Mother and Son
Published 15 April 2012
Rev Dr Max Champion at St John's UCA Mt Waverley Good Friday 6 April 2012
Lesson -- John 19:26,27
Jesus said to his mother, 'Woman, behold your son' [and] to the
disciple whom he loved, 'Behold your mother.'
This brief encounter at the foot of the cross in John's Gospel has fascinated hymn writers, musicians and poets. In the 13th Century an unknown person composed the 'stabat mater dolorosa' to express the sorrow of Jesus' mother. Omitted from Australian Hymn Book (Methodist Hymn Book
185) it has been revived in Together in Song 334.
There has always been a tendency to focus on Mary's emotions. But the fact that John refers to her only as 'the mother of Jesus' and Jesus refers to her as 'woman' alerts us to a meaning that is far deeper even than the
bond between a grieving mother and a dying son.
What happened must not be sentimentalised. The New International Version translation of Jesus' words to his mother as 'Dear woman' is not true to the Greek text. It diverts us from the point of the story as does the suggestion that Jesus avoided more intimate language to save her from greater sorrow. There is much more to this than expressions of affection
and kindness in the face of family grief.
John is a master at weaving profound meaning into a very human story. This affectionate encounter between Jesus, his mother and the beloved disciple at the cross points us to relationships that are even closer than the natural bonds of family and friendship. They are bound most closely by their participation in the event through which God has restored humanity
This episode helps us grasp the splendour of the incarnation! It has been instrumental in framing the affirmation in the Apostles Creed and Nicene Creed that Jesus Christ, God's only Son, our Lord was 'born of the Virgin Mary'. There we express our astonishment and delight that God has immersed himself fully in our flesh-and-blood humanity. It helps us, too, avoid what so many people do: spiritualise Jesus and deny that the 'Word
became flesh and dwelt among us, full of grace and truth' (John 1:14).
The Council of Chalcedon (AD 451) addressed this issue by affirming that Mary is the 'Mother of God'. They insisted that God the Son has come to birth in her body. The most faithful translation of the 'stabat mater'
puts it well: 'O how sad and sore distressed was that Mother, highly blessed, of the sole-begotten One' (E Caswall and Methodist Hymn Book
185, but not Together in Song 334).
As the mother of Jesus, she is acknowledged as the 'God-bearer'. She had 'pondered' the extraordinary happenings around his birth (Luke 2:19). She had heard Simeon's chilling prediction that 'this child is destined for the falling and rising of many in Israel and for a sign that will be opposed by those whose inner thoughts will be exposed in such a way that a sword will pierce her heart' (Luke 2:34,35). Now, at the foot of the cross, she 'ponders' what it means to bear the sorrow of her crucified
All gospels say that women were at the crucifixion -- Mark 15:40ff, Matthew 27:55ff; Luke 23:27ff; John 19:26ff. Only in Luke are we told that 'they wailed in sorrow'. In that passage, Jesus' mother is not mentioned and Jesus tells them, 'Do not weep for me . . . .' Over the years, too much has been made of her emotional reaction to this brutal event. In John, sorrow and distress are palpable, but understated. We do well to
heed Jesus' warning in Luke to look beyond emotions.
It seems unusual and very impersonal, however, that in John, Mary (as she is named in Matthew, Mark and Luke) is always referred to as 'the mother of Jesus', and that Jesus only refers to his mother as 'woman' (at Cana in John 2:4). This suggests that John wants us to see her primarily as the bearer of the crucified God and as a model for those who would follow Jesus. So we must not think of 'Mary' only as 'the grieving mother of a son who met a terrible death' (though she certainly is that!) but as 'the woman who bore the Son of God' to redeem humanity.
This profound meaning becomes clearer as we explore the close bond that exists between Jesus, his mother and the beloved disciple. When Jesus says 'Woman, behold your son' and 'Son, behold your mother' we are to think of the Church's calling to glorify the crucified Christ.
Who is this 'woman', this 'mother'?
The place of Mary in the scheme of salvation often troubles Protestants who warm to the pregnant, homely mother who grieves over his death but are wary about inflating her importance. Such concerns can be set aside when we see that her role as the God-bearer is not to draw attention to herself, but to highlight the redemptive love of her Son for all people.
This comes out at Cana of Galilee when she says to the wedding guests, 'Do whatever he tells you. (John 2:5)' At the shock news of her pregnancy she says, 'Behold, I am the handmaid of the Lord; let it be to me according to your word. (Luke 1:38)' Her role in the great story of redemption is to be faithful to her Son and to bid others to do likewise.
Indeed, she is the human link between the Incarnation and the Church. As the God-bearer she is also the first disciple! In humble obedience to her unique calling she is properly called 'Mother of God' and 'Mother of the Church'. As such, she bears the sufferings of her son, the Son of God, and calls others, like the beloved disciple (and all 'beloved disciples') to faithfully bear their responsibility as sons and daughters of the crucified Christ.
Thus, Mary is first among women because she is the one through whom the 'Word became flesh'. She is also the first to participate in the Church (the Body of Christ) which is called to glorify him.
We are led to this interpretation by the strangeness of Jesus' words to his mother: 'Woman, behold your son.' The beloved disciple is a close friend and follower of her 'only begotten Son' (as affirmed in the Nicene Creed and 'stabat mater'). He is not her biological son. Clearly something deeper is meant. The point is that those, like the disciple, who keep company with the crucified One, are true children of Mary and true sons and daughters of Christ. They belong to 'the faith and family of Jesus Christ' (baptism), a family bound together not primarily by natural bonds of affection, but by love of Christ.
That is also why Jesus says to the disciple: 'Son, behold your mother.'
Behold the 'Mother of God' and the 'Mother of the Church.' As the 'God- bearer' she also 'bears the marks of faith' in her body. Insofar as she humbly points away from herself to what God is doing in her Son and invites others to obey him, she is the model of discipleship. So Jesus invites the beloved disciple to look to Mary as the 'mother of the faithful'.
'Woman, behold your son' and 'Son, behold your mother'. In these words the glory of the Incarnation and the glory of the Church's calling are held together in a bond of love that transcends our natural affections. Those who bear the name of Christ are called into a community of mutual love.
This sense of community is beautifully expressed here. The beloved disciple, obeying what Jesus tells him to do, 'took Mary into his own home from that moment' (v 27). Neither he nor Jesus' mother can exist as part of the Body of Christ without each other. Together they are united in the love of God that radiates from the cross!
Speaking of this lovely act, RJ Neuhaus paints a scenario that, if not historically verifiable, is theologically spot on. If, as many think, the 'beloved disciple' is the writer of the Gospel of John, 'we are invited to reflect that John, when he wrote about the Word become flesh, lived under the same roof with the one through whom it happened'. (RJN, Death on a Friday Afternoon, p95.)
Together they bear witness to the crucified love of the incarnate Son.
She, the Mother of God and the mother of countless sons and daughters who have followed the way of the cross, together with the beloved disciple, the son who represents all who are loved, are called to participate in the Body of Christ from the cross.
What an imaginative way to forge the link between the magnificence of the Incarnation and the calling of the Church! And what a source of encouragement to see at the foot of the cross, when all seems very dark and evil seems to triumph over goodness, a sign of hope that, whatever befalls the Church, the Gospel of the incarnate Jesus will continue to be believed and celebrated.
Rev Dr Max Champion is minister in the St John's Uniting Church, Mt Waverley, Victoria, Australia. Dr Champion is Chair of the Assembly of Confessing Congregations within the UCA.