Near the execution scaffold, a group of four women and a youth balanced on the tipping-point between boyhood and manhood, between two worlds, the world of women and children and the world of men.
What are they experiencing?
I’d hazard a guess that they are here for the very same reason that the other, male, disciples are not: fear. Specifically, fear of loss.
The child who realises that their mother is no longer with them in the midst of a crowd is not worried by unfamiliar place – children are adventurous – or unfamiliar people – children are far more trusting than adults. They are afraid that they will not see their mother again.
Sooner or later, loss is a universal experience. And so long before we experience the loss of someone close, the fear of loss is a truly universal experience.
Ironically, fear of loss can cause us to lose what we have. That is why, I would suggest, the male disciples are not there. They are not afraid to die with Jesus; they are afraid to live without him. They pre-empt the inevitable, rather than face it. But the result is that they lose precious moments that were theirs to share together.
The men are absent because of their fear of loss. The women and John are present, refusing to let go, because of their fear of loss. I don’t mean that the women and John aren’t there because of love; they are. But the absence of the others is also because of love; for if they did not love Jesus, they would not fear his loss. Perfect love may drive out fear, but not before it has drank its bitter cup to the very dregs.
It is not that the men fail as disciples at this point and the women, in contrast, are a model for us. Loss is not a competition. Rather, both groups, the men and the women, show themselves to be true disciples by their love, even if they respond in different ways.
At the heart of the Passion, Jesus addresses this universal fear. He doesn’t say, “Don’t worry, I’ll be back on Sunday!” because that isn’t really true. That is to say, he will return…but forty days later he will go again, for good. When we lose someone, even the hope of being reunited one day in the far future does not shield us from the loss we fear. Instead of denying loss, Jesus transforms it.
On the cross, something ends. But it is this end that makes a new beginning possible. Mary was Jesus’ mother; Jesus, Mary’s son. Now Mary is John’s mother; and John, Mary’s son. They cannot go back; but they can go on, into the unknown, and find there a new grace.
This is not to deny the past; but to refuse to deny the future.
And that, ultimately, is the heart of what is going on here, as this man of love hangs dying.