Some reflections given at today’s vigil at St Peter’s.
St Peter’s Good Friday Reflection 2012
‘Woman, behold your son.’ John 19:27
Family relationships are rarely easy, perhaps particularly those between children and parents. This has been famously expressed by Philip Larkin in ‘This be the verse.’ We’ll miss out the first couple of lines for the sake of discretion, but then he writes:
‘They fill you with the faults they had,
And add some extra just for you.’ And he finishes with the advice not to have any kids yourself.
This scene at the foot of the cross of Jesus does not happen in a vacuum or out of the blue – there is a family background and a social context. In the Gospel of John we do not have the birth narratives that we can romanticise in the way we do with Matthew and Luke, and indeed the Mother of Jesus is not even named in John. She appears in the story of the wedding at Cana in chapter 2, dropping a heavy hint to Jesus that he should do something about the lack of wine. So apparently his Mother believes that he is special, but we have no idea how his Mother projects forward to the outcome of Jesus’ specialness. On the other hand, in chapter 7 his siblings are deeply cynical about Jesus, goading him to go to Judea to see if he can persuade people who are less gullible than Galilean peasants.
And now his Mother stands at the foot of the cross. Whatever outcome she had pictured in her head or hoped for in her heart, this was not it. She had thought that she understood him and his place in the history of God’s people but now she is bewildered. This is disaster; this is desolation and despair. There is pain and shame here, and most importantly there is death. Her firstborn son for whom she had so many hopes is unquestionably about to die. The Romans will see to that. The joy and celebration of the wedding at Cana has evaporated and things have come to this pretty spectacle. This is the end. The end of hopes and dreams for him, and what is going to happen to me?
When we look at this scene not from the foot of the cross but from the cross itself, we find that Jesus, despite the agony of crucifixion, has such lucidity and awareness not only to know that his Mother is present beside him, but that, as her firstborn son he still has a responsibility towards her. There is no doubt that he, the family provider since the death of Joseph, is no longer going to be able to make that provision for her and so he entrusts her care and keeping to one of his dearest followers. It’s the only thing he can do – none of his siblings are nearby.
This saying of Jesus, ‘Woman, behold your Son,’ has an implicit double reference. Jesus’ Mother is to look upon the beloved disciple as her son from now on and in him she is to find her hope for life. But the reason she must do this is because she is beholding her own firstborn son in his final moments upon a Roman cross and, at least for the moment, she must let him go to fulfil his destiny in death.