Simeon blessed them and said to Mary, his mother, “This child is chosen by God for the destruction and the salvation of many in Israel. He will be a sign from God which many people will speak against and so reveal their secret thoughts. And sorrow, like a sharp sword, will break your own heart.” (Luke 2: 34-35). For the past one month, Catholics around the world have intensified their prayers through the intercession of Mary our Mother. The month of May and October is traditionally referred to as the month of Mary. These months are dedicated to her in honour of her innumerable contributions to humanity, before the birth of Christ; during his earthly ministry, and even after 2000 years of Christ’s death, resurrection and ascension into heaven.
Most importantly the apparition in Fatima, Portugal in 1917 by our Lady to Francesco, Lucia and Jacinta, began in May and ended in October. Ever since she assumed into heaven, Mary has not stopped guiding and protecting the church and her children. The month of May is associated with intense prayers, processions with the rosary, and reflections on the writings of the fathers of the church and the saints on our Lady. As we come to the end of the month of May, we remember in a special way one of the many titles of our Lady: Our Lady of Sorrows. There are 53 official titles of our Lady, the one that best describes our national, and individual lives right now are the sorrowful part of her earthly sojourn.
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The title, “Our Lady of Sorrows,” given to our Blessed Mother focuses on her intense suffering and grief during the passion and death of our Lord. Traditionally, this suffering was not limited to the passion and death event; rather, it comprised “the seven dolours” or “seven sorrows” of Mary, which were foretold by the Priest Simeon who proclaimed to Mary, “This child Jesus is destined to be the downfall and the rise of many in Israel, a sign that will be opposed– and you yourself shall be pierced with a sword– so that the thoughts of many hearts may be laid bare” (Luke 2:34-35). These seven sorrows of our Blessed Mother included the prophecy of Simeon, the flight of the Holy Family into Egypt; the loss and finding of the child Jesus in the Temple; Mary’s meeting of Jesus on His way to Calvary; Mary’s standing at the foot of the cross when our Lord was crucified; her holding of Jesus when He was taken down from the cross; and then our Lord’s burial. In all, the prophecy of Simeon that a sword would pierce our Blessed Mother’s heart was fulfilled in these events. For this reason, Mary is sometimes depicted with her heart exposed and with seven swords piercing it. More importantly, each new suffering was received with the courage, love, and trust that echoed her fiat, “let it be done unto me according to thy word,” first uttered at the Annunciation.
When the Angel Gabriel came to give her the good news of the Annunciation in Luke 1:28, the angel said to her: Hail Mary full of Grace. The fullness of God’s grace in her did not immune her to the sorrows she encountered while on earth. Our Lady watched helplessly how Jesus her son died like a common criminal. The protective instinct of a mother could not assist her to protect Jesus. What a painful way to watch your loved ones die without you being able to help.
Mary’s titles and virtues are equally presented very beautifully in Islam: Maryam binat Imran in Arabic the mother of Isa (Jesus) or as it is said in English: Mary, daughter of Amram, holds a singularly exalted place in Islam as the only woman named in the Quran, which refers to her seventy times and explicitly identifies her as the greatest of all women, stating, with reference to the angelic salutation during the annunciation, “O Mary, God has chosen you, and purified you; He has chosen you above all the women of creation. In the Quran, her story is related in three Meccan chapters (19, 21, 23) and four Medinan surahs (3, 4, 5, 66), and the nineteenth Surah titled Maryam, is named after her. The Quran refers to Mary more often than the Bible. According to the Quran, divine grace surrounded Mary from birth, and, as a young woman, she received a message from God through the archangel Gabriel that God had chosen her, purified her, and had preferred her above all “the women of the worlds. This event, according to the same narrative, was followed by the annunciation of a child who was to be miraculously conceived by her through the intervention of the divine spirit while she was still a virgin, whose name would be Jesus and who would be the “anointed one,” the Promised Messiah.
So putting the Divine Grace side by side as alluded by the scriptures both in Islam and Christianity with the many sorrows she went through in life, helps us to appreciate the present sorrows we are going through right now as a country, and even the world at large. The fullness of God’s grace in us does not immune us from the reality of tragedy, either man-made or the one caused by the forces of nature.
This week we lay the remains of Fr Alphonsus Bello Yashim to rest in Kaduna. Fr Bello, a 33-year-old priest was killed in Malumfashi by armed Fulani bandits on the 21st of May, 2021, while abducting Fr Joseph Keke a 73-year-old priest who is still with the bandits. In less than three years in the priestly ministry, Fr. Alphonsus had passed through tough challenges in life. He served in St. Luke’s Church Parish, Kasuwan Magani, Kaduna State, a town that has suffered several ethnoreligious conflicts. Besides, young as he was, he had passed through sorrowful moments. Last year (2020) he lost three members of his family beginning with his brother, Ernest Nache in April and four months after his 18year old sister, Gloria died and in another four months his father, Mr Malachy Bello T. Gimba died on Christmas Eve (24th December) at the age of 57. Now his widowed mother Mrs Malachy Bello is left with another unimaginable sorrow to live with. May our Lady of sorrows comfort you ma.
On Sunday the 23rd of May 16 people were killed in Riyom local government in Jos, Plateau State by armed bandits. Benue have witnessed hundreds of deaths within 2 days. Katsina state has become one of the safe havens for the bandits. Thousands are stationed across our forests, ready to strike any community. The sorrows in our hearts are numerous, the sorrows in our country are beyond description. May God be close to us all. As we come to the end of this month of devotion to our Lady. Let every Christian in Nigeria and indeed the world at large, find strength in Mary who bore all pains with love, joy and courage.
By Stephen Ojapah MSP. Fr Stephen Ojapah is a priest of the Missionary Society of St Paul. He is equally the director for Interreligious Dialogue and Ecumenism for the Catholic Diocese of Sokoto, a member of IDFP. He is also a KAICIID Fellow