Standing beneath the cross, the mother, Good Friday (A,B,C) – 2007

April 6, 2007

Isaiah 52:13-53:12; Hebrews 10:16-25 or Hebrews 4:14-16, 5:7-9; John 18:1-19:42; Psalm 22

“Woman, here is your son.” Then he said to his disciple, “Here is your mother.”

Jesus hangs on the cross. Crowds of people stand around watching the spectacle – some watching in horror, others with indifference, still others with a sense of triumph. “That annoying and dangerous prophet is in the last throes of death, thank God,” they may be thinking. There had been cries of “Crucify!” and “Give us Barabbas!” There was the disgraceful set-up of a trial – lies, sarcasm, physical and emotional abuse, and a question, “What is truth?”

Connected to Jesus all the time by the strong bonds of love and finally standing beneath the cross is the mother. It must have been an absolutely sickening sight. Human beings nailed or tied to cross-beams like animal carcasses. Blood, gore, sweat, the bodies twitching in agony – life being torn out of bodies that shouldn’t have been dying. Jesus and the two thieves weren’t sick. Jesus at least we know was still young. Human beings were deliberately ripping life out of other human beings, and for what? The other two are called “thieves.” They must have stolen something – we don’t know what. But Jesus? Jesus was only a troublemaker. Jesus dared to challenge God’s people about their lack of faith – their carelessness about living Torah. Jesus cared about the poor. He healed the sick, preached, taught, ate with the marginalized, forgave sinners. Does that deserve this kind of death? Did the thieves deserve death? Who ever deserves to have life deliberately taken away?

Mary stands at the foot of the cross. The disciple John stands with her. Can you imagine what these two are thinking? Can you imagine the crushing pain of a mother watching her son die? Die – not because he had done anything wrong, die because he loved so much. That’s the puzzlement of this whole scene. Jesus loved everyone. He paid attention even to people who tried to trick him with their unanswerable questions – or so they thought. He took them on every time, but never in a cruel or imperious way. He was always to the point, but thoughtful and kind, even when challenging. He was a teacher who had one basic lesson: love. So, for this he’s on the cross and his mother stands and watches him die.

This is a terribly quiet day. It’s embarrassing to hear the crowd yell, “Crucify him!” It wouldn’t be if this were just a story in history. It’s embarrassing because today brings us face to face with our own sin, and we might wonder how we still crucify other human beings. Once again, we don’t seem to have learned the lesson Jesus worked so hard to teach. The embarrassment makes us want to blame someone else. “The Jews killed Jesus, or maybe the Romans, but certainly not me.” But saying that creates another problem. People who have bought into that thinking have reacted throughout history with things like the Inquisition, the Crusades, Nazism, and intolerance of many different types.

And so we’re quiet. Our liturgy has a sense of stillness, and yet there is movement. On Holy Thursday, we moved from the upper room, where Jesus washed the disciples’ feet before sharing the bread and wine, into the garden. Today we retell the story of the arrest, trial, suffering, and death of Jesus. We venerate the cross in word, action, and hymn. We see the mother stand beneath the cross and picture her receiving his dead body into her arms. No mother should have to see her child die. We want to turn our eyes away, but we can’t. If we don’t look at the cross and understand that Jesus is dead, his life taken cruelly and yet given freely out of love, if we don’t see ourselves in the heart of his mother willing to be there with him even if it’s dangerous, then we might not really understand the true power of the resurrection.

God gives all so that we might begin – just begin – to understand unconditional love. Once we understand, we realize we’re asked to do the same in many different and varied ways, some easier than others – some, like this death on a cross, a total gift of self for others.

“Woman, behold your son.” Then he said to his disciple, “Here is your mother.”

We are in the hearts of both mother and disciple. We’re given to each other by God to care for each other, to give support and love without reserve, to be willing to give our lives.

We leave this place in silence. We’ve heard our story once again. We’ve looked at the cross and imagined what it means to us. And now we wait.

 

— The Rev. Dr. Susanna Metz is executive director of the Center for Ministry in Small Churches at the School of Theology, Sewanee, Tennessee, and assistant professor of Contextual Education. She is also publisher of Tuesday Morning, a quarterly journal of ministry and liturgical preaching.

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