On the Road with the Mater Dolorosa: An Exploration of Mother-Son Discourse Performance


In this essay, a collection of six liturgical poems (two anonymous Hebrew poems, an anonymous Jewish Palestinian Aramaic poem, two memre by Pseudo-Ephrem, and a kontakion by Romanos) provide a basis for examining depictions of maternal grief over the immanent or imagined death of a son. The depictions of grief in these poems reveal social ideals around mourning, cultural assumptions about how grieving was gendered, and rhetorical-performative techniques that shaped how the synagogue and church communities would have received and experienced these works. Jochebed, the mother of Moses; Sarah, the mother of Isaac; and Mary, the mother of Jesus model different responses to the loss of a son. The poems also depict the sons’ expectations of and responses to their mothers’ grief. The explicit and implicit dialogues in these poems can be understood as a form of ethopoia—character creation through speech—which, in the liturgical context, functioned to provide a cathartic outlet for the grief of the men and women in attendance.