Painting Our Lady of Sorrows: Mother’s Day and Resurrection by 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 Jesus’ mother, 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 that it must have been some kind of comfort to her 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, 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 upon finding him dead. 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. I think, of course, of my own mother, but I also think of Charmaine Edwards, forced to bury her 15 year-old son, Jordan, because he was shot by a police officer for no reason. I think of the many mothers who have lost black sons at the hands of an unjust judicial system. I think of all the mothers whose hearts are perpetually pierced by the loss of a child. 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. She taught me, not feminist theory, but engaged feminism that lives and breathes and makes change. 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.

Rev. Dr. Angela Yarber has a PhD in Art and Religion from the Graduate Theological Union at UC Berkeley and is author of Embodying the Feminine in the Dances of the World’s Religions, The Gendered Pulpit: Sex, Body, and Desire in Preaching and Worship, Dance in Scripture: How Biblical Dancers can Revolutionize Worship Today, Holy Women Icons, Tearing Open the Heavens: Selected Sermons from Year B,Microaggressions in Ministry: Confronting the Violence of Everyday Church, and Holy Women Icons Contemplative Coloring Book. She has been a clergywoman and professional dancer and artist since 1999. For more on her research, ministry, dance, or to purchase one of her icons, visit: www.angelayarber.com

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Categories: Art, Christianity, Divine Feminine, Grief

Tags: , ,

8 replies

  1. Thank you for remembering and lifting up your mother and all the mothers who are sorrowing. And the sisters, too!

    I don’t know if you read poetry or fiction, but your thoughts on Mary the mother of Jesus brought to mind Mary, A Live in Verse by the late Patricia Monaghan. You might also resonate with my depiction of her in The Maeve Chronicles. She figures hugely in The Passion of Mary Magdalen and Bright Dark Madonna.

    I will be thinking of you and your mother on this mother’s day.

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  2. “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.” Perhaps it is.

    Having lost a brother to suicide as a very young woman I know something about the pain that you are dealing with. I am so sorry, and yes, a death like that of your brothers does change your life forever. Even today some 50 years later I miss my little brother – and wonder what our lives might have been like had he lived.

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  3. I went to the theater last night and saw the East-West Players production of the 2008, Tony award winning, rock musical Next to Normal (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Next_to_Normal). It’s about a highly dysfunctional family in which the mother has bipolar disorder caused (we eventually learn) by the death of her son at the age of eight months. The mother is truly a lady of sorrows, her sorrows have driven her crazy, and her relationships with her husband and daughter are in tatters. She works with a psychiatrist who administers electroconvulsive therapy (ECT). It makes her “sane.” Sort of. It’s a good (if loud) musical play.

    So now I’ve got this vision of Mary in therapy because her son died, was resurrected, left home again, and died again. Yikes! It’s probably a good thing the Romans didn’t invent ECT. Just imagine……….

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  4. It’s ironic how dreams of fairness, resurrection, and rewards in heaven can help some people through the traumas of life, while for others, they just rub salt into the wounds.

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  5. If the virgin Mary is the lady of sorrows, then who is the lady of joys? To celebrate Mother’s Day, we should honor Gaia, Mother Nature. or Mother Earth. As feminists, we need to let ourselves evolve now in accord with our era, especially in terms of caring for our planet and eco-spirituality.

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    • Yes. I’ve written about and painted Gaia, Pachamama, Papahanaumoku, and many other earth mothers from a variety of traditions here many times. Our Lady of Sorrows is only one manifestation of Mary as I’ve also written about here many times. Our Lady of Sorrows is specifically for my mother after the death of her son as a part of the Holy Women Icons of Grief Series.

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  6. I feel for your mother and for all mothers who have lost a beloved child. I am so sorry your mother was the one to find your brother: how awful. I have written about the Greek Easter liturgy as a re-enactment of the sorrows of Demeter and all mothers. https://feminismandreligion.com/2014/04/21/the-divine-drama-and-the-universality-of-death-by-carol-p-christ/ My mother too lost a child and her grief threatened to overpower us all.

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  7. Your post touched the inner me..You are a brave soul Angela..I wish all your sorrows find an end at the earliest and believe me, things are going to turn for good very soon..always remember “When good time didn’t last for long, then even bad time won’t “

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