Here in Sydney, two of our classically trained seminarians are doing a series of Holy Week performances of Pergolesi’s Stabat Mater. If you're in Sydney and would like to come along to a performance, the details are on Facebook. I wrote this short reflection on the Stabat Mater for the programme notes:
Holy Week is more than a memorial. It is a time of participation. We celebrate Holy Week as a way of participating in the great story of Jesus’ rejection, suffering, and death. We are among the crowd that cheers and waves palm branches when Jesus enters Jerusalem on a donkey. We are with Jesus when he shares his last meal with his friends. We share in their astonishment when our Lord stoops down to wash our feet and tells us to do likewise. The next day we join our voices to the crowd that cries out, “Crucify him!” And we are there when Jesus takes up the cross and lays down his life for the ones who have rejected him.
The 13th-century hymn, Stabat Mater, is a powerful expression of our participation in the events of Good Friday. In the Gospel of John, we read that Jesus’ mother was standing by the cross as her son hung dying between two criminals (John 19:25-27). The Stabat Mater places us there with Jesus’ mother. We contemplate the cross with her. We see it through her eyes. We shed her tears. Our heart is pierced like hers. We identify with her shattering experience of grief and trust.
The Stabat Mater leads us from the grief of Christ’s mother to the sufferings of Christ himself. As we stand with Mary beneath the cross, we ask that our own lives would be pierced by Christ’s wounds. The hymn invites us, like St Paul, to “bear in our bodies the death of Jesus” (2 Corinthians 4:10). It reminds us that the crucifixion is not just a mournful spectacle observed from a distance. We don’t watch the death of Christ in the same way that we watch a sad movie, shedding a few tears so that we will feel better afterwards.
When we fix our eyes on the crucifixion, we are contemplating the depths of God and the hidden depths of our own lives. The cross reveals the deepest truth about ourselves. It tells us who we really are. It shows us that we are loved; that we are wanted; that our lives have already been fully judged and fully forgiven; that “neither height, nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord” (Romans 8:39).
Composed in the final weeks of his life, as he lay dying from tuberculosis at the age of just 26, Giovanni Battista Pergolesi’s setting of this hymn is a profound musical exploration of human mortality, grief, solidarity, and ultimate hope.
If you don't know the hymn, the words are below with their lovely melancholy Latin rhymes. You can see a performance of Pergolesi’s setting here – or better yet, come along and join us for a live performance in Sydney!
I Stabat mater dolorosa The grieving mother stood
juxta crucem lacrimosa weeping beside the cross
juxta crucem lacrimosa weeping beside the cross
dum pendebat filius where hung her son.
II Cuius animam gementem Her soul, lamenting,
contristatam ac dolentem sorrowing and grieving,
pertransivit gladius. pierced by the sword.
III O quam tristis et afflicta O how sad and afflicted
fuit illa benedicta was that blessed
mater unigeniti mother of an only son.
IV Quae moerebat et dolebat Mourning and grieving
et tremebat cum videbat and trembling to behold
nati peonas incliti. the torments of her glorious child.
V Quis est homo qui non fleret Who would not weep
Christi matrem si videret to see Christ’s mother
in tanto supplicio? in such agony?
Quis non posset contristari Who would not grieve with her,
piam matrem contemplari looking upon the blessed mother
dolentum cum filio? suffering with her son?
Pro peccatis suae gentis For the sins of his people
vidit Iesum in tormentis she saw Jesus in torment
et flagellis subditum. and subjected to the scourge.
VI Vidit suum dulcem natum She saw her own sweet child
morientem desolatum dying, forsaken,
dum emisit spiritum. as he gave up his spirit.
VII Eia mater fons amoris O Mother, fount of love,
me sentire vim doloris that I may feel the power of sorrow,
fac ut tecum lugeam. let me mourn with you.
VIII Fac ut ardeat cor meum Let my heart burn
in amando Christum Deum with the love of Christ the Lord,
ut sibi complaceam. That I may be pleasing to him.
IX Sancta mater istud agas Blessed mother, do this:
crucufixi fige plagas impress the wounds of the Crucified
cordi meo valide firmly upon my heart.
Tui nati vulnerati The precious pains of your wounded
tam dignati pro me pati child, suffered for my sake:
peonas mecum divide. share them with me.
Fac me vere tecum flere Let me truly weep with you,
crucifixo condolere mourn the Crucified One
donec ego vixero. as long as I live.
Iuxta crucem tecum stare To stand with you beside the cross,
te libenter sociare to freely join you in your weeping,
in planctu desidero. this is my desire.
Virgo virginum praeclara Virgin, peerless among women,
Mihi iam no sis amara be not now harsh to me:
Fac me tecum plangere. grant that I may weep with you;
X Fac ut portem Christi mortem That I may bear the death of Christ,
passionis fac consortem share his passion,
et plagas recolere. remember his wounds;
Fac me plagis vulnerari That I may suffer his wounds,
cruce hac inebriari inebriated by this cross
ob amorem filii. with love for your son.
XI Inflammatus et accensus Ablaze and aflame,
per te virgo sim defensus may I find a defender
in die iudicii. on the day of judgement:
Fac me cruce custodiri Guarded by the cross,
morte Christi praemuniri armoured by Christ’s death,
confoveri gratia. cherished by grace.
XII Quando corpus morietur When the body dies,
fac ut animae donetur may the soul be granted
paradisi gloria. the glory of paradise.