Seven Last Words, Relationship:
John 19:26–27: ‘Woman, behold your son’.
(To a disciple) ‘Behold your mother’.
“Standing by the cross of Jesus were his mother, and his mother’s sister, Mary the wife of Clopas, and Mary Magdalene. When Jesus saw his mother, and the disciple whom he loved standing near, he said to his mother, “Woman, behold, your son!” Then he said to the disciple, “Behold, your mother!” And from that hour the disciple took her to his own home.”
This scene at the Cross has long caught the special attention of Christians, and is famously commemorated in the 13th century hymn Stabat Mater, set to music again and again over many centuries, often by celebrated composers. Why does it have this deep and enduring appeal? Part of the answer lies in the fact that the intensity of Mary’s pain is so easily imagined. We readily understand just how much she has been compelled to repress her maternal instincts of care and protection in order to honour the divine, but dangerous, mission of her eldest son. Luke tells us in his account of the Nativity that after the shepherds visited the stable and the angels sang, Mary ‘pondered these things in her heart’. No pondering, it seems plausible to think, could have prepared her, three decades on, for the grotesque culmination of her baby condemned and dying.
Yet, there she is, ever faithful, at the foot of the Cross, the sole person to be a presence in the life of Jesus from the cradle to the grave. Small wonder, then, that Mary has drawn a degree of veneration second only Jesus himself. Her special place is underlined by the fact that the third Word Jesus speaks before he dies is addressed to her. Mary's importance for us flows from this Word, since it reveals her importance for him. Even in the throes of death, she remains at the centre of his concern.
What is to happen to her now? Like a dutiful son, Jesus is making provision for his mother, entrusting her to the disciple with whom he is especially close (traditionally identified as John). Reciprocally, Jesus is bestowing on that disciple the maternal love and care that he himself has known. This, then, is more than a last Word from the Cross; it is an action. As the traditional attribution emphasizes, Jesus by this active Word, signals the supreme value of human ‘Relationship’, and even his dying breaths seek to affirm it.
There is a yet deeper theological dimension to be found in this, however. One way of uncovering it is to rephrase the third Word in same language as the final Word, addressed to God. To the disciple, this rephrased Word would be: ‘Into your hands I commend my mother’, and to Mary it would be, ‘Into your hands I commend a son’. This rephrasing reveals that while for Mary and John, there remains the possibility of a new, restorative and sustaining human relationship, this is no longer possible for Jesus. That is why he must, and can only, commend himself to God. Here, his belonging to humanity – a key Christian affirmation – has reached its limit. Human love can comfort Mary. Human love can strengthen John. Jesus is now beyond the resources of human love. That is why he relinquishes his mother to his friend, and his friend to his mother. It is to God alone that he can turn.
The doctrine of the Incarnation – that God was born into our humanity – is held up for celebration at Christmas. On Good Friday, the focus, usually, is the the divine self-sacrifice expressed in the doctrine of Atonement. Now we see the point at which the humanity and the divinity of Christ meet in the extremity of the Cross.
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