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A Sword Shall Pierce
Of mothers and martyrdom
[Housekeeping: I’ve changed my subdomain to reflect my “coming out” from behind the pen name of Esther O’Reilly and writing under my real name, Bethel McGrew. While I’m happy with this choice for the long term, the short-term annoyance is that all my old links have been broken. Readers who have been generous enough to link my work in the past, please take note, and thank you!]
“Mary was a martyr,” writes Bernard of Clairvaux, “not by the sword of the executioner, but by bitter sorrow of heart.” This was that martyrdom foretold by Simeon as he held the infant Jesus in the temple, his failing eyes fixed on something only he could see. In one blinding moment of sight, the holy man saw light and shadow together—the light of God’s salvation, the shadow of a tree.
Recently, I watched a short video on the death of a Ukrainian soldier. It opens on a scene from the funeral procession, the casket being borne away in state. Behind the soldier’s sad-eyed brothers in arms, a sound rises that I cannot place for a split second—a wild, guttural, almost animal sound. Then I realize it is the sound of a woman wailing.
The video cuts to voiceover from the soldier’s surviving brother, quietly reminiscing as he drives to the small cemetery near their hometown. The way is lined for miles with a human chain of mourners, some standing, some kneeling. “God takes away the best ones,” he murmurs.
Outside their home, he remembers how Vasyl was not just a brother, but a friend. “He would always sit on this bench,” he recalls with a sigh, pointing to an empty bench swing, “and chit-chat with me.” He worries about their mother, who has spent time in the hospital as she grieves. “I want to send her somewhere she can heal and restore her health. Although this hole in her heart will never heal.”
Inside the family home, mother and brother and sister sift through old pictures. They are able to smile a little. “When he joked, he would jump like this,” the mother remembers with a little bounce. “He was so handsome. I remember him as always happy. And handsome.” But the tears soon return. She says it is “impossible to live normally.” She strikes her heart: “This pain will be in my heart until the very end. Until the end. It is impossible.”
At the graveside, there is a brief hush in the singing and wailing as the family receives the Ukrainian flag. Then it cuts to the moment when the casket is lowered down, the dirt flung over it. The mother watches, bent double. “My dear Vasyenka,” she cries. “My son.”
As if this were not enough, there is one last arrow to the heart after the video cuts to black: a postscript telling the viewer that a day after its first release, Vasyl’s brother was also killed in a missile attack.
At the cross, Mother Mary relinquishes Jesus as she first received him—as She Who Says Yes. I have always been touched by the way Jordan Peterson reflects on this in one of his lectures, considering the image of the Pietà:
Is it right to bring a baby into this terrible world? Well, every woman asks herself that question. Some say no, and they have their reasons. Mary answers yes, voluntarily. Mary is the archetype of the woman who answers yes to life, voluntarily. That’s what that image means, and not because she’s blind. She knows what’s going to happen. And so she’s the archetypal representation of the woman who says yes to life, knowing full well what life is. Not naive, not someone who got pregnant in the back seat of a 1957 Chevy in one night of half-drunk idiocy, but consciously, consciously, knowing what’s to come.
In Mel Gibson’s Passion of the Christ, there’s a moment when Jesus stumbles on the Via Dolorosa, and we are given a vision from Mary’s memory of the man as a small boy, tumbling and scraping his knee. She rushes to gather him up and comfort him, rocking back and forth, back and forth. I think of that moment often, of how it must be when a mother sees her son’s body bleeding and broken, perhaps maimed beyond recognition. I think about the nurturing instinct that once focused her attention with laser intensity on the smallest bruise, the lightest scrape. “Let me see. Hold still. Let me see.” Now she looks upon that same flesh, so devastatingly beyond her power to heal that her mind still cannot accept it. Yet accept it she must, for this is his sacrifice, and hers.
“It is to sacrifice that men go to war,” writes Robert Leckie in his World War II memoir Helmet For My Pillow. “They do not go to kill, they go to be killed, to risk their flesh, to insert their precious persons in the path of destruction.” That is why their women weep. “They do not weep for their victims, they weep for them as Victim. That is why, with the immemorial insight of mankind, there are gay songs and colorful bands to send them off — to fortify their failing hearts, not to quicken their lust for blood. That is why there are no glorious living, but only glorious dead. Heroes turn traitor, warriors age and grow soft — but a victim is changeless, sacrifice is eternal.”
And so in one sense Mary’s sacrifice is every mother’s sacrifice. But in another sense it transcends them all, for it contains them all, and redeems them all.
“It’s a hell of an idea, man,” Peterson marvels, shaking his head. “And the thing about it is that I don’t know if it’s true. But I know that its opposite is false. And generally, the opposite of something that’s false is true.”
Holy Week music: At the risk of self-indulgence, here’s my own take on an old spiritual, recorded back when I was in college and had more time on my hands. Please enjoy.