It is sad, but not uncommon, for adults to lose their aged parents. Their death may even be welcomed if it means a release from prolonged suffering.
But it is quite another matter to have one’s children die. When that happens, it can feel like the universe has turned inside out, as if a fundamental law had been broken: Children are supposed to take care of their parents, not die before them.
Imagine, then, the poignancy of the scene John describes at the crucifixion of Jesus:
Meanwhile, standing near the cross of Jesus were his mother, and his mother’s sister, Mary the wife of Clopas, and Mary Magdalene. When Jesus saw his mother and the disciple whom he loved standing beside her, he said to his mother, “Woman, here is your son.” Then he said to the disciple, “Here is your mother.” And from that hour the disciple took her into his own home. (John 19:25-27, NRSV)
Most of the men have fled, but the women remain, ignored by the empire as harmless. Jesus’ mother is there, though in John’s gospel she is never mentioned by name. Two other Marys are present as well: the wife of someone named Clopas, and Mary Magdalene. And Mary’s sister is there. She is probably not to be equated with the wife of Clopas (the sentence is ambiguous), lest there be two sisters named Mary in the same family. Many identify her instead with Salome, the mother of the sons of Zebedee.
But the focus is on Mary the mother of Jesus, and the mysterious beloved disciple. Jesus, who would surely have been gasping for every breath, has the presence of mind to still be taking care of business from the cross. “Here is your son,” he tells his mother, and “Here is your mother” he says to his disciple. The words sound cryptic to our ears, but both understand. The beloved disciple immediately takes Mary into his household.
It would be easy to sentimentalize the scene: Jesus loves his mother so much that he’s worried about her, even though he himself is in excruciating pain. Seeing his most beloved disciple standing there with her, Jesus prevails upon him to provide her with home and hearth, a place for Mary to belong.
Well, yes, but there’s probably more to it than that. I have no doubt that Jesus did in fact love his mother, though likely not in quite the same hearts-and-flowers way many of us celebrated this past Mother’s Day. Mary was a widow, which made her a vulnerable person in a highly patriarchal society — and her position would not be improved by the death of her eldest son. Especially if her other sons did not believe in Jesus.
Over and over in Scripture, across the Old Testament and the New, we are told in different ways that the almighty God, in his mercy and justice, is the defender of the powerless. His people are to embody the same qualities by caring for widows and orphans, for those who stand at the margins of society (e.g., Exod 22:22-23; Ps 68:5; James 1:27).
Thus, in brokering the relationship between Mary and the beloved disciple, Jesus wasn’t just showing how much he loved his mother. Mocked and crucified for being the King of the Jews, he demonstrated the true nature of God’s kingdom. Even in his seeming powerlessness, he cared for the powerless of society. And he did so in a way that established new, kingdom-based family ties.
Here, I am reminded of the song Mary sang before Jesus was born, praising God for his might and mercy, for being a God who scatters the proud, topples the powerful, and lifts up the lowly (Luke 1:46-55). I imagine that as she watched Jesus grow into manhood, as she saw how he treated others, that refrain was never far from her mind.
And perhaps, standing at the foot of the cross, witnessing the spectacle that was meant to terrorize the enemies of Rome… perhaps even then her son’s actions let her know that God’s justice would somehow prevail.