Woman, Behold Your Son

Woman, behold your son; son, behold your mother. (John 19:26-27)

By JeDi58 via FlickrI guess these words of Jesus from the cross can be taken as tender, loving, the deeply moving gesture of a dying man, ensuring the future care of his mother. I guess they can be heard as a loving human son taking care of his grieving human mother.

I have always wondered how Mary and the beloved disciple could stand being there. It seems ridiculous—either superhuman or masochistic—that they would remain present for the torture and death of the beloved son, the beloved friend. I especially wonder if they said anything in response to those words. We have no record of a response, so maybe they only responded in their minds. Or maybe their responses didn’t fit the message that a writer, looking back through the lens of resurrection, wanted to communicate.

Personally, I want Mary to scream in that moment, “Don’t you tell me who my family is! You are my family. You are supposed to bury me; I’m not supposed to bury you! I’m supposed to go first. I’m ready to go first. But I am not ready for my beautiful son, in the prime of life, to be tortured and killed for the supposed benefit of people I don’t even know.” I want Mary to stop being Superwoman and say, “I want my son.” I wait for the beloved disciple to say, “I have witnessed the miracles you have done. Stop fooling around, Jesus. Don’t take this any further. Save yourself. We need you.”

Perhaps, though, Mary and John stood and watched the torture and death of a beloved son, a beloved friend because they knew it couldn’t happen this way. Maybe they expected any moment to awaken from a nightmare, or to find that this man they loved had one more miracle in him, that he would heal and save himself.

I feel sure I would have reacted to those words, and not in a godly way. I haven’t lost a child or a best friend, but I have lost parents and a sister, and I got tired of hearing that they were with God, in a better place. I want them here, with me. Don’t tell me to behold other people who are supposed to become my family now that they are gone. Let me wake up from the nightmare, my real family around me. You gave them to me, God. Why are you taking them away?

Is that what happened with Mary and John? Maybe they were even thinking of the gift of another son, in another time, of another unthinkable sacrifice. Maybe they stood there, clinging to the familiar story of Abraham and the near-sacrifice of his son Isaac, a son miraculously given to him by God. Here Mary stood, seeing her son-promised to her through an angel of God, no less-watching that son go passively to his death. I wonder if she expected another angel to come to intervene, to speak for God, saying, “Enough! I see you are faithful. There will be no human sacrifice here today.”

But no angel would come on this Friday and stop the killing. I think Jesus was telling those he loved on earth that there would be no intervention by an angel of God this time. He was telling them that there would be no miracle to heal his wounds or prevent his death. There would be no miracle, at least not on this day.

Three days later, the world would be turned upside-down by the discovery of an empty tomb. But from the cross, Jesus knew he needed to stop one aspect of the torture: the belief that this wasn’t really going to happen. Like all of us, in the midst of our own loss and grief, Mary and John wanted to believe that God would intervene.

Standing on this side of the cross, we know that God does intervene, not in the human condition of mortality, but in the divine gift of immortality. But in the actual moments of loss, we stand and wonder how it could be like this, how such a world can possibly be redeemed. We walk away from unimaginable loss, our hearts broken, wondering why Jesus would speak from the cross and tell us there is no hope.

I’ve had the classes; I’ve read the theologians. But if I’m honest I have to say that I still do not understand how God lets such things happen. Yet I look around on Good Friday, and I am strangely comforted to see all of the other stricken faces around me. They don’t understand, either. The stark truth is that the human condition and our human mortality mean that on many such dark days, we will wait for a miracle that will not come, an angel that will not show. Jesus pretty much told us that himself when he put his mother and the beloved disciple in each other’s care.

No, I wouldn’t have stood there mutely and piously when I heard Jesus say, “Woman behold your son; son, behold your mother.” I would have screamed: “Don’t do this to me, Jesus. Don’t tell me to give up hope and resign myself to the care of others. Don’t say such things, from the cross or from heaven or in the quiet desperation of a human heart losing her beloved. Don’t tell me to be resigned to what is happening. Do something about it. Don’t show me a grieving mother and a disbelieving friend who resign themselves to the brutality. Let them speak of the desperation. Give me permission to ask why we have to go through these dark and brutal days at all.

Give me permission to say that most of the time, I see nothing good about Good Friday.

Carol Mead is a divinity student at Yale University.