“..And a sword will pierce Your own soul, too..”
– Luke 2:35
The words of Simeon, prophesying the sword that will pierce the soul of Mary, give rise to the title of the ‘Sorrowful and Immaculate Heart of Mary’. This motherly Heart truly merits both designations. But thinking about each of them in turn, we see that while intimately linked, they are two quite seperate titles.
The title of ‘Immaculate’ is a designation which reflects the immense outpouring of divine grace at the moment of the Immaculate Conception of the Blessed Virgin, in anticipation of Her role as Mother of God. Defining the dogma of the Immaculate Conception in his 1854 encyclical ‘Ineffabilis Deus’, Blessed Pope Pius IX explained it in this way –
“..it was wholly fitting that so wonderful a Mother should be ever resplendent with the glory of most sublime holiness and so completely free from all taint of original sin that She would triumph utterly over the ancient serpent. To Her did the Father will to give His only-begotten Son — the Son whom, equal to the Father and begotten by Him, the Father loves from His Heart — and to give this Son in such a way that He would be the one and the same common Son of God the Father and of the Blessed Virgin Mary.”
And so what is clear is that being perfectly immaculate was, for the Blessed Virgin, an entirely gratuitous gift on behalf of God – Her preservation from original sin was His work, not Hers.
Of course, She then corresponded perfectly with this gift, remaining ever free from all actual sin throughout Her life. This is why the Angel Gabriel was able to call Her – very accurately – “full of grace”. The original Greek word in the text is kecharitōmenē – which means ‘filled with grace’ or ‘overflowing with grace’.
The title of ‘Sorrowful’, on the other hand, says something else.
Simeon’s words at the Presentation of Jesus in the Temple, the feast we celebrate today in the Church, speak of something to come – something dark and filled with anguish; but something necessary despite this. We see those fearful words finding their fulfilment much later in the Gospel –
“Near the Cross of Jesus stood His Mother” (John 19:25).
Knowing from those earliest days that Her divine maternity would require Her to consent and embrace something filled with pain and sorrow, still She consented to this, for Her will was a perfect reflection of the Divine Will. The ‘Stabat Mater’ expresses it this way –
At the Cross Her station keeping,
stood the mournful Mother weeping,
close to Her Son to the last.
Through Her Heart, His sorrow sharing,
all His bitter anguish bearing,
now at length the sword has passed.
And so while the Heart of Mary is ‘Immaculate’ by divine privilege, that Heart is ‘Sorrowful’ by Her own right – for She has earned this title by Her own merits, through Her perfect compliance with the will of God. Truly, then, the Heart of Mary is both Sorrowful and Immaculate.
All of this tells us something else; grace builds upon nature.
Originally pure through an outpouring of divine grace, preserving Her from all stain of Original Sin, Mary remained immaculate throughout Her earthly life; sin is nothing more than a turning away from the will of God, a preference for our will over His – and that is something the Blessed Virgin never did. She corresponded perfectly to that outpouring of grace and Her nature was entirely and perfectly conformed to the will of God, even to standing faithfully beneath the Cross upon which Her Son hung.
The Catechism tells us that –
“Grace is favour, the free and undeserved help that God gives us to respond to His call to become children of God, adoptive sons, partakers of the divine nature and of eternal life.. Grace is a participation in the life of God.” (Catechism, parae.1996-1997)
Unlike the Mother of God, we are not conceived immaculate – we lost this privilege when Adam and Eve committed Original Sin, which is why we are in need of redemption and why, ultimately, Christ came to redeem us. But we still have the help of divine grace throughout life – and this is given to us in abundance, if only we will correspond ourselves to it’s action.
The great Saint Paul speaks so often about grace and what it can achieve. His Letter to the Romans begins by praying “may God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ send grace and peace” (Rom.1:7). He attests that God “called me through His grace” (Gal.2:15) and he speaks of how divine grace calls us, transforms us, enables us to correspond more perfectly to the will of God. This grace builds upon our human nature. Saint John Henry Newman wrote and spoke about Saint Paul’s understanding of grace and it’s effects upon human nature. Newman said that Saint Paul made human nature “his own to the very full, instead of annihilating it; he sympathized with it, while he mortified it by penance, while he sanctified it by the grace given him”. This santification is the very purpose of divine grace.
Not surprisingly, then, it is this same divine grace which raised up great Saints throughout the history of the Church, often transforming the most sinful souls into models of deep holiness. Such is the power and work of divine grace, in the way the Catechism and Saint Paul describe.
For the Blessed Virgin Mary, this grace was able to work perfectly and without the least obstacle, for She was truly filled to overflowing with that divine grace, and she was entirely faithful to it’s action within Her.
In praying to the Mother of God today, let us pause and consider Her Sorrowful and Immaculate Heart – that Heart so perfectly open to the Word and to the grace of God. Let us ask of Her the grace that we might open our own hearts ever more perfectly to God’s grace within us, through the Word, through the Sacraments of the Church and through our prayers and devotions; and in this way, may we – like Her – remain faithful to His divine will for us.
Most Sorrowful and Immaculate Heart of Mary, pray for us.