22 April 2011

Seven Last Words (3): ‘Woman, here is your son ... Here is your mother’

‘Woman, here is your son ... Here is your mother’ ... Mary and the Beloved Disciple in a crucifixion window in Christ Church Cathedral, Dublin (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

3, John 19: 26-27

Patrick Comerford

John 19: 23-27.


The words: “Woman, here is your son ... Here is your mother.”

Reflection: (3) Relationship

“Woman, here is your son ... Here is your mother.”

These words from the dying Christ on the cross are the third set of words in the traditional way we count the Seven Last Words.

This phrase is traditionally called “The Word of Relationship.”

In these tender words, the dying Christ entrusts his weeping mother Mary to the care of the Beloved Disciple.

But Christ is not creating a one-way relationship. He immediately follows this by creating a new relationship for the Beloved Disciple: “Here is your mother.”

He entrusts her to him – and him to her. Relationships always have at least two dimensions. But the best of relationships are three dimensional – one to another, and each other to God.

And that central truth about relationships is at the heart of the events of the Cross. As Saint Paul says, on the cross Christ was reconciling us to God and to one another (see Ephesians 2: 15-22).

There are some relationships we cannot create, there are others we cannot control, and others still that we have no choice about.

We cannot create our family. Our families are already given, even before we are born or adopted.

And those relationships survive though all adversities. They are fixed. They are given.

Even though my father is dead, he remains my father.

Even though a couple may divorce, each one in the old relationship remains a sister-in-law or a daughter-in-law, a brother-in-law or a son-in-law – albeit qualified by the word “former.” In time, they may find they have new relationships: when their children have children, they share grandchildren they never expected. They may want to forget their past relationship, but it remains on the family tree for some future genealogist to tell everyone about.

I like to imagine that one of the untold stories in the aftermath of the Wedding at Cana is the new network or web of family relationships that have been created. After the wedding feast, the first of the Seven Signs in Saint John’s Gospel, Jesus “went down to Capernaum with his mother, his brothers, and his disciples; and they remained there for a few days” (John 2: 12).

On the way, or back in Capernaum, one finds he is now a brother-in-law, another that she is a sister-in-law, some, perhaps, realise they have a new aunt or uncle, or perhaps a new niece or nephew by marriage.

We cannot create family, yet family often creates us, shapes us, gives us identity and allows others to decide where we fit socially.

There are relationships we cannot control.

Most of us cannot control who we work with. That is the choice of our employers, and even for employers that is legislation to make sure we are not discriminating. I cannot choose my students, thankfully. Your rector cannot, and should not try to, control who are the parishioners of Saint Mark’s.

If we try to control who is and who is not a member of our church, depending on the relationships we like to have and the relationships we do not like to have, we will find we have a church that has an ever-decreasing number of members, so that eventually we become a dwindling sect, wanting to make God in our own image and likeness, rather than accepting that we are all made in God’s image and likeness. And that eventually becomes a sect of one, where there is no place for the One who matters.

There are relationships we have no choice about. I cannot choose my friends and I cannot choose my neighbours.

Have you ever noticed that when a house is on the market, both the vendors and the estate agents tell you the neighbours are wonderful? It is only after you move in that you are likely to find out if you have, as that ITV television documentary series describes them, “the neighbours from hell.”

I cannot choose my friends. No matter how much I want to be friends with someone, if they do not want to be my friend, that’s it. I cannot force friendship. When I have a friendship, I can work on it, nurture it, help it to grow and blossom. But I cannot force a friendship. If you don’t want to be my friend, that is your choice, and if you do, and I don’t nurture that friendship, then you are going to change your mind.

Jesus knows all about relationships, and he shows that on the Cross.

Relationships define us as human. Without relating to others, how can I possibly know what it is to be human? From the very beginning, God, who creates us in God’s own image and likeness, knows that it is not good for us to be alone. And in the Trinity, we find that God is relationship.

Relationship is at the heart of the cross. And there, on the cross, even as he is hanging in agony, the dying Jesus is compassionately thinking of others and of relationships.

His mother Mary is the only person throughout the Gospel narratives who has been with Christ from the beginning to the end, from his birth to his death. She has been with Christ throughout his whole life.

John, the Beloved Disciple, is the disciple whom Jesus loved. We are blessed if we have a very best friend, a person to whom I am closer than any other. John is such a best friend for Jesus throughout the Gospel narrative. In the Fourth Gospel, we hear that John was “the beloved.” John was the person to whom Jesus was the closest. John was the best friend of Jesus.

In the midst of his dying, pain-filled moments before his death, Christ is heard thinking of the needs of the two people who love him most during his life: his mother and his best friend.

As the soldiers are gambling over his clothes and casting lots to divide them among themselves, Jesus sees three women – his mother Mary, Mary the wife of Cleopas, and Mary Magdalene, standing near the cross, and his mother is standing with the Beloved Disciple.

He turns to his mother and he says to her: “Woman, here is your son.”

He then turns to the Beloved Disciple and says: “Here is your mother.”

It is not a command, it is not a directive, it is not an instruction. It is a giving in love, just as his own death on the cross is self-giving. And in giving there is love and there is life.

And from that hour, we are told, the disciple took her into his own home.

Later, we find Mary and John together in the Upper Room when the Holy Spirit is given to the Church (see Acts 1: 14).

Tradition says Mary and John later travelled to Ephesus, and that she lived in his house to her dying days.

Saint John the Divine on his deathbed ... from a window in Chartres Cathedral

Jerome, in his commentary on the Epistle to the Galatians (Jerome, Comm. in ep. ad. Gal., 6, 10), tells the well-loved story that John the Evangelist continued preaching in Ephesus even when he was in his 90s. He was so enfeebled with old age that the people had to carry him into the Church in Ephesus on a stretcher.

And when he was no longer able to preach or deliver a long discourse, his custom was to lean up on one elbow on and say simply: “Little children, love one another.”

This continued on, even when the ageing John was on his death-bed. Then he would lie back down and his friends would carry him back out.

Every week, the same thing happened, again and again. And every week it was the same short sermon, exactly the same message: “Little children, love one another.”

One day, the story goes, someone asked him about it: “John, why is it that every week you say exactly the same thing, ‘little children, love one another’?” And John replied: “Because it is enough.” If you want to know the basics of living as a Christian, there it is in a nutshell. All you need to know is. “Little children, love one another.”

If you want to know the rules, there they are. And there’s only one. “Little children, love one another.”

As far as John is concerned, if you have put your trust in Jesus, then there is only one other thing you need to know. So week after week, he would remind them, over and over again: “Little children, love one another.” That is all he preached in Ephesus, week after week, and that is precisely the message he keeps on repeating in his first letter (I John), over and over again: “Little children, love one another.”

Jesus teaches us to love, even when he is dying, even when we are dying. That is what relationships are about, and that is what the Cross is all about.

The cross broadens the concept of family - the family of God. Jesus changes the basis of relationships. No longer are relationships to be formed on the basis of natural descent, on shared ethic identity, on agreeing that others are “like us.”

Our shared place beneath the cross is the only foundational space for relationships from now on.

Mary gained another son. And the Beloved Disciple gained a new mother.

Beneath the cross of Christ, Christian fellowship is born not just for Mary and John, but also for you and me, and for everyone else who believes, for all who believe.

Beneath the cross of Christ, we become a new family.

Beneath the cross of Christ, we become brothers and sisters in Christ.

Beneath the cross of Christ, we realise that we are now part of the family of God.

On the cross, Christ entrusts us as his children to one another, to love one another.

“Little children, love another.”

Canon Patrick Comerford is Director of Spiritual Formation, the Church of Ireland Theological Institute, Dublin, and a canon of Christ Church Cathedral, Dublin. This is the third of seven reflections on “the Seven Last Words” on Good Friday, 22 April 2011, in Saint Mark’s Church, Armagh, where the Rector is Canon John McKegney.

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