READ : John 19:25-27
The second word of Jesus from the cross was spoken to his mother and his disciple John. To Mary Jesus said, “Dear woman, there is your son;” and to John, “There is your mother.”
Outside the small city of Selchuk in southeastern Turkey there stands a very old building that is identified as the house of Mary, the mother of Jesus. According to ancient Christian tradition this is the last home of Mary, the house in which she died. How is it that Jesus’ mother, a Jewish woman from Galilee, came to be associated with a site in what is now Turkey?
The answer to that question lies in the fact that Selchuk is the modern town that stands near the ruins of the ancient city of Ephesus. Ephesus was an important Christian center in the first century. The church there was founded by Paul on one of his missionary journeys. Later Christian tradition says that the apostle John settled there as the leader of the Ephesian Christian community toward the end of the first century, and that John brought Mary with him. In obedience to the word that Jesus spoke to them from the cross, Mary and John became mother and son to each other.
“WOMAN, BEHOLD YOUR SON”
As we move deeper into the story of Jesus’ crucifixion, we learn that he was not entirely deserted and friendless when he died. Despite their earlier bravado, all but one of his male disciples had fled like sheep when Jesus was arrested. But several of the women who had become followers of Jesus were braver. All four gospels mention the fact that a number of women stood by him on Golgotha, the place of execution. John names a little handful of loyal friends who watched and waited at the foot of the cross. They were four women and one man, whom John calls “the disciple Jesus loved” his indirect way of referring to himself. And the first-named among the women at the cross was Jesus’ own mother, Mary.
Mary was there. Only someone who has had to watch their child die can begin to imagine what was in Mary’s heart as she stood beneath the cross on Good Friday. Hers was a mother’s love. Hers was also the love of a devoted follower of Jesus, for Mary had become her own son’s disciple. In fact, Mary is the model for all later disciples.
She could not have been anywhere else that day, yet as she watched there, taking in the ghastly scene hour after hour, I’m sure her thoughts must have wandered elsewhere. She must have gone back in memory to Bethlehem and the night he was born, when angels sang and shepherds worshiped. Mary gathered up all their words and pondered them in her heart. Her mind traveled on to Nazareth, with its thousands of memories of her son growing up – the look on his face as he sat on her lap, the sound of his boyish laugh, his growing into manhood. Then came the years of his ministry when Jesus became the leader and Mary the follower. His amazing deeds caused her to wonder. His words and ways often mystified and sometimes hurt her.
But always Mary was there, and now she was here at the foot of her son’s cross. Amid all the other memories, surely this one came to her as well, the memory of the day when Joseph and Mary had brought their infant son to the Temple. Old Simeon, the prophet, told Mary that one day a sword would pierce her soul. Today was the day. A 13th century Christian hymn called Stabat Mater captures this moment:
At the cross her station keeping
stood the mournful mother weeping,
close to Jesus to the last.
Through her heart, his sorrow sharing,
all his bitter anguish bearing,
now at length the sword has passed.
At some point, John tells us, during the agony of his crucifixion, Jesus lifted his head and seeing his mother standing close by, with John beside her, spoke to them: “Woman, look, here is your son.” And then to John, “There is your mother.”
This word from the cross is different from all the others. Several of the sentences Jesus spoke were prayers addressed to his Father. Others were shouted in a loud voice, as if Jesus were proclaiming something to the whole universe. But this second word was a quiet word, a private word, an intimate word, meant only for those to whom it was addressed, at least initially. In the midst of the great drama of human redemption which was then and there unfolding, and with the life being wrenched slowly from his tortured body, Jesus whispered a personal request to the people he cherished best and trusted most in all the world. And what he asked them was that they look after one another.
A CARING WORD
When Jesus asked Mary and John to look at each other, he was really entreating them to care for one another. He put them into a new relationship: mother to son, son to mother; a relationship not based merely on blood or ties of kinship, but upon the obligation, in his name, to love each other. Just a few hours before, at the Last Supper in the Upper Room, Jesus had given his disciples a new commandment. “Love one another, as I have loved you.” Now he suggests a specific way of applying that command for two people who were very close to him.
What was Jesus thinking about as he died? It’s a wonderfully speculative question, and we cannot begin to know all that passed through his mind during those hours of darkness on Golgotha. But among all the cosmic concerns was one very humble one: Jesus thought about his family. He worried about his mother, who was old now, and with him gone would be alone. Who would care for her? Who would provide for her needs? What would become of Mary, with Jesus no longer there? It’s a very practical question, one many of us have asked. “What are we going to do about Ma?”
I’m glad that this word from the cross is also recorded in scripture because it shows us a wonderfully intimate side of the Lamb of God who was taking away the sin of the world. It’s not as grand or inspiring or terrifying as some of the other words from the cross, but it is more personal. Jesus wasn’t just thinking God-thoughts in his last hours. Somehow he still had the will and inclination to expend energy attending to a simple human concern, the kind of thing you and I worry about. Even as he was “reconciling the world to God,” to quote one of Paul’s explanations of what happened on the cross, Jesus was also putting his own house in order, taking care of his family. Orthodox Christians have always followed the Bible in insisting upon the fact that Jesus was an authentic man, that there was nothing make-believe about his humanity. His caring about Mary and John prove just how right this is. Jesus shared our whole human experience; nothing pertaining to us is foreign to him.
Nor did he allow big responsibilities to shove smaller ones aside. I think it would have been easy enough for Jesus to say, “You know, I’m just too overwhelmed right now to be burdened with more issues. Excuse me, I can’t deal with this right now. I’ve got my own problems to worry about.” I mean, that would have been understandable, wouldn’t it? After all, this was the decisive moment of all history. Eternity hung in the balance as Jesus hung from the cross. The weight of all the world’s guilt was pressing down on his shoulders. Salvation was being accomplished as his blood flowed in sacrifice. All heaven stood at attention and all hell trembled. And yet Jesus also was concerned then and there about the loneliness of an old woman in the days to come. He could have been excused for focusing on more significant matters. But he thought of Mary and her needs.
So here’s a question for us. What is our excuse when we ignore the humble, human, homely responsibilities that are ours? What reason can we give for neglecting our children, or our parents, or the neighbor who could use our help? Dare we even suggest that we’re just too busy, or that we have to take some time for ourselves, or that our own needs come first (“I have to be good to me,” as we say nowadays)? Looking at the cross, I just don’t see how our excuses could stand up.
A DIRECTIVE WORD
So this was a caring and a compassionate word: “John, take care of Mary; Mary, lean upon John.” And this word from the cross is also a directive word. It not only directs Jesus’ followers in what they should do; it indicates the manner in which they should live. It illustrates the basic direction of Jesus’ own life: he was the man who lived for others, and thus demonstrated his perfect conformity to the will of God. Even on the cross especially on the cross Jesus lived and, of course, died for others. The first three words from the cross Jesus directed to the people around him: forgiveness for his killers (“Father, forgive them, for they know not what they do.”), care for his mother (“Woman, behold, your son . . . son, behold your mother.”), and salvation for a fellow sufferer (“Today you will be with me in paradise.”)
Jesus always practiced what C. S. Lewis once called the Christian grammar: first person He (God), second person you (others), third person me. For most of us care for our fellow human beings is rather shallow. It is like a surface layer of warmth floating upon an ocean of cold self-centeredness. It doesn’t take long for us to dive through it and reach the limits of our concern about other people and their needs. But not for Jesus. His compassion has no limits. You cannot reach the bottom of his love. Everything he said or did was for our sake.
Here’s the really important thing to remember – Jesus’ care is just as much for you and me as it was for Mary and John. His compassionate love isn’t limited only to his family and close friends. Have you ever secretly wished you could belong to another family? Kids sometimes do that when they find out that in their friend’s family they don’t have to eat vegetables, or they receive higher allowances, or go on better holiday trips. Have you ever seen a family that was so warm, so loving, so appealing, that you longed to be accepted as one of its members? But the family of Jesus is just that, at least it is when it follows his directions. And it is open to you. It does not limit its care to those who already belong.
Once Jesus was speaking to a group of his followers when someone told him, “Your mother and brothers are outside asking for you.” Jesus stopped, looked around, and said, “Here are my mother and brothers. Whoever does the will of God is my brother, sister, mother” (Mark 3:35). So there it is. You can be his mother, or brother, or sister too. All you need to do is follow his direction.
Jesus created a new family for humankind at the foot of his cross. It’s called the church. It is the community of those who care for each other and also for the needs of the whole world. Compassion is the identifying mark of those who stand at the cross with Jesus. “Bear one another’s burdens, and so fulfill the law of Christ.”