As we continue our journey through Lent, we are considering the seven last words that our Lord spoke as he was dying on the cross of Calvary. For the past two sermons, we have reflected on the first two of his utterances which are recorded in Luke’s Gospel: “Father, forgive them, for they know not what they do,” and his promise to the repentant thief dying next to him: “Today you will be with me in paradise.”
This morning, we turn to the third thing Jesus spoke from the cross, the first one that is recorded in John’s gospel. It is perhaps the most poignant scene of all the Passion tableaus. Throughout history, artists, poets, and musicians have competed with each other to try to depict this sacred scene. It is a bitter-sweet moment – an intimate exchange between mother and son, as Jesus offers her one last gesture of love before he dies. It is so intimate; we are almost embarrassed to be eavesdropping on the moment.
Of course, the only reason we have these words of Jesus is because John was there. No doubt John records these words of Jesus because some of them were actually spoken directly to him. John, “the disciple that Jesus loved” as he calls himself, was a key player in the cast of characters in this drama.
John sets the scene by telling us who among Jesus’ followers were present at Calvary to comfort Jesus in his most difficult hour. He names four faithful women who showed their love for Jesus by standing near the cross: Jesus’ mother Mary, his aunt (possibly John’s mother, whose name we know from another place was Salome), another Mary (the wife of Clopas), and a third Mary (Mary Magdalene).
The presence of these four women at the foot of the cross puts the rest of Jesus’ disciples to shame. They were cowardly absent, while these women were faithful to Jesus right to the end. And isn’t that the way it usually is? When you stop to think about it, when it comes to faithfulness, women have been putting us men to shame ever since.1
Isn’t that true? If you go to churches of practically any Christian denomination around the country, you will typically find more women in church sitting at the feet of Jesus than you will men – oftentimes, many more women than men. Thankfully, here in Mims, I think we have an unusually high percentage of outstanding men involved – but even here, the women outnumber us. Guys, the truth is that the ladies in churches tend to outperform us in faithfulness and devotion. In most congregations, it is women who usually get things done – often working behind the scenes. Women are more likely than the men to be spiritually growing (of the 25 or 30 people who attend my Bible Studies, only two are men). And oftentimes it is the woman of the church who demonstrate the most zeal for doing what needs to be done in the church. Let’s be honest, guys – the ladies often put us men to shame!1 We shouldn’t be surprised that, at the cross, the women followers of Jesus outnumbered the men four to one.
But…thankfully we, guys, were not without representation at the cross. Despite the cowardice of all the other men, John is there. He remained faithful and stood as an eyewitness to the horrific scene of Calvary.1 Without him, we would know nothing of this beautiful moment.
As soon as John gives the full cast of characters, it becomes clear that of the six people present, only three are in the spotlight: Jesus, his mother Mary, and John. The drama begins as the eyes of Jesus and his mother meet. And in that moment of longing and pain, our attention is drawn immediately to the chords of love that bonded mother and son.
Indeed, in this exchange of glances, Mary must have felt her heart break as her mind flashed back more than thirty years as she remembered what the old man Simeon prophesied the day she and Joseph brought their baby Jesus to the Temple. Do you recall his words: He looked right at Mary and said, “This child will be rejected by many in Israel, and it will be their undoing… And a sword will pierce your very soul.” (Luke 2:34-35) As she stood on Golgotha’s Hill and watched her son writhing in pain, Mary must have felt that sword cutting through her soul.
Who among us can image the agony that Mary must have been experiencing at that moment – to see your beloved son going through such torture, executed as if he were a murderer – and being powerless to do anything about it – not even able to take his dying body into her arms and to wipe the sweat and blood from his brow. It was a mother’s worst nightmare. As we see her weeping, our hearts break for Mary. And we also weep – for ourselves, knowing that it was our sin that nailed our Lord to the cross.
The Roman Catholic Church especially cherishes this moment in Mary’s life. To honor Mary’s grief, some person of faith long ago wrote a poem that has become one of the most treasured devotional writings in Christian history. Composers have offered countless musical settings of the powerful Latin text, trying to capture the anguish of Mary at the Cross, a poem called “Stabat Mater Dolorosa” (which means “The Grieving Mother Standing”). One English translation includes these powerful stanzas:
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.
Christ above in torment hangs,
she beneath beholds the pangs
of her dying glorious Son.
Bruised, derided, cursed, defiled,
she beheld her tender Child
All with scourges rent:
For the sins of His own nation,
saw Him hang in desolation,
Till His spirit forth He sent.
By the Cross with thee to stay,
there with thee to weep and pray,
is all I ask of thee to give.
Let me share with thee His pain,
who for all my sins was slain,
who for me in torments died.
Holy Mother! pierce me through,
in my heart each wound renew
of my Savior crucified:
Make me feel as thou hast felt;
make my soul to glow and melt
with the love of Christ my Lord.
Stabat Mater Dolorosa – “The Grieving Mother Standing:” Such anguish Mary must have endured as she took in the awful sight of her baby nailed to a cross – if it had been my child, I would have been so overcome I would have fainted dead-away. I think it’s amazing that Mary was able to stand at all.
That scene would be powerful enough, even without dialog. But then the action begins. Jesus breaks the silence between them, and says to her, “Dear woman, here is your son,” or in more traditional translations, “Woman, behold, your son.”
When Mary first heard those words, I imagine that she must have thought Jesus was referring to himself, that he was saying something like, “Mother, just look at me, your son.” That would have certainly intensified her pain as she was forced to come to grips with the reality of Jesus’ dying.
But that’s not all that Jesus meant. He wasn’t talking about himself – with a nod of his head, Jesus indicated that he was referring to John. And with his next breath, he said to John, “Here is your mother.” And suddenly, Mary realized what Jesus was doing.
You see, Mary was a widow, and as such, she was very vulnerable. In that society, unless a widow had family to provide for her, she would be poverty-stricken, or even become a beggar. Under Jewish customs, it fell to the eldest son to be responsible for her care. As Jesus is nailed to the cross with his lifeblood draining from his body, his first impulse was to fulfill his obligation for the care of his beloved mother. In a final gesture of his love, he entrusted his dear mother to “the disciple whom he loved,” his cousin, John.
Why did Jesus choose John? It’s clear from scripture that Mary had other sons and daughters – they would naturally have stepped up and cared for their mother. Why does Jesus bypass them, and select John?
Well, one possible answer is that John was the only man present at the cuucifixion. Jesus knew he wouldn’t live much longer and John was available, so he got the job. But I think there is a deeper reason. At the time of Jesus’ crucifixion, none of his brothers or sisters believed that he was the Messiah – they only came to faith after the resurrection. I believe Jesus wanted to entrust his mother to someone who believed in him – and so he picked John, her nephew and the only faithful disciple left. What’s more, certainly Jesus was aware that among all his disciples, only John would avoid martyrdom and live to a ripe old age. And tradition tells us that John was good for his word, caring for Mary until the day she died. Yes, John was the perfect choice.
So what are we to learn from this scripture text? Certainly it speaks of the power of love, especially the bond of love between mothers and their children. And of course it illustrates the important responsibilities each of us have to provide for and care for our parents – to “honor our fathers and mothers” as the Commandments tell us. But is that all John was trying tell us? I think not. I believe that there is something even more profound going on at the foot of the cross. Jesus wasn’t just saying, “John, look after mom when I’m gone,” – Jesus was forming a new one.2 At that moment, Christ was creating a new spiritual family to which all people of faith can belong.
In William Willimon’s book, Thank God It’s Friday, he paints a picture of a Jesus that undermines our usual image of him. As he studied the Gospels, Willimon noticed that Jesus was not a great advocate of “family values,” at least not in the way we think of family values. Let me give you a few examples:
At the wedding in Cana, Jesus’ mother tries to get him to do something about the fact that the wine was running out, and Jesus’ curt response to her – “O woman, what have you to do with me?” (John 2:4 RSV) Not exactly the words a mother longs to hear!
When Jesus was calling his disciples, they abandoned, not only their livelihood (their nets and fishing boats), but left their wives and families, too. One day Jesus called another person to follow him, and that person said he would – but only after he buried his father. Jesus’ response “Let the dead bury the dead; but you follow me.”
And perhaps his most un-family-values teaching of them all: He bluntly said, “I have come to set a man against his father, and a daughter against her mother, and a daughter-in-law against her mother-in-law. (Matthew 10:35 RSV).2
It’s no wonder that Norman Rockwell didn’t paint pictures of Jesus. Jesus was not pro-family, at least not in the conventional sense.2
I don’t think that Jesus was anti-family. I just think he recognized the weaknesses of relying too much on family for meaning in life. Jesus was a realist. He could see the foibles and limitations of human families.
Don’t get me wrong – families are vital to life. We were not created to be isolated, but God intends for us to live as members of a family. That is why we are born into families to mothers and fathers. Families have been ordained by God to be places where children discover they are loved by parents and others in the family. It’s where they are to learn about God’s love and God’s intention for their lives. And its where we learn how to relate to siblings in healthy ways so that when we move out into the world, we can enter into healthy relationships with others. In other words, our homes are to be training grounds for Godly living. Or they should be.
But unfortunately, the reality is that families are often not all that God intends. Human families can be a great blessing in life, or an awful curse. Many homes are plagued by abuse, hostility, or neglect. Children are born without both parents, or with mothers or fathers that aren’t fit to be parents. Some children are abandoned, thrown away by one or both parents. Too many marriages end in separation and divorce. Homes are devastated by the tragedy of the death of a spouse or parent or child. And often, our most strained and broken relationships in our lives are with those in our own families. No, the family today is often not what God intended. (Maybe you have experienced your family as a mixed blessing, too.)
Even in Jesus’ day, families didn’t live up to God’s ideal. So over and over, Jesus warned people not to rely totally on family to give their life meaning – because families can fail us. Throughout his ministry, Jesus kept reminding people that there is something much more important even than our family relationships – that there is are relationships that are far more reliable and enduring to base our lives on – our relationship with God, and our relationship with others who share our faith.
That, I believe is the deeper meaning of this third word of Jesus from the cross. When Jesus spoke to his mother and called her “woman” (instead of “mother”), I believe he was intentionally distancing himself from her, releasing her so that she could establish a bond of love with John, the only disciple who shared her belief in Christ. Jesus was creating a new family – a family of the faithful – whose bond of divine love would even surpass the love of the best human family.
It could be argued that this is the moment when Jesus established the family of God, his church. At the cross new relationships are formed, new family ties are established. No longer is blood thicker than water. Now, as we are baptized into the death and resurrection of Christ, water becomes thicker than blood. I know that is true for many of us in this room – we are close to some people in our church than we are to many members of our own family! Because of our shared faith, they are our “family!” And no matter what our human families are like, no matter how broken or dysfunctional our natural families are, we belong to a spiritual family built on love, because its foundation is Jesus Christ.
I think that’s what Jesus meant that day earlier in his minister when he was told that his family would like to see him, and Jesus replied: “’Who are my mother and my brothers?’ And then looking around at those who sat about him listening to him teach, he said, ‘Here are my mother and my brothers!’” (Mark 3:34-35 RSV)
At the foot of the cross, a new family is formed – where strangers become our siblings – people of all races and nations and ethnicities, the young and the old, the rich and the poor – people as different from us ass they can possibly be – become our brothers and sisters in Christ. Yes, it is at the cross that all other differences fade – in the words of the Apostle Paul, in Christ there is neither Jew nor Gentile, slave or free, male or female. In our diversity, we are molded into one body of Christ. Or as Willimon expresses it, “We who once cared only for those folk who have the same genetic endowment as us, now are made to care for those with whom we have nothing in common – but Jesus.”2
It is as if Jesus were saying to his mother, Mary, and to John, and through them to us: “A new commandment I give to you, that you love one another; even as I have loved you, that you also love one another.” (John 12:24 RSV)
Apparently, that was his dying wish.
Holy and righteous Father, make our church your real family as we look, with each other, at the Cross and what it should mean to us. Please make us more unified as we all draw more closely to your Son Jesus, in whose name I pray. Amen.
2Willimon, William. Thank God It’s Friday. Abingdon Press. c2006