The world is a mystery. Life, time, death, doubt, good and evil, and the uncertainty which hangs about our eternal lot, are all mysteries. But the Crucifix is the meaning of them, the solution of them all. It puts the question, and answers it as well. It is the reading of all riddles, the certainty of all doubts, and the centre of all faiths, the fountain of all hopes, the symbol of all loves. It reveals man to himself, and God to man. It holds a light to time that it may look into eternity and be reassured. It is a sweet sight to look upon in our times of joy; for it makes the joy tender without reproving it, and elevates without straining it. In sorrow there is no sight like it. It draws forth our tears, and makes them fall faster, and so softly that they become sweeter than very smiles. It gives light in the darkness, and the silence of its preaching is always eloquent, and death is life in the face of that grave earnest of eternal life. The Crucifix is always the same, yet ever varying its expression so as to be to us in all our moods just what we most want and it is best for us to have. No wonder saints have hung over their Crucifixes in such trances of contented love. But Mary is a part of the reality of this symbol. The Mother and the Apostle stand, as it were, through all ages at the foot of the Crucifix, symbols themselves of the great mystery, of the sole true religion, of what God has done for the world which He created. As we cannot think of the Child at Bethlehem without His Mother, so neither will the Gospel let us picture to ourselves the Man on Calvary without His Mother also. Jesus and Mary were always one; but there was a peculiar union between them on Calvary.
The Way of the Cross was ended, and the summit of the mount has been attained a little before the hour of noon. If tradition speaks truly, it was a memorial place even then, fit to be a world's sanctuary; for it was said to be the site of Adam's grave, the spot where he rested when the mercy of God accepted and closed his nine hundred years of heroic penance. Close by was the city of David, which was rather the city of God, the centre of so much wonderful history, the object of so much pathetic Divine love. These hours were filled with mysteries so Divine, with realities so thrilling, that the lapse of time is hardly an element in the agony of Mary's soul. She comes to the Crucifixion a greater marvel of grace, a greater miracle of suffering, than when an hour ago she had met the Cross-laden Jesus at the corner of the street.
They have stripped Him of His vestments, from the shame of which stripping His Human Nature shrank inexpressibly. To His Mother the indignity was a torture in itself, and the unveiled sight of Her Son's Heart the while was a horror and a woe words cannot tell. They have laid Him on the Cross, a harder bed than the Crib of Bethlehem in which He first was laid. He gives Himself into their hands with as much docility as a weary child whom his mother is gently preparing for his rest. It seems, and it really was so, as if it was His own will, rather than theirs, which was being fulfilled. Beautiful in His disfigurement, venerable in His shame, the Everlasting God lay upon the Cross, with His eyes gently fixed on Heaven. Never, Mary thought, had He looked more worshipful, more manifestly God, than now when He lay outstretched there, a powerless but willing victim; and she worshipped Him with profoundest adoration. The executioners now lay His right arm and hand out upon the Cross. They apply the rough nail to the palm of His Hand, the Hand out of which the world's graces flow, and the first dull knock of the hammer is heard in the silence. The trembling of excessive pain passes over His sacred limbs, but does not dislodge the sweet expression from His eyes. Now blow follows blow, and is echoed faintly from somewhere. The Magdalen and John hold their ears; for the sound is unendurable; it is worse than if the iron hammer were falling on their living hearts. Mary hears it all. The hammer is falling upon her living heart; for her love had long since been dead to self, and only lived in Him. She looked upward to heaven. She could not speak. Words would have said nothing; The Father alone understood the offering of that heart, now broken so many times. To her the Nailing was not one action. Each knock was a separate martyrdom. The hammer played upon her heart as the hand of the musician changefully presses the keys of his instrument.
The Right Hand is nailed to the Cross. The Left will not reach. Either they have miscalculated in the hole they have drilled to facilitate the passage of the nail, or else the Body has contracted through agony. Fearful was the scene which now ensued, as the saints describe it to us in their revelations. The executioners pulled the left arm with all their force; still it would not reach. They knelt against His ribs, which were distinctly heard to crack, though not to break, beneath the violent pressure, and, dislocating His arm, they succeeded in stretching the Hand to the place. Not more than a gentle sigh could be wrung from Jesus, and the sweet expression in His eyes dwelt there still. But to Mary, what imagination can reach the horror of that sight, of that sound, to her? Oh, there was more grief in them than has gone to the making of all the Saints that have ever yet been canonized! Again the dull blows of the hammer commence, changing their sounds according as it was flesh and muscle, or the hard wood, through which the nail was driving its cruel way. His legs are stretched out also by violence; one Foot is crossed upon another, those Feet which have so often been sore and weary with journeying after souls; and through the solid mass of shrinking muscles the nail is driven, slowly and with unutterable agony, because of the unsteadiness of the Feet in that position. It is useless to speak of the Mother; it is idle to compassionate her. Our compassion can reach no way, in comparison of the terrible excess of her agony. But God held His creature up, and she lived on.
Now the Cross is lifted off from the ground, with Jesus lying on it, the same sweet expression in His eyes, and is carried near to the hole which they have dug to receive the foot. They then fasten ropes to it, and, edging it to the brink of the hole, they begin to rear it perpendicularly by means of the ropes. When it is raised almost straight up, they work the foot of it gradually over the edge of the cavity until it jumps into its socket with a vehement bound, which dislocates every bone, and nearly tears the Body from the nails. Indeed, some contemplatives mention a rope fastened round His waist with such cruel tightness that it was actually hidden in the flesh, to hinder His Body from detaching itself from the Cross. So one horror outstrips another, searching out with fiery thrills, like the vibrations of an earthquake, all the supernatural capabilities of suffering, which lay like abysses in the Mother's ruined heart: Let us not compare her woe to any other. It stands by itself. We may look at it and weep over it in love, in love which is suffering as well. But we dare not make any commentary on it. Sorrowful Mother! Blessed be the Most Holy Trinity for the miracles of grace wrought in thee at that tremendous hour!
The first hour of the three begins, the three hours that were such parallels to the three days when she was seeking her lost Boy. Then there was the seamless tunic she herself had wrought for Him. The unity of His Church was figured there. She saw them cast lots for it. She marked to whom it had fallen. One of her first loving duties to the Church will be to recover it for the faithful as a relic. Then it was that the history of the Church rose before her. Every schism, which ever should afflict the Mystical Body of her Son, was like a new rent in her suffering heart. Every heresy, every quarrel, every unseemly sin against unity, came to her with keenest anguish, there on Calvary, with the living Sacrifice being actually offered, and the unity of His Church being bought with so terrible a price. All this bitterness filled her soul, without distracting her from Jesus for a single moment. As holy pontiffs, with hearts broken by the wrongs and distresses of the Church, have been all engrossed by them, yet never for an instant lost their interior union with Jesus, so much more was it with His Mother now. It was on Calvary she felt all this with an especial feeling, as it is in Lent, and Passiontide, and in devotion to the Passion, that we learn to love the Church with such sensitive loyalty.
A whole hour went by. Jesus was silent. His Blood was on fire with pain. His Body began to depend from the Cross, as if the nails barely held it. The Blood was trickling down the wood all the while. He was growing whiter and whiter. Every moment of that agony was an act of worship fully worthy of God Himself. He was holding ineffable communion with the Father. Mysteries, exceeding all mysteries that had ever been on earth, were going on in His Heart, which was alternately contracted and dilated with agony too awful for humanity to bear without miraculous support. It had Divine support; but Divine consolation was carefully kept apart. The interior of that Heart was clearly disclosed to the Mother's inward eye, and her heart participated in its sufferings. She, too, needed a miracle to prolong her life, and the miracle was worked. But with the same peculiarity. From her, also, all consolation was kept away. And so one hour passed, and grace had created many worlds of sanctity, as the laden minutes went slowly by, one by one, then slower and slower, like the pulses of a clock at midnight when we are ill, beating sensibly slower to reproach us for our impatient listening.
The second hour began. The darkness deepened, and there were fewer persons round the Cross. No dicing now, no disturbance of nailing the title to the Cross. All was as silent as a sanctuary. Then Jesus spoke. It seemed as if He had been holding secret converse with the Father, and He had come to a point when He could keep silence no longer. It sounded as if He had been pleading for sinners, and the Father had said that the sin of His Crucifixion was too great to be forgiven. To our human ears the word has that significance. It certainly came out of some depth, out of something which had been going on before, either His own thoughts, or the intensity of His pain, or a colloquy with the Father. "Father! forgive them; for they know not what they do!" Beautiful, unending prayer, true of all sins and of all sinners in every time! They know not what they do. No one knows what he does when he sins. It is his very knowledge that the malice of sin is past his comprehension which is a great part of the malice of his sin. Beautiful prayer also, because it discloses the characteristic devotion of our dearest Lord! The words of Jesus on the Cross might almost have been a dolor by themselves. They were all of them more touching in themselves than any words which ever have been spoken on the earth. Among His seven "lords there will be one, a word following His absolution of the thief at Mary's prayer, a double word, both to her and of her. That also shall be like a creative word, creative for Mary, still more creative for His Church. He spoke out of an unfathomable love, and yet in such mysterious guise as was fitted still more to deepen His Mother's grief. He styles her "Woman," as if He had already put off the filial character. He substitutes John for Himself, and finally appears to transfer to John His own right to call Mary Mother. How many things were there here to overwhelm our Blessed Lady with fresh affliction! She well knew the meaning of the mystery. She understood that by this seeming transfer she had been solemnly installed in her office of second Eve, the mother of all mankind. She was aware that now Jesus had drawn her still more closely to Himself, had likened her to Himself more than ever, and had made their union more complete. The two relations of Mother and Son were two no longer; they had melted into one. She knew that never had He loved her more than now, and never shown her a more palpable proof of His love, of which, however, no proof was wanting. But each fresh instance of His love was a new sorrow to her; for it called up more love in her, and with more love, as usual, more sorrow.
Seven words, which our Lord uttered from the Cross, they were as seven sharp thrills in Mary's heart, reaching depths of the human soul to which our griefs never attain. It was not only the well known accents of her dying Son, with their association inconceivably heightened by the circumstances in which they broke upon the stillness. It was not only the exceeding beauty of the words themselves, disclosing, as death sometimes does with men, an unexpected interior beauty in the soul.
The third hour began, the third epoch in which this long dolor was working at the grand world of Mary's heart. His first word in this last hour was worse than Simeon's sword to our dearest Mother. He said, "I thirst," Well might He thirst. Since the blessed chalice of His own Blood the night before, nothing had crossed His lips but the taste of wine and gall, the pressure of the sponge with vinegar against His mouth, and His own Blood which had trickled in, Meanwhile the nails were burning like fires in His Hands and Feet; His limbs from head to foot had been scorched with the thongs and prickles of the brutal flagellation; endless thorns were sticking like spikes of flame through His skull, until His brain throbbed with the intolerable inflammation, Drop by drop His Blood had been drawn from Him, with all the moisture of His Body, and the fountains in the Heart were on the very point of failing.
If ever it was marvelous that in all her woe Mary had displayed no signs of feminine weakness, no fainting, no sobbing, no outcry, no wild gesture of uncontrollable misery, it was doubly marvelous now. Not only was this exclamation of Jesus a most heart-rending grief to her, but there came upon it that burden which human grief can never bear, and a grief of mother least of all, the feeling of impotence to allay the agony of those we love. She looked into His dying Face with a face on which death was almost as deeply imprinted as on His. She saw His parched, swollen, quivering lips, white with that whiteness of the last mortal struggle, which is like no other whiteness. But she could not reach, not even to wipe with her veil the Blood that was curdled there. It was vain, and she knew it, to appeal to the cruel men that were scattered about the mount. For a cup of cold water to those lips, through what new scenes of sorrow would she not be eager to pass! But it might not be. She remembered how He had once looked down into the cold sparkling water of Jacob's well, and longed in His fatigue and thirst for one draught of that element which He Himself had created, and then how He had forgotten both thirst and weariness in His loving labor of converting that poor Samaritan woman. But now — and it was an overwhelming thought — water was as far from the lips of the dying Saviour as it was from those of Dives in the endless fires out of which he had appealed if it were but for a single drop. No! Her dearest Son must bear it. He has at last complained of His physical tortures. But of what use was it except to break His Mother's Heart again, and to call forth the love and adoration of countless souls through ages and ages of His Church? To Him it brought no relief. It was for our sakes that He complained, that, even at the expense of more agony to Mary, we might have. one additional motive to love our Crucified Brother.
The torment of this thirst was incomparably beyond that of the other thirst. Mary saw it; and no sooner had she seen it, than the very sight translated her, as it were, into a fresh, unexplored world of sorrow. She saw that this thirst would be almost as little satisfied as the other. She saw how Jesus at that moment was beholding in His Soul the endless procession of men, unbroken daily from dawn to dawn, bearing with them into hell the character of baptism and the seal of His Precious Blood. See! even now, while the Saviour is dying of thirst. She too thirsted for souls, as He did, and her heart sank when she saw that He was not to have His fill. Oh, poor, miserable children that we are! How much of our souls have we not kept back, which would have somewhat cheered both the Mother and the Son that day!
Mary lifted up her heart to the Father, joined her will to His in this dire extremity, and, in a certain sense, as well as He, abandoned her Beloved. She gave up the Son to the Father. She sacrificed the love of the Mother to the duty of the Daughter. She acknowledged the Creator only as the last end of the creature. She had done this at the outset in her first dolor, the Presentation of Jesus, and it was consummated now. O Mother! Now, Blessed Mother, that thou standest on such incredible heights of detachment, the end may come I It was finished. All was finished. Chiefly creation. Mary's heart must be lifted to the height of this dread hour. High as it is, it must be raised higher still, to the level of this divinest mystery. The Three-and-Thirty Years are ending. A new epoch in the world's history is to open. What will Mary herself be like without Jesus? She was not looking up, but she knew His eye was now resting on her. She felt His eye, and she looked up into His face. Never did two such faces look into each other, and speak such unutterable love as this. The Father held Mary up in His arms, lest she should perish under the load of love; and the loud cry went out from the hilltop, hushing Mary's soul into any agony of silence, and the Head drooped toward her, and the eye closed, and the Soul passed her, like a flash, and sank into the earth, and a wind arose, and stirred the mantle of darkness, and the sun cleared itself of the moon's shadow, and the roofs of the city glimmered white, and the birds began to sing, but only as if they were half reassured, and Mary stood beneath the Cross a childless Mother. The third hour was gone.
But to Mary the Crucifixion was three hours, three long hours, of mortal agony, comprising hundreds of types and shapes of torture, each one of them intolerable in itself, each pushed beyond the limits of human endurance unless supported by miracle, and each of them kept at that superhuman pitch for all that length of time. When pain comes we wish to lie down, unless madness and delirium come with it, or we are fain to run about, to writhe, gesticulate, and groan. Mary stood upright on her feet the whole weary while, leaning on no one, and not so much as an audible sigh accompanied her silent tears. It is difficult to take this thought in. We can only take it in by prayer, not by hearing or reading.
It was also a peculiarity of the Crucifixion that it was a heroic trial of her incomparable faith. Pretty nearly the faith of the whole world was in her when she stood, with John and Magdalen, at the foot of the Cross. And Mary, more delicate and more fastidious far than we, drank all these things with her eyes, and understood the horror of them in her soul, as we can never understand it. Think what faith was hers. The Divine Perfections also suffered a strange eclipse in the Passion. Sin was triumphant. Justice was condemned. Holiness was abandoned even by the All-holy. Providence seemed to have withdrawn, as if under constraint. God was trodden out, and creatures had creation to themselves; nay, more than that, they had the Creator in their power. There was no divine interference, just when it appeared most needed and most natural. With such a love of souls as Mary had, immensely heightened by the events of that very day, the motherhood of sinners brought with it an enormous accession of grief. We cannot rightly understand Mary's sorrow at the Crucifixion under any circumstances, simply because it is above us. But we shall altogether miss of those just conceptions which we may attain to unless we bear in mind that she became our Mother at the foot of the Cross, not merely by a declaration of her appointment, but by a veritable creation through the effectual word of God, which at the moment enlarged her broken heart, and fitted it with new and ample affections, causing thereby an immeasurable increase of her pains. It was truly in labor that she travailed with us when we came to the birth. It is hard for a mother to keep herself quiet by the deathbed of her son. Grief must be doing something. Think, then, what Mary suffered those three long hours beneath the Cross!
Mary became our Mother just when she lost Jesus. It was, as it were, a ceremonial conclusion to the Thirty-Three Years she had spent with Him in the most intimate communion, and at the same time a solemn opening of that life of Mary in the Church to which every Baptized soul is a debtor for more blessings than it suspects.
Taken from "At the foot of the Cross" by Father Wiliam Faber.