, ,

Today is the memorial of Jocopone da Todi, a Secular Franciscan who eventually became a Friar Minor.

tiziana-jacoponeJocopone’s biography is well worth reading (click here for a short version, and/or here for a longer one); to summarize, Jocopo was of noble birth, trained as a lawyer, and pursued a life of, shall we say, “excess.” Upon the accidental death of his pious wife, Vanna, Jocopo turned away from the world and entered the Third Order of St. Francis (today’s Secular Franciscan Order). He gave away his wealth and station, and set about living the life of a penitent. He was mocked by former friends and strangers and given the appellation “Jocopone,” roughly “Crazy Jim.”

Eventually, Jocopone gained admission to the First Order of Friars Minor, and was imprisoned late in life during one of the (numerous) difficulties with the Vatican. He died on Christmas Eve, 1306, a few years after his release.

Jocopone is best known for his poetry, particularly the poem/hymn Stabat Mater*. Said by some to be one of the seven greatest Medieval Latin hymns, the Stabat Mater is still sung on the Feast of Our Lady of Sorrows on September 15.

So, why post a hymn to Our Lady of Sorrows just a couple of days before perhaps the most joyous day in the Christian calendar, Christmas? Because the birth of Our Lord is inextricably linked to his crucifixion, which is the necessary step to his resurrection. The poem-hymn reminds us of the Prophecy of Simeon in Luke 2:

   33And His father and mother were amazed at the things which were being said about Him. 34And Simeon blessed them and said to Mary His mother, “Behold, this Child is appointed for the fall and rise of many in Israel, and for a sign to be opposed— 35and a sword will pierce even your own soul—to the end that thoughts from many hearts may be revealed.”

As we look at the infant Jesus, lying in His manger, we see not only the sleeping baby but the Savior who is put to death ignominiously on a cross**–but who triumphs over both death and human frailty by rising again on Easter. The meaning of the manger is inextricably linked to the meaning of the cross.

It is easy to feel the warm-fuzzies over the infant Jesus. This Jesus is easily contained, is easy to love, is easy to feel comfortable with. If we are truly honest with our ourselves, it is very difficult to experience the Christ’s passion on the cross. That Jesus is, depending on one’s perspective, the sacrifice of “God-made-Man” at the hands of a fallen humanity, the tragic end of a naive belief in the better side of the same humanity, or the logical end of one who challenges the status quo.Regardless, Christ’s death on the Cross (or Jesus’ execution, if you prefer) is hard to deal with.

Mary’s anguish beholding her son dying the tortuous death of a common criminal should inspire us to feel the pathos of the moment. Certainly, Mary must have thought back to that moment in the manger when, after the pains of her labor, she held her first-born child in her hands. “How did it come to this?”, she must have thought. We who profess to be Christians must stand at the foot of the cross with her. We must, on Christmas morning, see the cross in the manger.


The Christian story does not end with Jesus’ death on the cross. Just as the manger is the first step on the road to Calvary, so the cross is the necessary step to the Resurrection. Christ must die in order to rise. Mary (and we) must feel the depths of sorrow and despair in order to truly experience the joy of Easter. The manger is ultimately not the first step to the cross but the first step to the Resurrection. Jesus’ birth is the precursor to reclaiming His divinity. Passing through our Sorrows is necessary to experiencing the subsequent Joy.

So, let’s let Jocopone da Todi inspire us, not to sink into the depths of the despair that comes from some sort of existential sorrow, but to the state of Joy that Christ promises is our birthright.


Stabat Mater






* The text of Sabat Mater:

Stabat mater dolorosa
juxta Crucem lacrimosa,
dum pendebat Filius.

Cuius animam gementem,
contristatam et dolentem
pertransivit gladius.

O quam tristis et afflicta
fuit illa benedicta,
mater Unigeniti!

Quae mœrebat et dolebat,
pia Mater, dum videbat
nati pœnas inclyti.

Quis est homo qui non fleret,
matrem Christi si videret
in tanto supplicio?

Quis non posset contristari
Christi Matrem contemplari
dolentem cum Filio?

Pro peccatis suæ gentis
vidit Iesum in tormentis,
et flagellis subditum.

Vidit suum dulcem Natum
moriendo desolatum,
dum emisit spiritum.

Eia, Mater, fons amoris
me sentire vim doloris
fac, ut tecum lugeam.

Fac, ut ardeat cor meum
in amando Christum Deum
ut sibi complaceam.

Sancta Mater, istud agas,
crucifixi fige plagas
cordi meo valide.

Tui Nati vulnerati,
tam dignati pro me pati,
pœnas mecum divide.

Fac me tecum pie flere,
crucifixo condolere,
donec ego vixero.

Juxta Crucem tecum stare,
et me tibi sociare
in planctu desidero.

Virgo virginum præclara,
mihi iam non sis amara,
fac me tecum plangere.

Fac, ut portem Christi mortem,
passionis fac consortem,
et plagas recolere.

Fac me plagis vulnerari,
fac me Cruce inebriari,
et cruore Filii.

Flammis ne urar succensus,
per te, Virgo, sim defensus
in die iudicii.

Christe, cum sit hinc exire,
da per Matrem me venire
ad palmam victoriæ.

Quando corpus morietur,
fac, ut animæ donetur
paradisi gloria. Amen.

At the Cross her station keeping,
stood the mournful Mother weeping,
close to her Son to the last.

Through her heart, His sorrow sharing,
all His bitter anguish bearing,
now at length the sword has passed.

O how sad and sore distressed
was that Mother, highly blest,
of the sole-begotten One.

Christ above in torment hangs,
she beneath beholds the pangs
of her dying glorious Son.

Is there one who would not weep,
whelmed in miseries so deep,
Christ’s dear Mother to behold?

Can the human heart refrain
from partaking in her pain,
in that Mother’s pain untold?

For the sins of His own nation,
She saw Jesus wracked with torment,
All with scourges rent:

She beheld her tender Child,
Saw Him hang in desolation,
Till His spirit forth He sent.

O thou Mother! fount of love!
Touch my spirit from above,
make my heart with thine accord:

Make me feel as thou hast felt;
make my soul to glow and melt
with the love of Christ my Lord.

Holy Mother! pierce me through,
in my heart each wound renew
of my Savior crucified:

Let me share with thee His pain,
who for all my sins was slain,
who for me in torments died.

Let me mingle tears with thee,
mourning Him who mourned for me,
all the days that I may live:

By the Cross with thee to stay,
there with thee to weep and pray,
is all I ask of thee to give.

Virgin of all virgins blest!,
Listen to my fond request:
let me share thy grief divine;

Let me, to my latest breath,
in my body bear the death
of that dying Son of thine.

Wounded with His every wound,
steep my soul till it hath swooned,
in His very Blood away;

Be to me, O Virgin, nigh,
lest in flames I burn and die,
in His awful Judgment Day.

Christ, when Thou shalt call me hence,
be Thy Mother my defense,
be Thy Cross my victory;

While my body here decays,
may my soul Thy goodness praise,
Safe in Paradise with Thee.

Translation by Edward Caswall
Lyra Catholica (1849)

** This is not entirely original. 35 years ago I heard a Christmas Eve homily by an Episcopal priest who reminded us that the “petit Jesu” of the manger was also the Christ of the Cross. The former we can emotionally contain; the latter is actually beyond our comprehension.