Image: Jesus Comforts Our Lady of Sorrows by Lucy Stothard
If there’s one thing people in the modern world can’t seem to get enough of, it’s arguing on the Internet. One of my earliest experiences of this came at the age of around seventeen, when I saw a ferocious keyboard dual waged over LiveJournal (and only readers of a certain age will know what that is). It took place between a militant pro-lifer and a teenage goth girl who emphatically stated, numerous times, that the unborn child was nothing more than ‘a blob. Of. Goop.’ I can’t remember who ‘won’. In these matters, victory is most often marked by one person leaving the platform in a huff.
Similar scuffles take place regularly in the comment sections of YouTube videos, often between Christians and atheists, Christians and Muslims, and Christians and Christians. Debates in all categories often involve a fair bit of mud-slinging on both sides, as well as attempts (again, on both sides), to score points and experience “gotcha!” moments.
By the grace of God, though, this isn’t always the case, and while the Internet may be flooded with religious people loudly and tenaciously defending their particular set of beliefs, purely and simply for the purpose of being right, there are others (although perhaps not nearly enough). These souls genuinely seek the truth in humility and are open to having constructive dialogues with their brothers and sisters of other faiths. I once read such a dialogue between a Muslim and a Christian. The first young man was asking what I felt was a very pertinent question about the Christian doctrine of substitutionary atonement – the idea that Jesus died “for us”. The point of enquiry went something like this: if Jesus rose from the dead, how could His death on the cross be an effective substitution? He died – sure. But then He came back to life. Doesn’t that render His sacrifice invalid?
Hmm. Good question!
Not being a theologian, this isn’t a topic I’d feel qualified to offer a definitive answer on. However, several months ago I was having a conversation with a nun over a cup of coffee (still being in discernment, this is something I do quite often). She mentioned one of the revelations Christ gave to Julian of Norwich: that He’d had to spend a good amount of time with His mother in the days and weeks following His resurrection. This was because, even though He’d risen from the dead and was now walking around alive and well, she was still traumatised and grieving over having seen Him killed.
This was something I’d never really thought about before, and it resounded with me on several levels. It helps to answer the above question, insofar as the miracle of Christ’s glorious resurrection in no way diminishes the agony of His passion and death. Although Our Lady was no doubt overjoyed to see her son raised from the dead, she wouldn’t have been able to unsee the incredible cruelty which had been inflicted on Him just a few days earlier. Nor would she have been able to unlive her experience of every parent’s worst nightmare: the death of her child. It’s a reality which used to make my grandmother, a Catholic of Italian descent with five sons of her own, weep every time she thought about it.
We, as Christians, are not spared any of this. At Easter we celebrate the joy of resurrection, yet we still grieve over the Lord’s passion. The symbol of our faith is, after all, not an empty tomb but a man on a cross. And it applies to our own lives, too: Christ’s death and resurrection might have removed the eternal consequences of our sins, but the temporal consequences remain. We can be harder on ourselves than even the most old-school of confessors, and often the harshest penance simply takes the form of regret, deeply felt and unshakeable. Thoughtless words cannot be taken back, foolish actions cannot be undone. The problem isn’t on God’s side – it’s on ours. He casts our sins into a sea called ‘Forgetfulness’, never again to call them to mind. He forgets. We find it impossible.
And what of the Lord Himself? Survivors of similar levels of violation, torture and cruelty are usually so traumatised that it takes decades of therapy for them to recover mentally – if, indeed, they ever do. It’s well-known that Christ bears the physical wounds of His passion, even in Heaven – so it would be safe to assume that the mental and emotional scars remain, too.
Nevertheless, in this revelation from the life of Our Lady, we see a Christ who is apparently unconcerned about His own trauma and suffering, whose focus is instead on comforting and consoling His mother. Jesus has more reason than anyone to wallow in self-pity, yet He refuses to do so, instead working to bring the healing and renewing love of God into the lives of His people. It’s work He continues to accomplish in our lives, as He sends His Spirit to wipe our tears and bind up our wounds – even the self-inflicted ones. In doing so He provides a model of how we ought to work out our salvation, showing us that the way out of the stormy waters of shame and regret lies not in self-pity but in self-forgetfulness. We can’t change the past, but we can shift our focus outward and bring the Good News of God’s perfect love to others who need it (and who doesn’t?).
And on the occasion that we do find ourselves grieving over our own failures? We know that Christ – and Our Lady – will be there to comfort us.
by Lucy Stothard