Today I’ll be joining other ministers in a Good Friday service, sharing meditations on the Seven Last Words of Christ. Here are my thoughts, the Third in the series, from John 19.
25 Now there stood by the cross of Jesus his mother, and his mother’s sister, Mary the wife of Cleophas, and Mary Magdalene.
26 When Jesus therefore saw his mother, and the disciple standing by, whom he loved, he said unto his mother, Woman, behold thy son!
27 Then said he to the disciple, Behold thy mother! And from that hour that disciple took her unto his own home.
I’m going to say it. Of all the last words from Jesus as he died on the cross, I have sometimes thought these were the most maudlin and sentimental of the bunch.
The other things overheard by onlookers that day seemed more profound and significant. Think of the two we’ve already heard today: “Father, forgive them. They don’t know what they’re doing.” And “Today, you shall be with me in Paradise.”
Words for the ages, those.
But now, in the usual ordering, we find the statement that only John wrote down for us. It seems a bit of minor housekeeping, an off-handed private request he hadn’t had time to make after the soldiers had dragged him away in the garden.
“Look after my mom, will you?” Very nice. Very sweet. Wonderfully thoughtful.
And this hardly seems the time or the place to get sentimental.
So, maybe it’s not, after all. I have come to think this might be one of the most commanding, most impressive moments of authority and control to be seen during this whole, terrible drama.
Start with the way Jesus speaks to Mary, addressing her with that rather distant and impersonal word, “Woman.” He speaks in a more personal way to his heavenly Father. He seems to speak with more tenderness to the thief and total stranger dying next to him. But now, in his only other personal message from the cross, to Mary, it’s with this preemptive, “Woman!” Almost like a king would speak to a subject.
And I think, even while hanging on the cross, Jesus knew who he was: the King of the Universe, the Creator by whom all things were made. And he was taking care of business. He was acting on his prerogative to protect his mother from danger as she stood in the middle of that jeering crowd. While those hostile authorities listened, Jesus speaks in a way that absolutely conceals how close and personal and special this one woman, his mother, is to him.
No doubt he looked Mary and John in the eye as he spoke, so that only they would know the significance of what he was saying. And, indeed, John is the only one to remember and write it down.
But I think Jesus was doing more than just protect Mary. God’s plan is actually not for random families, but for a deliberately chosen family. Mary was in no apparent risk of being abandoned. She had kinfolk with her and she had other children who could take care of her. But Jesus was assigning a particular relationship to her, one with his dearest personal disciple. Jesus had said that those who do God’s will are his brothers and sisters and mother. And since a mother is defined by having a child, Jesus assigned one to her, one who would be preserved from martyrdom and who would thereby protect her from having to experience that sword through her heart again.
Jesus had other disciples. But John was the one who did not flee the scene. He demonstrated a character of love, risking danger, sacrificing his own safety, to remain close to Jesus. If we say we love God, we must prove it in the love, the sacrifice, we show others. Standing by Mary, by the cross, John had demonstrated himself to be worthy of the honor to which the King now appointed him.
During those hours on the cross, The King did not forget his identity and his responsibility to be setting his kingdom in order, and placing his Kingdom family into their appointed places: places not chosen by us, but chosen for us by the Creator who made it all.