April 6, 2007 Good Friday St. John 18:1 – 19:37
The richness of the Passion Gospel as it was read on Palm Sunday from St. Luke and then today and always on Good Friday from St. John is of such depth and such beauty in so many ways, as it is tragic and heartbreaking year by year, yet so compelling, and opening in so many places doorways to exploration and reflection, moments of potential for grace and peace in the midst of every trouble that there can be in the world. And certainly as we hear this Passion Gospel again today, and as parts of it from St. Matthew are sung in that magnificent work by J.S. Bach as well in the next hour, it is my prayer that the right door for you will be opened, that the last best gift of his presence and love will be with you now and through this weekend and in all fullness, fresh and new, as the sun comes up on Sunday morning.
In preparation for this Holy Week in St. John this year I was looking at a few places where John shares a moment with us that is unique to his telling of the story, and the moment that has drawn me again and again to reflection and meditation and with great depth and resonance, from the 19th chapter, beginning at the 26th verse: “When Jesus saw his mother, and the disciple whom he loved standing near, he said to his mother, “Woman, behold your son!” Then he said to the disciple, “Behold, your mother!” And from that hour the disciple took her to his own home.”
This a tender moment. In the midst of the cosmic drama, not just of one man’s life and death, but as all the spiritual forces and powers and principalities of heaven and hell are gathered in their ultimate battle, as good and evil, truth and falsehood are pitched in mortal combat, as all who were and are and ever will be are engaged in the platform of eternity in this one central act of divine destiny and purpose, Jesus pauses to speak to his mother and his friend. The tenderness, then, the care, the significance of this moment so powerful to us, the story and moment handed down from generation to generation, the subject of wonderful works of art—not because it is so great a thing, but because it is something so small.
The detail may have historical interest, as the Evangelist seems to have known from the Beloved Disciple this tradition that Mary had come to live with him in Ephesis from that moment on, and there is today a shrine in Ephesis marking a traditional memory of the home where John and Mary lived in later years. And there is something of the history of the church here. I know when I was rector of St. Paul’s Church in Bloomsburg, Pennsylvania, I organized an ecumenical preaching service on Good Friday, with the preacher on this word, “Behold your son, behold your mother,” to be inevitably the pastor of the local Roman Catholic parish. This moment when Mary goes from being the Mother of Jesus, and the Mother of God, to being with an explicit direction from Jesus himself now the Mother of the Church, and our friends and cousins as it were in the Christian family in the Roman Catholic Communion of the Church seem to have kept that sense alive with perhaps the most energy and devotion. John the Disciple standing for all of us, and now and for all times she is to be our Mother. I think all of that is good and meaningful and appropriate.
In the class I help teach over at the Pittsburgh Theological Seminary one of our students, a Presbyterian seminarian, from a tradition not known as one to pay special attention to the Virgin beyond the confines of the annual Christmas Pageant, was talking about this the other day, about a former Roman Catholic in her congregation who in the hospital had a request for a special prayer to the Virgin Mary. The seminarian’s comment, something like, “I find it hard to imagine that Jesus will be too upset when people are overly attentive to his mother.”
In any case, as I pause over this moment at the Cross, here this afternoon, it seems so very powerful to me in its tenderness and simplicity. The scene all around them is noisy and chaotic, and in some ways it is as if the whole fabric of creation is about to be torn in two—there is that much stress in the air. And Jesus in his dying agony, stripped, tortured, abandoned, humiliated, as he struggles for his last breath or two in this life—Jesus from the Cross blessed these two who are dearest to him, his Mother, and John, the one they would call “the beloved disciple” because of their special closeness. By giving them to each other. If that is quite the right way to say that. By giving Mary the Virgin Mother of God a new chapter of life and vocation now, a new child, this disciple, and the whole church, for whom she will pray, whose life will be her care. And by giving John this new Mother. And all of us. Perhaps no more profound and compelling way to show us what we are to him, truly his brothers and sisters, all of us.
At the Cross for Mary and for John there are tears of loss. And yet there is also this gift, this new chapter, a new beginning of their lives, new purpose, new identity. Literally for them, and in a deeper spiritual reality for all of us as well. This tenderness, this generosity. It’s a horrible moment, this hour on Good Friday, this hour of shame and death. But even here, there is love. There is his gracious presence. Bringing the lost together, caring for them, healing what is broken in their lives, setting them free to live the life God has in mind for them. Even here. For Mary, for John, and for us. His gracious presence. Forgiveness. Reconciliation. Calling us into care for one another, into new and deeper relationship to him, as we are his brothers and sisters, children now of the same Mother, and sending us out to live with compassion and care for one another in his name.
May this dark hour be more than darkness for us, then, but the first hour of a new dawn, a new day, loving one another as he loved us.