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Musings on the Pieta

Many famous painters and sculptors have created images of the pieta. Images of the Mother of God holding her son’s body after the crucifixion. What follows is a brief meditation as I look at my favorite of these images by the painter Bouguereau.

† In The Name of Jesus †

See before you the grief of a mother. A mother whose only child lies dead, body cold and limp in her arms. A son whose very body was not but moments ago limp upon a cross strung out for the world to see. See a mother cradling her son as they strip off the crown of thorns from his head. A crown placed upon his head, not for glory, but to shame him. A crown forged with mockery and insult. See at her feet the vinegar and gall that was given to him in his highest need. Behold the drops of blood that fell from his body as he was hanging high upon a hill. Behold she sits alone. His disciples have abandoned her. Now she sits, comforted only by the angels around her. The same angels that were there when the child was born. Look and behold with what mockery the world treats this mother and son. See what disdain she must endure, simply for being a mother. Draped in the dark hood of her mourning clothes she clings to the broken, and dead body of her son.

And yet she is silent, silent as her son was silent as they pronounced him guilty. Silent as her son was silent as the nails pierced his hands and his feet. Silent as her son is silent as they pierced his side and took him down. Silent as they handed his body to her to hold one last time. She is a long way from Bethlehem, a long way from the manger where she first laid her child. A long way from the place where he let out his first cry as a child. This is a far different scene from that day. That day when her child came bursting with joy from her womb. The day that she had borne a child from her virgin womb. On that day there was great jubilation, an angel host cried out “Glory to God in the highest, and on earth peace among those with whom he is pleased”!

But that is not this day. Now she prepares to lay her son down again. To lay him not into a stone manger, wrapped in swaddling clothes, but to lay him into a stone grave, wrapped in burial cloths. There is no life in his body, there is no cry upon his lips but a faint echo of his last words right before they pulled him from the cross “it is finished”.

The only sound now is the sound of angels, not rejoicing but wailing and crying out. Shielding their eyes from the reality that is before them now. The only sound is the angels crying out for this son that lies in his mother’s arm. For this is no ordinary child. This is the very Son of God. The one of whom it is written that he would save his people from their sins, but he lies slain, death has taken him. He lies cold in the hands of death. He lies cold in the warm hands of his mother.

This image shows us the reality of the church. It shows us what lengths and depth of God went through to save us. It presents the posture of Mary as the posture of the church. Clutching and clinging to the crucified body of Christ as if it is the only thing worthwhile. Abandoned by the world she is sustained by the angels, she is sustained by the body of Christ.

Just as Mary clings to the body of her first born, so the church clings to Christ, clings to the very son of God who was slain. As she wraps her body around his, we wrap our lips around his flesh. In the bread and the wine, we receive this very body. With the words of our lips, we proclaim this day to the world. This is our calling. We cling to Christ with the same passion that Mary clings to her child. But we do not cling to a dead child, but to the living God.

Now the angels speak again, not to shepherds in a field or to the mother of Jesus, but to those who come to the tomb. They speak to those who are mourning, who are tired, troubled, and desperate. They speak to those who come seeking Christ. They speak, they do not wail, and they do not sing but they simply ask “Why do you seek the living among the dead? He is not here, but has risen”?

† Pax Domini †

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