have been, in addition, to hear the story of the Innocents, knowing that if it hadn’t been for the Nativity, none of Bethlehem’s aggrieved would ever have felt the trauma of loss. The disappearance of her twelve-year-old son for three days in the Temple was but the prelude to another three-day agony. And then came the loss of a faithful spouse. It was under the pall of widowhood that she had to sustain the crushing blows that fell on Holy Thursday and Good Friday. Her third separation from Jesus occurred only forty days later, and this was followed by the execution of Stephen and James, son of Zebedee, who must have been among her nearest and dearest.
Finally, Our Lady’s life ended as it began: in total obscurity. Few, if any, of the movers and shakers of first century Rome had ever heard of her. Yet she was supremely powerful. Her influence exceeds that of all other women put together, in part because of the way she suffered. No one familiar with her plight can ever indulge in self-pity, react bitterly to discrimination, or lose hope in the providence of an all-loving Savior.
We thank God that Mary is our mother, given to each and every one of us by Our Lord on the Cross when He gave her to John. Serenely self-effacing, yet absolutely sure of herself, she is the protectress of all who suffer, the Queen of Martyrs. We can go to her for help, confident that she will never turn away her face. But we must expect her to say to us what she said to the wedding attendants at Cana: "Do whatever he tells you" (Jn. 2:5). And we must expect further that her son will tell us what He told the woman caught in adultery: "Go and do not sin again" (Jn. 8: 11).
E-mail this article to a friend