It was Yeats (and after him, in an advert, Mr Kipling) who remarked that Autumn is a time for mists and mellow fruitfulness. And to those of us who, like me, enjoy a dose of relative melancholy, September is a marvellous month. For me it means lighting the first fire of the year, memories of kicking through the piles of leaves down the Parks Road in Oxford in my first term (youthful pleasures never pale, whether your’re eight, eighteen or – I hope – eighty).
But September is also a time when, as nights draw in rapidly, others can feel regret. Gardeners can either be happy as they put away a huge crop of late potatoes and win the biggest pumpkin competition, or sad as they reflect the frosts did for the big apple crop they were hoping for. I always hang around hoping my grape crop will be good enough to make wine – and then find out the wasps ate all the grapes while I wasn’t looking. That short, desperate sentence in Jeremiah 8:20 is one that always resounds with me: ““The harvest is past, the summer has ended, and we are not saved.”
Maybe it was with those kinds of melancholy feelings in mind that the Catholic Church appointed September as being the month when they remember the Seven Sorrows of the Blessed Virgin Mary. In short order, they are:
The Prophecy of Simeon. (Luke 2:34-35)
· The Flight into Egypt. (Matthew 2:13)
· The loss of the child Jesus in the Temple. (Luke 2:43-45)
· Mary meets Jesus on the way to Calvary.
· Jesus dies on the cross. (John 19:25)
· Mary receives the body of Jesus in her arms. (Matthew 27:57-59)
· The body of Jesus is placed in the tomb. (John 19:40-42)
Which is a real reminder of the balance of our faith. Christianity, when working right, always balances hope and joy with sorrow. This is inevitable in a faith that follows a “Man of Sorrows” – one who knows what it is to plunge to the depths of human experience, to known loss, bereavement, rejection and betrayal. That’s why we have a faith in the Psalms that we share with our Jewish friends, who expressed their faith through desolation and regret long before the first apostles followed Jesus. The Blessed Virgin is remembered for her faithfulness, her readiness to respond to God’s call. But she is also the one who, like any mother, would have hoped, feared, cared and fretted over her son. The Seven Sorrows of Mary are a way of remembering that the way to life is through death; that the road is never easy; that the way of faith is not one of unending happiness. We can forget that, in our urge to make Christianity a smooth path of middle-class happiness and gentle bliss.
But the reverse is true also. If all generations will call Mary blessed because she is the mother of our God incarnate, then this is because she walked the Via Dolorosa with her Son. And our hope is tangled up with her joy – as she walked through the shadows of that Good Friday, all the way to the glorious light of an Easter Day.