All the gospels mention that there are women at the crucifixion: Mary Magdalene, Mary the mother of James and Joseph, and Salome, the mother of James and John (cf Mt 27:55, Mk 15:40, Lk 23:49). These women had followed Jesus in his public ministry and assisted him from their own means. The men flee. But the women remain with Jesus to the end. Love is the soul of fidelity. Loyalty endures the test of suffering.
After the wedding feast of Cana in John's Gospel, Mary is conspicuously absent from the scene. She is never mentioned at all. Until the cross. John alone tells us that the mother of Jesus is present on Calvary. The mother is drawn to the Son in the hour of his suffering.
The danger Jesus faced in his public ministry was well-known. When Jesus is on his way to Judea to raise Lazarus from the dead, the disciples try to keep him from going. They know that the plot is already forming to do away with him. But when Jesus refuses to heed their warning, Thomas says, 'Let us also go that we may die with him' (Jn 11:16).
Sword of sorrow
Mary knows the danger as well as anyone else. That is why she chooses to be in Jerusalem, near her son. The mother clings to her children like ivy to the castle wall. Neither the summer sun nor the winter cold can tear them apart. A mother's love brings Mary to the foot of the Cross.
Mary is no stranger to sorrow. When she is about to give birth, she endures the hardship of travel from Nazareth to Bethlehem so that her son could be born in the City of David. When Herod is looking to kill her infant son, she and Joseph flee into Egypt. When the religious leaders turn against her son, she suffers. When the people reject him, her heart is heavy with grief.
When Jesus was presented as a child in the Temple, the old man Simeon prophesied the suffering of Calvary. He told Mary: 'A sword shall pierce through your own heart' (Lk 2:35). The soldier's lance will soon run through the heart of Christ at his death. But already, as Jesus is dying, the sword of sorrow pierces the maternal heart of Mary.
Mary was the first to place a kiss on his brow. She had quenched his thirst and caressed him with tenderness. Now his hands are nailed to a tree, his brow bleeding, his throat parched. A mother never abandons her child. His pain is her suffering. His death, her broken heart.
Never had the world seen a mother's heart filled with such joy at the birth of a child. Never will it see such sorrow at his death. Who could ever fathom the depth of a mother's love!
Matthew, Mark and Luke all place the other women on Golgotha 'at a distance' from the cross. But John places Mary right next to the cross. The woman closest to Jesus in life is closest to him in death. Love gives Mary the courage to be there. There is no love in nature stronger than the bond of mother and child.
As Jesus was always faithful to the Father, Mary was always faithful to the Son. Her presence at the foot of the Cross is the gift of her total union with her son in the work of redemption. Mary stands. It is the position of nobility. She causes her son no added pain by loud laments. The Shepherd is willingly laying down his life as the Lamb led to slaughter. Jesus is the Victim. Mary is one with him in self- immolation.
With thorn-crowned head, Jesus looks down from the cross. He speaks. He reveals Mary's new role in God's plan of salvation. 'Seeing his mother and the disciple whom he loved standing near her, Jesus said to his mother, 'Woman, behold your son.' Then to the disciple he said, 'Behold your mother'' (Jn 19:26-27).
The fourth evangelist does not place the personal names of either Mary or John on the lips of the crucified Jesus. The evangelist knows the names as well as he knows his own. But he never uses them in his Gospel. Rather, he uses titles. He wants us to see these individuals in their role for the entire Church, not in their personal relationships.
Jesus spoke and water turned to wine. His word multiplied bread and called Lazarus from the grave. Christ's word has power. It effects what it commands. He speaks now from the cross. And his word creates a new reality, a new relationship in the economy of salvation.
'Son, behold your mother.' Jesus first entrusts the beloved disciple to Mary. Mary is to care for the disciple. Clearly, Jesus is not making provision for the earthly care of his mother after his death. To the beloved, Jesus gifts his own mother. He is not renouncing the bond that binds him to Mary. He is elevating and expanding it. The beloved disciple is every true believer. Mary's motherhood is universal. We are all placed in her care.
'Woman, behold your son.' It is the second Annunciation. At the word of the angel, Mary became the mother of the Son of God. At the word of the Son of God, she now becomes the mother of all God's children.
The Cross is the 'hour' of redemption. It is the moment when God's plan for our salvation is accomplished. According to that plan, every disciple is now bound to Mary in the order of grace. She is our mother, not just for a time, but for all eternity. In the birth pangs of Golgotha, the Church is born. And, at the centre, there beats the heart of a mother.
Bishop Arthur J. Serratelli is the bishop of the Diocese of Paterson, New Jersey, USA, and chairman of the American Bishops' Committee on Liturgy. The above article is reprinted with the permission of 'The Beacon', newspaper of the Diocese of Paterson, in which the article was first published.