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Stabat Mater Dolorosa: The Blessed Virgin at the Foot of the Cross

By Neil Dhingra

Behold your son … Behold your mother.
— John 19:25

We do not know where St. Mary has been, at least not since the miracle of Cana, after which Jesus had gone down to Capernaum with his family and disciples (John 2:12). We know that much of his family did not believe in him (7:5). Perhaps Mary has since been widowed. Perhaps she was then abandoned. We do not know exactly what Mary now knows. This is a scene of real disorientation even for us. We cannot say for sure how many women are standing near the cross, much less where they have been and what they may now know.[1] But this must be shattering for the Mother of God; we can at least say that. She had spoken at Cana and even commanded servants, “Do whatever he tells you” (2:5), yet here there is nothing that she can say or do. But she is here. Jesus had said, “And I, when I am lifted up from the earth, will draw all people to myself” (12:32). She is here. And, finally, that is all that matters.

What is Mary here for? Why has she been summoned forth from obscurity, at least in St. John’s narrative, to this heart-wrenching trauma? We must remember that, in the Holy Mother’s life, life has always been shadowed by death, from the dangers of an inexplicable pregnancy to Herod and onwards. In Luke’s Gospel, the old man Simeon had told her, “A sword will pierce your own soul, too” (2:34-5).  Simeon had uttered this prophecy after seeing the infant Jesus, and then had himself died. The newborn Jesus was recognized by the prophetess Anna, either 84 or 103 years of age, who presumably “embarked on her last journey soon after.”[2] But, now, in this hour, Mary sees that, in her son, death is shadowed by life. This is a “death to resurrection.”[3]

As Mary might ask, “How can this be?” It isn’t the case that everything that has come before — Jesus’ birth, Mary’s motherhood, that miracle at Cana — no longer means anything at the foot of the cross. But here their meanings are unexpectedly, impossibly deepened and transformed. Mary, who treasures all these things and ponders them in her heart (Luke 2:19), who, as Pope Benedict reminded us, is like Abraham — journeying, following God’s “paradoxical order[s],” “coming out of [herself] and [her] own projects,” letting “herself be called into question by events” that she cannot understand, at least not at first; Mary is here to see all these things made new, unpredictably, unexpectedly, miraculously.[4] She’s here.

Jesus, John surprisingly tells us, was crucified and buried in a garden.[5] “Now,” John tells us, “in the place where he was crucified there was a garden, and in the garden a new tomb where no one had ever been laid” (19:41). Thieves were crucified on either side of him, with, as John writes, “Jesus in the middle” (19:18). We are reminded of another garden, and God had planted “the tree of life in the middle of the garden.” Here, we see Mary, who is not named, but called “woman” (19:26) and “the mother” (19:25). In that other garden, there had been another figure, “She shall be called Woman” (Gen 2:23). She would be the “mother of all the living” (Gen 3:20). Here, Jesus will utter, “It is finished,” echoing God’s completion of his work on the seventh day (2:1-2). Amidst the worst desolation, as Mary loses her son, as the Messiah is crucified, something is coming to life in a garden.

It is a family. Jesus creates new relationships, as Mary gains a “son” in the Beloved Disciple who then becomes a brother to Jesus, a child of the Father. The Beloved Disciple then takes Mary “to his own,” following Jesus, who had come for those who were “his own” (1:11). Soon, the resurrected Jesus, who had been deserted by much of his biological family, will send Mary Magdalene: “Go to my brothers and sisters and say to them, I am ascending to my Father and your Father, to my God and your God” (20:17). This is not a rejection of his biological family, though, as this new family will still be earthly and material, formed and reformed in Christ at the eucharistic table, where, as Jesus nourishes humanity, making us brothers and sisters with his own flesh and blood, we are reminded that Mary had once nourished Jesus with her own flesh, blood, and milk.[6] It is a deepening, a transformation of what family is. Jesus, as an Anglican-Roman Catholic agreed statement reminds us, had shared Mary’s “natural family,” but this sharing will be “transcended in her sharing of his eschatological family, those upon whom the Spirit is poured out.”[7] Out of trauma, a new family is coming to life: a new humanity, the church.

That “something” comes to life with yet another deepening, another transformation, another paradox: this is a rebirth. Here, at the cross, Mary, our mother, does not give birth but is herself reborn in Christ, answering the unanswerable question that Nicodemus had asked Jesus so long ago, “How can anyone be born after having grown old?” (3:4). Jesus’ death is a birthing scene.[8] The blood and water that flow from the side of the crucified Jesus symbolize a moment of birth, here in this unexpected garden. Mary gives life, but only after she has first been given life.

Tradition has often imagined Mary at the foot of the cross in tears. That is possible, but, strictly speaking, Mary is not weeping in the text. Perhaps she is just shattered, paralyzed, silent, both logic and words having failed her. Perhaps she does not know what to do. We do not know how she got here. We do not know what she may possibly know. But she is here. It’s good that she is here. We can imagine Jesus, remembering the words of Psalm 22, a prayer to a seemingly absent Father, stopping at, “Yet it was you who took me from the womb; you kept me safe on my mother’s breast” (22:9) to draw some comfort from his mother’s silent presence. But it is also good that Mary is here, because in her own depths of loneliness, pain, and desolation, as her Son bears the sins of the world, she finds a new family and the possibility of rebirth. Something has come to life.

In our own lives, amidst our own griefs, scandals, and failures, as we confront injustice, let us come to the cross, “perplexed but not in despair,” as St Paul might say (2 Cor 4:8), remembering that, despite it all, something can still come to life. The landscape of our sorrow may be a secret garden; wounds can give new birth. And Jesus speaks to us, “Behold, I make all things new” (Rev. 21:5).

Neil Dhingra is a Ph.D. student at the University of Maryland.      

[1] See Robert Gordon Maccini, Her Testimony is True: Women as Witnesses according to John (Sheffield: Sheffield Academic Press, 1996), 184-206.

[2] Ingrid Rosa Kitzberger, “Stabat Mater? Re-Birth at the Foot of the Cross,” Biblical Interpretation 11 (2003), 483.

[3] Karl Rahner, Foundations of Christian Faith, trans. William Dych. (New York: Crossroad, 1994), 266.

[4] Pope Benedict XVI, General Audience, Wednesday, 19 December 2012.

[5] Mary L. Coloe, “Theological Reflections on Creation in the Gospel of John,” Pacifica 24 (2011), 1-12.

[6] Karen O’Donnell. Broken Bodies: The Eucharist, Mary and the Body in Trauma Theology (London: SCM, 2018), 31.

[7] ARCIC, Mary: Grace and Hope in Christ, at 64.

[8] Kitzberger, 478.


  1. Thanks, Neil. People often think of Mary’s special role as ‘God-bearer.’ Of equal importance is her place at the cross and her obvious centrality as amongst those waiting and praying for the Holy Spirit in the Upper room. Mary is stabat at crucial points in the longer story.

    • Thank you for reading and your comment. I agree with your phrase, “of equal importance,” and I wonder if we’re called to imagine Mary as “God-bearer” with some of the strategies that Rowan Williams recognized we must use to imagine Jesus himself–anonymity, irony…

      • My point was more simple than Rowan’s. Acts 1 places Mary firmly in the circle of the disciples. John’s passion culminates with Scripture declaring the piercing and water establish this crucified King as Lord. Mary is there at beginning and end, as you say. So there is something quite remarkable–and firmly on the ground of the NT witness–about Mary as distinctive. If you read the old accounts of Stabat Mater as a 13th century text, her suffering is running on a parallel track with the Lord’s, without diminishing the latter. Thanks again.


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