Seven Sorrows, Feast of the

Seven Sorrows, Feast of the

Friday of Sorrows

In the Middle Ages many Western Christians felt a great devotion to the Blessed Virgin Mary and a great sympathy for her suffering at the time of Jesus' crucifixion and death (see Mary, Blessed Virgin; for more on crucifixion, see Cross). In the fifteenth century the people of Germany began to honor the Virgin Mary's sorrow with a special day of religious devotion. This feast day fell during the Easter season. Other communities also celebrated the feast, assigning a date during the Easter season or sometime after the feast of Pentecost. Towards the end of that century some communities had widened the scope of this feast to include the seven great sorrows that marked Mary's life. This commemoration of the seven sorrows caught on as the feast began to spread across Catholic Europe. During the seventeenth century some of the groups that adopted the festival began to celebrate it during Lent, usually during the week before Holy Week. In 1729 Pope Benedict XIII made the observance - called the Feast of the Seven Sorrows of the Blessed Virgin Mary - universal throughout the Roman Catholic Church, fixing its celebration on the Friday before Palm Sunday.

The following incidents, recorded in scripture and legend, constitute the seven great sorrows of Mary's life: the prophecy she received from Simeon (Luke 2:3-35), the flight into Egypt (Matthew 2:14), the loss of the child Jesus in Jerusalem (Luke 2:43-49), the sight of her son on his way to be crucified, her vigil at the foot of the cross while Jesus was dying (John 19:25), the removal of Jesus' body from the cross, and Jesus'burial. Sometimes Christian artists represent the seven sorrows by portraying Mary with seven swords or daggers piercing her heart.

In the year 1668 a religious order known as the Servites gained the privilege of celebrating the Seven Sorrows of Mary on the third Sunday in September. In the early nineteenth century Pope Pius VII declared this September celebration valid for the entire Roman Catholic Church.

The Feast of the Seven Sorrows became an important day in the Lenten calendar of many Latin American countries. People observed it by decorating and visiting shrines devoted to Mary as the Sorrowful Mother. The festival also retained a good deal of popularity in central Europe, where it was known as the Friday of Sorrows. Many popular devotions took place on this day, and in some places it was customary to eat soup made from seven bitter herbs, including watercress, parsley, leeks or chives, spinach, nettle, sour clover, and primrose or yellow cowslip.

The two festivals dedicated to the Seven Sorrows of the Blessed Virgin Mary continued to be celebrated until the 1960s, when the reforms instituted by Vatican II, a series of important meetings of Roman Catholic leaders, eliminated the Lenten festival. The September holiday remains although the date has shifted. The 1969 calendar of the Roman Catholic Church named the holiday the Feast of Our Lady of Sorrows and recorded the date of its celebration as September 15.

Further Reading

Holweck, F. G. "Feasts of the Seven Sorrows of the Blessed Virgin Mary." In Charles G. Herbermann et al., eds. The Catholic Encyclopedia. New York: Appleton, 1913. Available online at: Rouillard, P. "Marian Feasts." In New Catholic Encyclopedia. Volume 9. New York: McGraw-Hill, 1967. "Seven Sorrows of the Blessed Virgin Mary." In E. A. Livingstone, ed. The Oxford Dictionary of the Christian Church. Third edition. Oxford, England: Oxford University Press, 1997. Weiser, Francis X. The Easter Book. New York: Harcourt, Brace and Company, 1954.
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