We turn to the Gospel of John as Jesus’ thoughts move to those waiting with him as he is crucified, telling his mother: “Woman, behold your son.” And to the disciple whom Jesus loved: “Behold your mother”.
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- Episode 3: Woman, Behold Your Son. Behold Your Mother - Transcript
Episode 3: Woman, Behold Your Son. Behold Your Mother - TranscriptAuthor: Archdiocese of Brisbane
So welcome back to these podcasts where we are exploring the seven last words of Christ spoken from the cross. And in the darkness of Calvary. What we find in the four Gospels is not a ball-by-ball description of what actually happened and what was said and done on the dark mountain of Calvary. I’m not saying that the four passion narratives don’t relate facts, they do. But it’s a particular interpretation of the facts that really interests the evangelists and really interests us. I mean, we do need to know that we’re dealing with fact and not fiction or fantasy, and that’s certainly true of the Gospels and of these four passion narratives.
But the Bible as a whole is more interested in the meaning of what happened than just what happened itself. And if you take an event like the death of Jesus. It was an incredibly ambiguous event. And you see this in an incident like the road to Emmaus. Where the two disciples are walking away from Jerusalem because they’ve seen something, a fact, the death of Jesus, the brutal, atrocious death on the cross.
But they have clearly misinterpreted the sign that they have seen. And its only Jesus who walks with them on the road. Who interprets to them the meaning of this extraordinary event. Upon which the whole fate of the cosmos depends the death of Jesus, what it actually means. So, from first page to last, the Bible is more interested in meaning than just a bald fact. So that’s why the Bible doesn’t give us, just a ball-by-ball description. So, the words that we hear from the four gospels, the words we hear on the lips of the dying Jesus, are not just a bare ball-by-ball account of what Jesus actually said. They are an interpretation of the death.
So, what we’re hearing in the seven last words of Christ. Is Jesus’ own interpretation of his death. Which we desperately need to get right. We need to interpret this profoundly ambiguous event in the right way. Because if you see it in the wrong way, interpreted badly. You see the death as defeat, disaster, full stop. But if you listen to Jesus and then interpret it as he does. You begin to see that what looks to be a defeat, in fact, is a victory. What looks to be the end, in fact, is a beginning. And what looks to be death, in fact, is birth.
So that’s the importance of listening to these seven last words of Christ. Jesus, we hear as the interpreter of his own death. So, he is the sign. Dying as the crucified. Died in the darkness. But he’s also interpreting the sign that he is. And in order to interpret the sign rightly, we need, like those disciples on the road to Emmaus, to listen to him.
And in these podcasts, what we’re trying to do is slow down the process of listening. A bit like slow motion listening. Explore these words which are extraordinary. And which thrust down roots into the very depths of scripture.
In a sense, you could argue that these seven last words of Jesus gather up the whole of scripture. So deep, deep roots that go in all sorts of directions, some of them quite surprising. To the very heart of the Bible. So, as we listen to his word, to his interpretation of his own death. His word and his interpretation become ours. And this is the point of listening to the seven last words in these podcasts, so that these words become ours.
And I go back again to that poem of Charles Causley that I read to you in an earlier podcast. Which he used as the foreword to the book of Sebastian Moore, ‘The Crucified Is No Stranger’. The crucified is no stranger, because in the end it’s you and me. And that’s why it’s important that we listen in a way that allows these seven words. And the interpretation that they contain to become our words.
So, the first of them we have already seen, ‘Father, forgive them for they know not what they do’. The second word we have also seen, ‘Amen, I say to you, today you will be with me in paradise’. So, the first word addressed to the Father. A word of intimacy, spoken even in the midst of agony. The second word spoken to the one who dies with him.
And we turn, we began to turn in the last podcast to the third of the words, ‘Woman, behold your son’. And then turning to John, the beloved disciple. ‘Behold your mother’. So, this is the third of the seven words that we turn to now. ‘Woman, behold your son. Behold your mother’. Spoken to the beloved disciple, this is from the Gospel of John.
So, as we saw last time, who is on Calvary? Well, we don’t know exactly who was there. We know with certainty some of the figures who were there, people like Mary, the mother of Jesus, to whom he speaks here. John, the beloved disciple, Mary Magdalene, and so on. We also know that we, the reader, are there on Calvary. Just by reading this extraordinary story. We are there with at least Mary, Mary Magdalene and John. So, there’s a space sort of opened up for us as the reader to stand there in the darkness and listen to Jesus.
In addressing his mother. He calls her strangely woman. ‘Woman, behold, your son’. He does the same earlier in John’s Gospel at the Wedding Feast of Cana. Where Mary asks Jesus to provide the wine for the feast. And in responding to her, he addresses her then as woman. So here it is again, woman. And the question is why? Why wouldn’t he have said Mother or nothing?
So, as we explore the reason for his use of woman in this moment, we turn I think, to the very beginning of the biblical story. We go back to the book of Genesis. And there in the Greek translation that we call the Septuagint, in Chapter 2, Verse 23. Adam contemplating and rejoicing in the woman who is brought to him. Who has been taken from his side while he sleeps. And created by God as the companion that Adam has sought.
Adam, seeing his wife, says she shall be called woman, in the Greek, gunḗ. So, it seems to me that we find here on Calvary an echo of what we first heard in the Garden of Paradise. She shall be called woman. And that’s what she’s called here.
So, I think in John’s gospel. At this point, where Mary is addressed in this unusual way by her dying son. Mary is looked to as the new Eve. And there is a whole tradition that goes back to the very earliest days of Christianity, certainly through the church, the time of the church fathers, those great teachers of the faith. Who really laid the foundation for so much of our understanding. Of what it means to believe. There you find that tradition of Mary as the new Eve.
Now, what does this mean? The old Eve, like the old Adam, and the whole sense of Jesus as the new Adam is again very central to the New Testament, particularly the letters of Paul. But Jesus, as the new Adam, is the one who obeys where the old Adam disobeyed. Similarly, Mary, the woman of faith. First among the faithful. She is the new Eve, because where the old Eve disobeyed, and therefore unleashed the power of death. And condemned her and her husband to exile outside the garden, their true home, out into the to the desert. Mary as the new Eve is the one who obeys. Where Eve says no, Mary says yes. And Mary’s still saying yes to her son. Even in the darkness of Calvary, as he dies this atrocious death, she at least has not run away. She stands by the cross as her way of continuing to say, ‘fiat, let it be done to me’. In other words, yes. Where the old Eve said no.
Now, in Genesis Chapter 3, Verse 20. Eve is called the mother of all who live. Her name, Eve, relates to this, in fact. So, Mary here addressed as woman, as the new Eve, is also, by implication, the mother of all who really live, the new life in Christ, not the old life. That was physical. We’re talking about a new life that is physical, but it goes far beyond the physical. To become the spiritual.
So, Mary, as the New Eve is the mother of all who live in Christ. Who live because of her son and the death which he now suffers. So, she’s not just the mother of Jesus, she is that. But once she’s addressed as woman, she becomes the mother of all who live. So, she’s not just the mother of Jesus. She’s certainly that. But there’s more. She’s not just the mother of John. She is that as Jesus says, ‘behold your mother’. She is the mother of all of us. Of all who live the new life, which is made possible by her son, made possible for her. She who is the first drawn into the new life. But made possible for the whole host of others and for all who live, who truly live. The redeemed life which is in Jesus her son.
What we see then, in these words of Jesus. Is that a new family is born in the darkness of Calvary. This place that reeks of death. Is a place where a new family is brought to birth. And you see this mind and heart and soul stretching, interaction of death and birth in these words and these stories of the death of Jesus. Is it life or is it death? Is it birth or is it death? It, in fact, is both. And again, to listen to Jesus is to learn to distinguish between birth and death.
So, a new family born in the least likely place. A place of death gives birth to this family. Which is not born of blood, it’s not just a physical family, clearly. John is not related physically, genetically to Mary and Jesus. So, we’re talking about another order of relationship. So not born of blood. Or as the prologue of John’s gospel says, not born by the will of human beings or by the urge of the flesh and so on.
And yet it is a new family that is born by blood. In other words, the blood of Jesus, literally. Flowing from him. The body dying on the cross. So, a new family brought to birth by blood. Birth is always accompanied by blood and even water. And we will see that blood and water flow from the side of Jesus. So even that kind of imagery suggests that we’re dealing with a strange kind of birth. And that great image of John’s gospel from the wounded side flow, blood and water. Is birth imagery true? Because just as Eve was born from the wounded side of Adam. So too the church, the community of those who live anew in Jesus is born from the wounded side of Jesus Christ.
So that’s the kind of family that we’re talking about. The new family born in the darkness and born from the wounded side of Christ. This has all kinds of implications that are worth unpacking just a little. It poses the question of what we are to each other. We who stand on the dark mountain and listen to the words of the dying Christ. What are we to each other? If we are part of this new family. Then we are brothers and sisters. Are we not? I mean, it sounds almost trite to say it, but it’s not trite at all. It’s the kind of point that Pope Francis made recently in his encyclical letter that bore the title Fratelli Tutti. We are all sisters and brothers. The Pope in his title was quoting Saint Francis of Assisi.
In a world such as we know now, where there is so much antagonism, enmity, fragmentation, alienation and estrangement. It has to be said again and again and again. You are not my enemy. You are my sister; you are my brother, Tutti Fratelli. And it needs to be said in a church too where there are divisions. And we can’t gloss over the fact and there are polarisations which undermine any sort of sisterhood or brotherhood, sense that we are all sisters and brothers. And this is usually because of the pressure of ideology which will always produce division and polarisation. And how much evidence do we see of this all around the world at this time? And even, as I say, within the community of the baptised. Where in fact division and polarisation are a cancer. Sometimes we just shrug the shoulders and say, well, that’s the way the world is. Well, it’s not the way the new world is that’s born on Calvary.
So, if there is division and polarisation in our midst, we don’t just sit back and say, well, that’s the status quo, that’s just the way things are and always will be. We find ourself faced with a big challenge. Well, if we are facing division and polarisation, what are we going to do about it? What are we going to allow the grace of Christ, the blood of Jesus. To do in the face of division and polarisation. In other words, there’s always another horizon, a far horizon beyond those givens of human life. But if we simply say there’s nothing more possible, then we’re no longer living the new life. We’re no longer really the community born from the side of the dying Christ, born from the blood of Jesus.
And then there’s the question, too, of what we are to Jesus. I mean, there’s an extraordinary statement contained in these words that we’re exploring here. ‘Behold your son, behold your mother’. About what we are to Jesus. If you take the figure of John, who’s there and to whom Jesus speaks. If you consider the progress, as it were, of his or the development of his relationship with Jesus.
First of all, you could say John, who was one of the fishermen on the shores of Lake Galilee, one of the sons of Zebedee. Was kind of almost a servant of Jesus. But the servant becomes a disciple. He leaves the nets and follows Jesus, big decision, full of risk. But he attaches himself to this extraordinary and mysterious rabbi. So, the servant becomes a disciple. But that’s not the end of the story either, because eventually the disciple becomes a friend of Jesus, and Jesus says it in John’s gospel, I call you friends, no longer servants. And not just disciples.
So, John becomes the friend. The beloved disciple, and he was, he was part of that group of three, Peter, James and John, who were the inner sanctum of the twelve. And who often accompany Jesus in very highly charged moments of his public ministry. But now you see, something more happens, there’s a further step on this journey into relationship. Because when Jesus says to John, ‘Behold your mother’, what he’s saying is, you are my brother.
So, from servant, to disciple, to friend, to brother/sister. That’s the journey, and it’s not just a journey for John. It’s a journey for everyone who is baptised into Jesus. In other words, it’s a journey into an ever-deeper relationship. You can never say that you’ve reached bedrock or a dead end on that journey. Because in the end it’s a journey into the infinite abyss of the love of God.
John, we’re told, takes Mary into his home. Once he is given Mary as mother. It’s not that Mary takes John into her home. No, no, John takes Mary into his home. Now, he does this because Mary, standing on the dark mount and is about to become a widow in a double sense. Without husband and soon to be without her son. So, in that sense, Mary is like the widow of Nain, whom we meet in Luke, Chapter 7. We’re told there that Jesus is going towards the town of Nain and he sees coming out through the gate a funeral procession. And he discovers that the dead man that they’re carrying out of the town is the only son of a widow. And Jesus is deeply moved by this because the widow in the Bible is one of the great icons of human vulnerability. Widows and orphans and strangers are stars of the biblical story. Because they are great symbols of human vulnerability. In other words, they tell the truth of who we really are. No matter how invulnerable I might want to pretend I am or present myself to be. You and I are in fact profoundly vulnerable. And COVID-19 has made that abundantly clear. You see the truth of each of us and the truth of the human being before each other and before God. When you see the widow, orphan and stranger, but particularly in the ancient world, that Jesus knew. Where there was no social welfare, there was no safety net at all. So, widows and orphans and strangers were particularly vulnerable, exposed. So, Mary, without husband and without son, is about to become quintessentially vulnerable. And John, too, you could say, is about to become an orphan.
But Jesus has said at the Last Supper, we heard it in John 14. I will not leave you orphans. And in fact, he doesn’t because John has father and mother. So, John, taking Mary and Mary taking John. Is a response of Jesus from the cross to human vulnerability. In other words, at the point where he’s utterly vulnerable, could not be more vulnerable. As he dies on the cross, he still looks upon and responds to human vulnerability. And in that response to our vulnerability, we again see a kind of life that comes from death. So that even in this moment you get a first glimmer of the truth of Easter. Towards which we are moving.