When Jesus saw his mother and the disciple he loved standing near, he said to his mother, “Woman, behold, your son!” Then he said to the disciple, “Behold, your mother!”
In Jesus’ words we are drawn to focus on the wider scene of his crucifixion. What we glimpse is not an unfamiliar scene of distort family and friends looking on helpless in the suffering of a loved one via the action of unjust men in a brutal and unjust world.
Continually written on the consciousnesses of the people of God was the imperative to act justly themselves and care for the most vulnerable in society. The vulnerable were denoted by the often repeated phrase, the alien, widow and orphan. Mary was a widow and now her only son was dying before her on the cross – her position would be precarious and utter poverty a likelihood if she is not provided for somehow. Jesus looks to John his most beloved disciple and asks him to care for her as if she were his own mother.
This alone is a powerful scene that teaches us about what it means to honour our mother and father in the light of the ten commandments and to recognise the need to always be mindful of the most vulnerable in our society. We also know that John took this request seriously. Today it is possible to visit what is thought to be Mary’s house in Ephesus and Ephesus was the epicentre of the Johannine Christian community. It was from the midst of this community that the Gospel of John emerges. John’s memory of this scene, like any who have experienced such trauma, would have been imprinted on his mind and Jesus’ words as clear as when they were first spoken.
Mary herself, who pondered these things in her heart, would now understand only to clearly those words of prophesy from old Simeon, “Behold, this child is set for the fall and rise of many in Israel, and a sign that is spoken against, and a sword will pierce your own soul also..” Every mother has a special bond with the child that they carry in their womb and can identify and feel every joy and sorrow of the child they bore as if it were their own.
We like Mary must ponder these words of Jesus and begin to see that there is a prophetic edge to them – they are revealing to us something more than just a son’s care for his mother. At this deepest darkest hour of despair, when virtually all have abandoned Jesus all that he worked for seems lost, the seed of something new begins to take form. A new community, a new people are forged into being at the foot of the cross. It’s life blood will be the sacraments, the water and blood that flow from the side of Christ, and its essential key figures at it’s heart are Mary and the apostles represented by John.
The implications of Mary’s ‘Yes’ to God takes on another dimension. Not only is she Mother of the incarnate God but will become mother of all as the new Eve in the new creation – the new Israel. Without lessing the pain of loss, maybe a glimmer of understanding flickers at the back of Mary’s mind. Certainly this will later be reflected in John’s gospel that this moment of despair was in reality the moment of strange glory. The lifting up of Jesus on the cross is his triumph and lifting up to glory. Fallen creation has had its finally judgement and will come forth as the communion of saints. The last word in no longer humanities deepest suffering or his death because God in Christ has entered there and his love has triumphed breaking forth into the new creation.
The new creation is the Church and Mary is the mother of the body of Christ and becomes our spiritual mother when we enter the life of Christ through our baptism. Mary was able to become the Mother of God and the new Eve because of her immaculate conception. Not that she herself was a virgin birth but that by God’s grace she was free from the consequences of original sin and thus made ready to be the tabernacle of God and be the source of uncorrupt humanity for the incarnation. Therefore she is first in the kingdom of God and its greatest disciple and will later be entitled queen of heaven.
Mary is due the greatest of honour but let us not fall into a naive piety, that in the light of the great dogmas of her immaculate conception and assumption, view her as being exempt from the pain of childbirth (although she does maintain her perpetual virginity), weariness, doubt, temptation, ignorance or even death (although she suffers no bodily corruption). This misdirected piety inadvertently puts Mary above her son and must be tempered in the light of the cross. Jesus is God incarnate and was tempted, tired, angry, hungry, grew weary, wept and died an unspeakably horrible death. No disciple is greater than their master and it is Mary as the greatest of disciples of her son Jesus that leads her to this place of utter desolation.
Mary shows us the way of discipleship. St Paul encourages us, in his letter to the Philippians, to ‘have the mind of Christ’ and empty ourselves. Mary has already embraced this way. The greek word used to denote this self emptying is kenosis which carries the meaning of surrendering all that is most dear to us, and for Mary, it was the surrender of her dearest. From the moment of her “Let it be unto me according to your word.” Mary has journeyed the way of surrender. Indeed Mary’s last recorded words in the gospel are from the wedding in Cana and carry this theme of surrender. Her words to the servants “Do whatever he tells you.” Continue to be her words of advice to all who wish to follow her son.
Here at the foot of the cross we become aware that Mary had to surrender all her motherly instinct and desire to protect and prevent her beloved son from this way of the cross. Jesus responded to Peter’s attempt to prevent him from this way with the sharp rebuke, “Get behind me Satan! You do not have in mind the things of God but the things of men.” The cross is his way and if it is his way then it is our way as well. The Cross is the only way to true life and joy. There is no room here for ambition, politics, empowerment, self fulfilment, self actualisation or control.
Pope Francis in his latest exhortation Evangelii Gaudium states that, “Whenever our interior life becomes caught up in its own interests and concerns, there is no room for others, no place for the poor. God’s voice is no longer heard, the quiet joy of his love is no longer felt..”
Men in particular but women as well have contrived many alternatives to the way of the cross. Many have sought to reject Mary as a model of discipleship. But to say Mary’s way is not our way is to say Christ way is not our way for Mary in every respect is a disciple of her son. Mary’s words ring in our ears again “Do whatever he tells you.” And Jesus tells us to “take up your cross and follow me.”
It is only in our self surrender to our cross are we ready to hear and begin to understand Jesus words, “Behold, your Mother!”