As for myself, for the past month or so, I’ve stopped to pray in front of the Pietà in my local church on my way out of the building. Before I took up the practice of praying the rosary, I didn’t really think about the complexity of this image of Mary, because I had never considered the Passion as something that could be understood in relation to Mary. Hans Urs von Balthasar writes in his book on the rosary, The Threefold Garland, that it is in Christ’s Passion that the meaning of Mary’s “yes” is fully revealed: “Hers is a consent which is constantly being expanded wider and wider. Here in the Passion she is being asked that, for the sake of God and that of man, she says yes to the unimaginable torture of her Child.”
Mary holding the dead and tortured body of her son seemed right, somehow, for this “political moment”—an image that contains mourning, desolation, comfort, and reproach. When I read about a man who kills himself when he’s separated from his children, or the images of detained children from 2014, I think of the Pietà. When I see Kiefer’s collection of rosaries, I think of the Pietà.
Though Mary probably embraced Christ’s body at some point between its being removed from the cross and its entombment, the image itself is our own creation. In his lecture on the Pietà, Richard Harries points out that one of the earliest extant depictions of this scene is the Röttgen Pietà, which comes from fourteenth-century Germany, when many mothers, if they were brave enough, would have been holding the dying bodies of their children succumbing to the Black Death. This early Pietà is contorted in grief; Mary’s mouth is open, Christ’s body shrunken and strange. Eventually this grief will come to us in the accomplished austerity of Michelangelo. Here, however, it remains raw.
Like the crucifixion itself, the Pietà is an image of the love which pours forth for the world and which is revealed in the depth of suffering. Where Jesus offers his salvific blood, Mary offers her tears, weeping for her son, for herself, for those who have lost him, and for those who killed him; it’s an image by which I am consoled even as I am implicated. As an alternate form of the “Hail Mary” puts it:
Hail Mary, full of sorrows, the Crucified is with thee; tearful art thou amongst women, and tearful is the fruit of thy womb, Jesus. Holy Mary, mother of the Crucified, give tears to us, crucifiers of thy Son, now, and at the hour of our death. Amen.
Who are we in the Pietà? Are we the mourners, the mourned, or those who caused this situation to happen? There’s not a single answer to this question, which is part of its value as an image. Since we can’t situate ourselves to it in a permanent way, we have to keep coming back to understand it anew.
Reading the comments under the Washington Post article about Marco Antonio Muñoz, the father who killed himself, one finds the usual mix of contempt and anger expressed in all directions. There’s the usual liberal pieties—if only Trump had lost, nothing like this would have ever happened, and so on. There are also many that don’t express sympathy at all. “A well known psychiatric fact is that nearly all people who are suicidal are also homicidal. These are dangerous people,” goes one.
The most interesting, however, from my perspective, is this one:
How many of them are you willing to take before you realize we are overloaded? If you were on a lifeboat with your own children and desperate people kept trying to climb on board, at what point would you realize that in order for your own children to survive, you would have to start beating people like this "poor, poor man" and his family off your lifeboat or throw your own children into the sea to allow his to climb on, or the lifeboat would sink? I am NOT willing to throw my children, or my grandchildren, or even my neighbors, into the sea to allow these migrants who would not fight for their own place in their own country to take MINE, or my children's. The lifeboat is FULL.
There are many possible responses to this—practical, idealistic, wonky in various degrees, meant to demonstrate this or that truth about the capacity of the lifeboat or whether “lifeboat” is really the right analogy in the first place. But the fear expressed by those who see themselves as being in the lifeboat is real, even if comical when placed alongside the fear of those who are drowning. If this commenter is religious, I suspect religion is not used as a justification for this stance so much as irrelevant to it: religion is for many things, but it’s certainly of no use in lifeboats. No atheists in foxholes, no Christians in times of scarcity.
There are a few Christian responses to the lifeboat image, one of which might be that Christ himself states that there are obligations that surpass those we have to our families. Another might be this: Mary is everyone’s mother, not only Christ’s, a thought that I admit I am only barely beginning to understand. But one can present this image, of her holding the body of her son, as a kind of counterpoint to the love that must tighten around its object to the exclusion of others. Mary’s love contracts to a single point of immense pain. It could stay there. Instead, her love expands and continues to expand, weakening never, only deepening as it comes to encompass all of us.