Hanging from a cross, his life ebbing away, Jesus notices among the women standing beneath his feet his mother, Mary, and a lone boy, John, the youngest disciple. Shoring himself up, he clutches at breath to summon words: woman, behold your son; child, behold your mother. In this moment, the two are yoked together. And we, looking on from a distance, shake our heads at the wonder of such sacrificial love, to think of others even here, even now.
Blinded by this, we miss the piercing wounds. John already has a mother. Mary already has sons and daughters. Neither is alone in the world, in need of being taken care of.
John’s mother is almost certainly there. She has travelled with Jesus to Jerusalem. Just days before, she had come to him and asked that when he sat upon his throne, her sons would sit one at his right, the other at his left. But now, for all to see, his throne’s an execution scaffold – and how relieved she must be that he could not grant her rash request. Nevertheless, John at least is there, at his side, just beneath him. Do demons hiss and whisper in her ear, ‘You’ll lose him yet, my dear!’?
Like John’s mother, Mary is numbered among the wider circle of disciples, as are at least some of Jesus’ siblings; even if – like all of the disciples – they didn’t always understand what Jesus was doing, or why. They will follow him, however falteringly, beyond the tomb. Jesus’ brother James will have care of the fledgling church in Jerusalem entrusted to him; but not care of his mother.
Jesus tears John from his mother, Mary from her children. Do we see compassion now? Perhaps his judgement has been blurred by pain? Or, what? What is this wounding, and re-membering in fresh configuration? The action leaves those caught-up with life-long wounds, that will open again and again. ‘He saw fit to give my son away (and now my other son is executed).’ ‘He saw fit to give our mother away (and now her new son has taken her to Ephesus).’ ‘Wounded, he has left us wounded too.’
Wounded, he has left us wounded too. This is not that the family of faith must come before the family of flesh-and-blood. This is the insight, from the cross, that the place of pain is the place of communion, of being one with him. Of being his body in the world. The illogical, paradoxical place of wholeness.
A mother knows, pain cannot be avoided.
A mother knows, pain brings forth life.