Of all who gathered at the cross, the early church found the presence of women something it did not wish to forget. Each gospel tells us the women gathered there. Although others kept the painful vigil, John names these three: Mary, the mother of Jesus; Mary, his aunt; and Mary of Magdala. Throughout human history, across cultures and countries; human beings easily and willingly delegate the task of mourning to women. Here they stand.
We do not know about Jesus’ aunt; whether she grieves more for him or for her sister. His return to their hometown embarrassed the family; left them wondering about his sanity. Whose suffering brings her here?
Mary Magdalene’s heart breaks at the sight: Jesus, who freed her from the grasp of evil spirits; Jesus, who redeemed her life; Jesus, hanging in such agony.
One among these three women witnesses the unthinkable. No parent expects their son or daughter will precede them in death. No parent expects capital punishment for their child. Something has gone terribly awry, Mary’s son is dying; so close and just out of her reach.
Given her youthful, angel visions; Mary could have anticipated an easier life. In those days, a widow and a mother had only her children to rely on for care and security in her old age. Mary’s boy is dying. What will become of her now?
Carlyle Marney—that fine preacher and theologian—challenges us to imagine all the ways Mary could have spoiled Messiah; could have ruined the Christ. If she had told Jesus all the things she knew and remembered, all she had experienced in her own body; all she had pondered in her heart; she could have turned him into an arrogant savior.
We find no indication in all of Scripture that Jesus learns anything from Mary of angel visits to a young girl; of Mary’s own profound “yes” to God; of all the things she holds so carefully inside.
Mary’s decisions cost her everything; even her child.
Dying a humiliating, agonizing death on the cross, his clothes already stripped from him; Mary’s son has no money, no land, no security to offer; only a word. Looking down at her from the place where they have nailed him, through the haze of his pain, he speaks to her. He does not say goodbye or thank or “I love you”. He does not even call her “mother”. He calls her woman.
Woman: speaking as he spoke to a woman by a well in Samaria five times married. Woman: speaking as he spoke to a woman caught in adultery. Woman: speaking as he spoke to her—his own mother—early in his ministry at a wedding. Eager for him to begin his mission, she called forth his power prematurely; to save a short-sighted groom from embarrassment; to turn water into wine. “Woman” he said “what have you to do with me? My time has not yet come.”
Woman: in John’s gospel, every word, every action of Jesus has meaning. No victim he, Jesus moves deliberately, purposefully, the bearer of God’s strong ethic of love; the embodiment of God’s promise of salvation. On the cross Jesus’ hour has come. Turning to Mary, calling her woman, he means to draw her deeper still into the mystery of salvation.
“Woman, here is your son. Look upon me. Enter into this darkness with me” he bids her. “See that my Father’s love holds nothing back: not even His son, not even your son.”
“Woman, look upon me and hold fast to your faith. Continue to sing the song of your heart, for by the Spirit’s power, God’s work begun in me continues; scattering the proud, bringing down the mighty, filling the hungry with good things.”
“Woman; look upon me, your son, and behold the mystery of God’s love.”
Turning from his mother, Jesus does an astonishing thing. Passing over his brothers, he gives his mother to the disciples whom he loves; whose name we do not know; the only one of the male disciples who stands here at the cross; the only disciple who puts himself in danger to stand with Mary. Perhaps Jesus loves him for his compassion and courage. We do not know.
What we do know is this: Jesus re-orders their relationships. Jesus gives them one to the other saying “Woman, here is your son.” And to the disciple “Here is your mother.”
Jesus speaks something powerfully more here than a dying son’s concern for a mother’s grief and pain; deeper than arrangements for her care.
He speaks of a more profound love; of deeper sweetness; of a mystical connection that will bind him to those who love him, who believe in him, for all eternity. He speaks the first words of new creation, the words of painful new birth, of radically re-arranged relationships.
The principalities and powers sense victory; believing they have torn Jesus’ family and followers apart. They are mistaken. Stanley Hauerwas points out that in placing Mary and the beloved disciple together, Jesus moves quickly to re-member his faithful followers. And in doing so, he puts together these two as the beginning of his holy church. And according to John’s gospel, with this re-membering, Jesus knows his work this side of heaven is complete; finished.
Mary and the beloved disciple find themselves drawn by Jesus into a mysterious, loving union in which he continues to be present with them, even after he has gone from them: present in their love, present in their care, present in the sharing of life and being, present in what lies between them.
What grows between them spreads to others. And as the other disciples emerge from their hiding places, they discover a new intimacy, a depth of faith, a quality of love, born of the suffering of Mary’s boy.
“Woman, there he is, your son. There she is, your mother.”
No sentimental moment, this one: rather a word of love for all eternity. Spoken by the most fully human and the most fully divine one it is still our deep privilege to know; spoken that we might know on this dark day and in all the days to come what it means to love this Jesus; and the one who sent him; and the others whom he loves; and to live as the community of his re-membering.
These are sermon notes and are not intended for the purposes of publication. —Gina Gilland Campbell
Carlyle Marney, He Became Like Us
Frederick Buechner, Peculiar Treasures
Barbara Brown Taylor, God in Pain
Stanley Hauerwas, Cross Shattered Christ