Every parent knows the anguish of watching a child suffer, feeling helpless except to hope in and pray to God, and the people offering care and assistance. Physical suffering is painful to watch, even if palliatives promise relief. Emotional and spiritual agony can be almost unbearable.

Whether it is a child, a parent, a spouse or a friend, someone sinking deeper into depression, substance abuse or some toxic pattern, it is killing: it hurts and threatens to destroy the beholder, at times even more than the sufferer, who may paradoxically be less aware of the trajectory. “I’ll be fine when I get behind the wheel.” “If you really loved me, you’d let me do this.” “You just don’t understand: this is who I am.” And you watch and wait, knowing that the truth is not found on the path to perdition. You love the loved one, but not what they are doing to themselves, to you, what they are becoming.

So you can only watch, suffering, waiting for the moment of relief or redemption — if it ever happens. Who or what will shine light on the dark road, arrest the course of misery, save the poor soul who may not even see their almost certain doom? Sometimes an incident, in the form of a surprise or accident, intervenes. Grace imposes itself preemptively, disguised as chance or simple “reality.” You thank God guiltily, for it is a lesser evil perhaps, however shocking or painful to the victim.  Perhaps God is answering your prayers.

One can only imagine what Mary thought when she discovered how Simeon’s prophecy was to be fulfilled, that her own heart a sword shall pierce so that the thoughts of many might be laid bare. Mary is our companion as we watch and suffer for loved ones we see falling, whom we can only call, visit, cajole and forgive even as we must shun or condemn the vice or venture in which they are entangled, slaves to an addiction or a craving they cannot distinguish from a lifeline. It could be a career, a relationship, a form of recreation we recognize as that course toward heartbreak, even fatality. Did it occur to Mary that her son was headed in this direction, even if for no sin of hers and him?

“Born to Die” is the name of a narrative that summarizes the life of Jesus, born to die for sinners so he could save us from ourselves. The mystery of vicarious suffering, finding meaning in compassion, empathy, accompanying a sick or vulnerable person, or a sinner even as he or she pursues a path toward self-destruction. How does one do this without dying, at least a little, if death is the price that Jesus himself paid to do the same?

As we walk with Jesus throughout this Holy Week ahead, we would do well to let his mother be our companion. Holy Week may intensify our awareness of those for whom and with whom we suffer and if it moves us to make an intention of our loved ones’ strife — even if we feel it is killing us (for the present) more than them! — we may become even more aware of the good we do by letting mercy overwhelm out hearts even as it kills us to watch them suffer.

To be blunt: how could Mary possibly have watched the passion of her beloved, sinless son, tortured by sinners, and not despaired? How could she hate the sin or disease but love the sufferer, if not through simple faith that her son was whom the angel and the prophets said he was? Let me explain. Do we think that Mary had some special inroad into the reality of the divinity of Jesus that was different from those who watched his actions and heard his parables as the Scriptures tell us? Everything points to the contrary, the consternation of Joseph and Mary finding their lost son in the temple, the horror Mary beheld at the foot of the cross, even the seeming slight of not being the first to witness his Resurrection, nothing signals special privilege to the hidden designs in the heart of Jesus. She simply trusted and followed, faithful to him to the end.

If Jesus walked the walk and bore the cross of suffering for all us sinners whom he loves, so Mary would make his mission her own. If mercy was the ultimate response of divinity to a humanity that put the Son of God to death, so would Mary’s heart be forever a heart overflowing with mercy. If we wish to come near to the mystery of redemptive suffering — how the mercy that seems to kill is actually the source of life, our only hope — we can take refuge in the heart of Mary that will only lead us into the all-merciful heart of Jesus.

We may not ever understand why God allows suffering, or for us to suffer with others. We cannot assume that it is punishment for our own sins — though they may be many — or it would not make sense why Jesus and Mary suffered for sins they never committed. Suffering comes to anyone who loves. Nor is it the fault of the person who accompanies a sinner or someone suffering. We do not suffer for sinners and those suffering because WE deserve it, we do it because we love them and if we love them we will not consent to sinful patterns or despair in the face of misery. Neither will we cease to commit our loved ones to the mercy of God, even if it means we must wait or stand aside for a time, as the forgiving father of the prodigal son, or Jesus himself when his friend, Lazarus, died.

Only mercy can kill sin and suffering. That is the meaning of the cross. Mercy feels the cross, the consequences of sin, but it does not participate in sin or give up in the face of suffering. That is why the one who shows mercy lives, even beyond the death that sin deals. Jesus promises eternal life — his life, our life in him — to all who live the pattern of the cross. Mary accompanies us along the way. This Holy Week, as we walk with Mary to the cross, we can bring our hearts laden with the burdens of those for whom we pray and grieve, that they may come to see, perhaps through our love, that the mercy of God is stronger than death, that all things are possible for one who trusts in Jesus as the Savior of us all. No one is beyond hope. No one is beyond love.

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