Summary: Reflections on Jesus’ words to Mary and John from the cross
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 hearing,
Now at length the sword had pass’d.
Oh, how sad and sore distress’d
Was that mother, highly blest
Of the sole-begotten One!
Christ above in torment hangs;
She beneath beholds the pangs
Of her dying glorious son.
Is there one who would not weep,
Whelmed in miseries so deep,
Christ’s dear mother to behold?
Can the human heart refrain
From partaking in her pain,
In that mother’s pain untold?
Those words are an excerpt from a nineteenth-century English rendering of a very long Latin hymn called the Stabat Mater. It focuses on the agony of Jesus’ mother Mary, during those dreadful hours she stood at the foot of the cross in company with three other women and the disciple John, watching powerlessly as Jesus’ life slowly, painfully slipped away from him.
Composer Antonín Dvorák’s rendering of the Stabat Mater takes a good hour and a half to perform. John’s gospel, on the other hand, presents it to us in half a verse, just ten words in the Greek. But of course behind the stark simplicity of John’s account there stands a whole story that goes back to the beginning of the gospel, a story that John does not tell, but for which we need to go to the Gospel of Luke.
In the opening chapter Luke introduces us to a young virgin, in all likelihood barely in her teens, who receives a visit from an angel. “Greetings, you who are highly favoured! … Do not be afraid… You have found favour with God. You will conceive and give birth to a son, and you are to call him Jesus. He will be great and will be called the Son of the Most High.” “I am the Lord’s servant.” Mary replied. “May your word to me be fulfilled.” Perhaps some of you are familiar with the more poetic rendering of her words in the old King James Version: “Behold the handmaid of the Lord; be it unto me according to thy word.” And this is where Mary’s pain, which culminates at the cross, begins.
For Mary knew that as an unwed mother she would be the scorn of everyone in Nazareth. She would risk rejection by the man whom she was to be married. She could even be subject to death by stoning. And it was only through another angelic intervention (this time to her future husband, Joseph) and the kindness of her cousin Elizabeth who invited her to the seclusion of her home in the hill country, that Mary was saved this threefold humiliation.
Now let’s skip over a few months, until after the time Jesus is born—forty days after, to be precise. Mary and Joseph have come to the big city, to the Temple in Jerusalem, to do what was required of the parents of every first-born male: to present a sacrifice on his behalf. Their intentions were interrupted by a man who suddenly seemed to come out of nowhere. His name was Simeon and Luke describes him as “righteous and devout … waiting for the consolation of Israel”. He took the baby Jesus into his arms, praising God. Then he turned to Mary and prophesied, “This child is destined to cause the falling and rising of many in Israel, and to be a sign that will be spoken against, so that the thoughts of many hearts will be revealed.” And he concluded with these dark words, addressed directly to Mary: “And a sword will pierce your own soul too” (Luke 2:34-35).
The next scene comes twelve years later, when Jesus and his parents are again at the Temple in Jerusalem. Assuming that Jesus was with some of the many neighbours and relatives who would have journeyed together, Mary and Joseph had travelled for a day before they began to worry. Then there was a hurried trip back to the city and another day of searching before they found him still in the Temple, conversing with the teachers of the Law. “Young man,” Mary scolded him, “why have you done this to us? Your father and I have been half out of our minds looking for you.” To which came Jesus’ rather mystified reply, “Why were you looking for me? Didn’t you know that I had to be here, dealing with the things of my Father?” (Luke 2:48-49, The Message). Many have since wondered if Mary’s three days without Jesus were not a precursor to three infinitely more agonizing days that lay ahead for her.
Until we come to the cross, that is where Mary’s story ends in the Gospel of Luke. But we do meet with her a couple of other times, once in John’s gospel and again in the writings of Matthew and Mark. In John it is the famous occasion of the wedding reception in Cana, a settlement located a few kilometers from Jesus’ home town of Nazareth. When the party has embarrassingly run out of wine, it is Mary who takes the initiative to approach Jesus with the problem. “They have no more wine,” she informs him. To which Jesus replies in a sentence that translators have found notoriously impossible to render into English: “Woman, why do you involve me?” The words seem petulant, even rude. However, if you look at the bottom of the page in your pew Bible you will see that the translators have been careful to add a footnote stating, “The Greek for Woman does not denote any disrespect.”