The Pieta, the great work of Michelangelo’s youth… amazing, huh? I mean how do you make something like that before you’re thirty and not think, “It’s all downhill from here”? but I digress… The Pieta last crossed the Atlantic for the 1965 World’s Fair. It will probably never cross the ocean again in our lifetimes, but at the National Shrine of the Immaculate Conception – right here in downtown DC – one can find numerous depictions of the same sacred reality: a sorrowful Mary holds the body of her dead son. In a Church committed to proclaiming the Resurrection, particularly during these spring weeks of the Easter Season, one might well ask, “Why is this morbid scene of such fascination?” Let’s consider it a little through eyes of faith…
Jesus, and by extension Mary, has experienced the ultimate death. (A) He’s God, he’s not supposed to die (B) He died in the prime of his life, pre-deceasing his own mother. (C) He was murdered. His executioners were all either liars (local authorities in Jerusalem), ignorant (the consenting crowds) or just apathetic (the Romans). If this isn’t a perfect storm of human suffering, I don’t know what is… and in the Pieta, Mary holds the fruit of this whole experience in her hands. One recalls the question of the great Lenten hymn, the Stabat Mater, “Can anyone’s suffering be as great as mine?”
Even in this moment, however, there is light. Jesus and Mary willingly accepted this moment. Jesus himself put up no defense, and Mary – far from running away from this moment – stays there to watch and embrace her son. They will not allow death to be the last word. Neither will they allow death to separate them form those they love nor from fidelity to their own missions. In short, life goes on awash in pain for the moment, but living nonetheless. The instrument by which Jesus and Mary hold on to life is faith in the Father… and by that tenacious faith in the Father, Resurrection dawns three days later. Life and joy return more glorious than anyone could possibly have imagined at the foot of the Cross.
Way back at the beginning of Luke’s Gospel, there’s a great line. Simeon says to Mary, “and you yourself a sword shall pierce so that thoughts of many hearts may be revealed.” (Lk 2:35). I never understood this line until I was at the National Shrine yesterday meditating on the Pieta. In some ways, the experience of Jesus and Mary was obviously unique, but in some ways it was an “every man” experience revealing what goes on in all of our hearts. In our daily life in DC the experience of Resurrection finds its seed in this moment of accepting suffering… the very fact that we are courageous enough to let the suffering happen and mingle with our faith is already an anticipatory experience of the Resurrection promised by God our Father. In this we can rejoice even in the midst of great pain. In the midst of spring, be sure to trek up to Catholic University and visit the National Shrine to spend some time with the Pieta.