Journey Story

Painting Our Lady of Sorrows

by Rev . Dr. Angela Yarber

The month of May finds those within the Christian tradition solidly within Easter season, reveling in the promise of resurrection, while simultaneously celebrating Mother’s Day.

To be honest, I’d never seen much of a correlation between these two events in the past.

But since my brother’s death in March, I’m viewing everything through the lens of grief, likely a new perspective that will color the way I see the world forever. Namely, until this year, I’d never really given much thought to what Mary was feeling in a post-resurrection world.

Of course, the suffering, sorrow, and sadness of a mother who watched her child die is something that most Christian churches highlight during Holy Week, on Good Friday, or even on Easter Sunday. But then our liturgy shifts, as though Mary transitioned from weeping at the gruesome death of her child one day and then suddenly celebrates the reality of resurrection the next.

At the risk of extreme blasphemy—a place where I consistently reside—when I place myself in Mary’s shoes as a mother, resurrection kinda sucks.

It’s true it must have been some kind of comfort to learn that her child was dead no longer.

But it’s not like Jesus stuck around for 33 more years for family meals, laughter, love, and supporting his mother as she aged. Orthodoxy tells us Jesus was resurrected, but it’s not like Mary was able to experience life with her child on earth anymore.

Such it is with Our Lady of Sorrows, a Christian icon that depicts Mary, the mother of Jesus, with seven swords piercing her heart, suffering in such a way that only a mother who has lost a child can truly relate. In iconography, the seven swords represent Mary’s seven sufferings: the prophecy of Simon, the escape and flight to Egypt, losing Jesus as a child in the temple, meeting Jesus on the Via Dolorosa, witnessing the crucifixion, seeing Jesus’ side pierced and subsequently descending from the cross, and the burial of her beloved child.

As I wade through this first Easter season without my little brother, Carl, my fierce ally and supporter, I feel a bit like resurrection is a slap in the face.

In fact, I cannot help but remember a conversation with Carl on his 33rd birthday.

His addiction had been spiraling out of control for nearly a year at this point when I called to wish him a “Happy Jesus Year” for his birthday. Caustic and possibly a bit morose, many religion scholars refer to one’s 33rd year as the “Jesus year” since that’s the year Jesus died.

Though his education in religion was never formalized by the ivory tower, my little brother was, indeed, a religion scholar. We joked about his Jesus year when I turned the conversation serious upon saying, in light of his addiction, “Please don’t end this year like Jesus did.”

I, of course, was referring to death because my family lived in fear of Carl’s death every time he didn’t answer his phone, respond to a text, or open the front door, afraid that drugs had taken his life. Without missing a beat, Carl responded, “Resurrection doesn’t sound so bad to me.”

Now, during this Easter season, resurrection doesn’t really seem so fair.

It’s not fair that my brother died and will not rise so that we may bear witness to the wounds that destroyed him. It hurts for me, but my sorrow pales in comparison to my mother’s.

Like Our Lady of Sorrows, her name is also Mary. Like Our Lady of Sorrows, she also held the body of her lifeless 33-year-old son. Like Our Lady of Sorrows, her child’s death was not the only suffering she experienced, but countless swords of addiction, violence, and loss pierce her weeping heart.

The way my mother’s sorrow echoes Mary’s makes me think of the myriad mothers who weep this Easter season and Mother’s Day, their hearts pierced by hate crimes perpetrated against their LGBTQ children, ammunition that filled their dancing bodies in the sanctuary of a night club, violence against their bodies and souls because of transphobia and homophobia. The list could go on and on. For there are many Marys weeping.

And there are countless sorrows that pierce their bleeding hearts. 

It is for these reasons that I painted Our Lady of Sorrows as a part of my new Holy Women Icons of Grief Series. Because resurrection may be a beautiful promise, perhaps even the foundation of the Christian tradition, but for many, it is a slap in the face of our grief.

So, Our Lady of Sorrows cries out to us:

As the fruit of her womb
Drew a final breath,
Tears of sorrow pierced her heart
And sadness overcame her…

Last month, I dedicated my post to my brother’s memory, and for Mother’s Day, I’d like to dedicate Our Lady of Sorrows to the Mary who bore me—and my two little brothers—as a single mom who taught us the power of acceptance, harmony, and abiding love. Not all queer people can say that about their mothers, but I can because my mother accepted and celebrated my queerness without hesitation.

And for all the mothers who bear sorrow in their hearts because they’ve watched the fruit of their womb draw a final breath, I lift you up.

As we lift one another up, it is my hope that our sorrows will overcome us a bit less.

And perhaps that’s precisely what resurrection is: bearing one another’s pain and filling the empty places of sorrow with as much love as possible.

Artwork by Rev. Dr. Angela Yarber