Tuesday, April 07, 2009

Difficulties of this Season

I have spent most of yesterday and this morning getting my new MacBook customized for my own preferences and it's always both amusing and frustrating to find that the old ways often don't work and that the new ways are actually re-runs of much older ways. I won't go into detail about it, but it's gotten something stirring in my thinking: the fact that often the oldest ways are the most effective.

This is not a quiet week in my life. I like to give myself plenty of time for reflection and drafting the upcoming sermon, so that by Friday I can let go of it, enjoy some free time on Saturday, and polish it in time for Sunday morning. This week feels very crowded, mostly because I volunteered to be one of the preachers for the ecumenical Good Friday vigil this Friday. This morning I sat down to figure out my thoughts about the words "Woman behold your son" and "Behold your Mother", which are my assigned "words from the cross". I banged something out, not as coherent as I like to be, and hope to have time to rewrite the parts that don't work.

Easter Sunday's title is "Saving Paradise", based on Rebecca Parker's latest tome, in which I hoped to find inspiration for talking about the earliest Christians' celebration of Easter, but of course they didn't. Celebrate Easter, that is, except with every meal in which they recreated the Beloved Community. Maybe now that I've got GF cornered I'll get some inspiration for Easter.

It's hard to talk about this time of year sometimes. I'm not a traditional Christian by any stretch of the imagination, though I am very much a delighter in Jesus' message. I love the message of spring and burgeoning growth, which is much deeper and older than the Easter story, and yet I am not satisfied with simply revisiting that idea every year. I hate to re-hash things, no matter how solid they are; I want some freshness, some newness in the ancient stories and themes.

So I'm struggling a bit with the Easter service. But here's the Good Friday message, in its first draft:


Reading from the Gospel of John: “When Jesus saw his mother and the disciple whom he loved standing nearby, he said to his mother, “Woman, behold your son”. Then he said to the disciple, “Behold your mother”. And from that time forward, the disciple took her into his own home.”

To me, these are some of the most poignant words in the Gospel story of Jesus’ life and death and resurrection. As a Unitarian Universalist, my thoughts go immediately to the very human responses to such a terrible moment. And I wonder, what would it have been like for Mary to see her son, the child of her flesh, beloved by God and humankind, yet condemned as a criminal and sentenced to an agonizing slow death in public?

Mary has cared for Jesus as a baby, as a young child, as a young man entering his adulthood, and now she is faced with his untimely and cruel death, a death she cannot avoid.

My own heart trembles at the thought that she must endure this trial. I wonder if I would have the strength to survive such a catastrophe. We can’t tell from the Gospel accounts of Jesus’ death just what might be the thoughts and feelings of those keeping vigil at the foot of the cross.

Yet we know as parents what this might be like. We know in our hearts, either from painful experience or from our vivid imaginations, what our feelings might be. We might be angry---both at the executioners and at our dear child. We might be angry with God. We might be angry at ourselves for not being able to keep our child safe. We might be angry that our child has chosen a path of danger, that he had not listened to our good advice, advice which questioned his good sense in pursuing a path that would take him directly into a situation that he would not escape alive.

I wonder, too, how Jesus must have felt, looking down at his mother and at his dear friends, knowing inside himself that he had to take this step, he had to do what he was called to do, to give up his own life willingly for the Kingdom of God to be fulfilled on earth and in people’s hearts.

Yet he sees his mother’s pain and perhaps knows her anger. He has cared for her, yet he has had to make difficult choices in fulfilling his mission, different choices than she would have preferred. And now he is leaving her bereft.

So when he says to her, “Woman, behold your son”, is he saying to her, “see what I am doing for the greater cause of salvation”? Is he asking her to forgive him for the pain he has caused her? We will best look in our own hearts to find meaning in these words.

In the culture of those days, as the oldest son in his family, Jesus’ duty was to provide for his mother until the end of her life. Yet he would be unable to fulfill that duty and, instead of assigning this duty to one of his brothers, Jesus turned to his best friend, the disciple whom he loved more than all others, and asked that person to receive Mary into his own family.

When he said, “Behold your mother”, was he indicating to his dear friend a new relationship between the two? Was he offering the comforting arms of his friend, in recompense for his inability to continue to care for her? We can’t know for sure, but both interpretations offer insight into Jesus’ mission on earth.

For Mary has had a lot to deal with during Jesus’ life. There was something unusual about her boy from the very beginning. She had known all along about his different-ness. His questions were different, his desire for knowledge about things of the spirit was endless, his understandings were not those taught by the priests in the temple.

His constant questioning and inability to quietly obey the cultural requirements of the day, his efforts to find ways that Jews might endure and even change the yoke of Roman oppression, his unorthodox message and healing deeds---all these frightened Mary for she feared their eventual outcome and yet may have thrilled her deeply.
Because there was that moment in her life when she understood finally that her son’s destiny was not a common destiny, to be a successful young carpenter, but to lead his people toward a new destiny, that of the Kingdom of God on earth.

When Jesus turned to his best friend and said to him, “Behold your mother”, Jesus was not simply asking his friend to care for his mother. From these thousands of years later, we see not only the fulfillment of a son’s duty in his words, but also an invitation to us all, a modeling to the larger community of a way of life that has become deeply embedded in humankind: a compassion that goes beyond family ties, a recognition of the brotherhood and sisterhood of humanity, an honoring of the family that broadens its narrow scope and declares the entire world to be one family.

Even on the cross, in his last moments of life, Jesus offered his love to those around him and in so doing, he offers us the opportunity to expand our thinking and to reach out beyond the walls of our families to bring others in, to give them rest and peace, to accept them as our children and our elders. There are countless lives who need our comfort and our support.

“Women and men, here are your children. Beloved ones, here are your parents.”


Heather said...

I've always read "Woman, behold your son" with John as the son, not Jesus. I'll have to go back and re-read it...

ms. kitty said...

I know that's the common thought, but it occurred to me that it might be himself he was speaking about.

Mile High Pixie said...

Interesting! I've never really read this part of the crucifixion story, but it speaks to something very important in our lives. On their deathbeds, people will tell their survivors to take care of each other and be good, and in a way it would appear that Jesus is reminding his most near and dear survivors to do the same for each other.

ms. kitty said...

Agreed, Pixie, thanks.

Joel said...

Interesting. It gets some depth behind the title "Our Lady of Sorrows." Well done.

ms. kitty said...

Thanks, Joel.

LinguistFriend said...

But this is John, so the passage has essentially no historical significance, despite the fact that the gospel's first manuscript fragment (written about 125 AD) is the earliest Greek NT MS. One can look at the parallels in Mark 15:40and Mt. 27:55; Luke 23:49 condenses the list. (That is probably what you will find in Aland's big blue-bound synopsis of the gospels, but I'm at the office and am just following out the parallels in my Greek NT.). John was consciously adding something to the tradition found in the synoptic gospels. They have parallels to the list of women observers, but not to Jesus's commendation of Mary and the beloved disciple to one another in John 19:26-27. So John was not just retailing the prevailing historical tradition but adding a notion he thought was missing, whether it came from another tradition or from his own thought. Probably it was the latter, a conscious effort to emphasize the importance of the beloved disciple by connecting him to Jesus's mother Mary. This might have been an effort to legitimize a local tradition of a special connection of the local church to the early events around Jesus through the beloved disciple. (Just speculating.)
To me, your interpretation is better than the text you are interpreting. The issue of relations between humans within and across generations is something special. It is just as reasonable to see this issue here as the special point that John was advocating; he always has his special objectives, to which he subordinates the historical circumstances in a way that has become well established, so that we tend to see the Synoptics through the eyes of John, as Elaine Pagels has pointed out.

ms. kitty said...

Thanks, LF. You have added a great deal to the conversation. I hope that EBS sees your comment. I'll send her a note.

Earthbound Spirit said...

Ms. K - thanks for the note.

LF - I also appreciate your take on John. As one who is skeptical about historical evidence, I treat the gospel of John as mostly propaganda.

In John, there is a clear shift to emphasizing Jesus' divinity and special status. A lot of that has to do with the love doctrine that permeates the gospel. The synoptics don't make as much of the "love one another" command as this gospel does.

My homily spins that way. I don't spend much time on Mary and her feelings... In having Mary and the beloved "adopt" one another, Jesus is making a point about love beyond familial ties and basing his action on love, not law or custom. I also point out that Jesus' death is modeling the behavior expected of he disciples - that they must love one another enough to die.

(And regarding the beloved, there is much speculation among some scholars on why Jesus singled this disciple out.)

ms. kitty said...

Thanks, EBS, I like your thoughts.

LinguistFriend said...

Thank you for your interesting response, EBS. I am aware that John is propagandizing especially for the christology he advocates, and there are many other submotifs.
Part of the interpretation of the text depends on one's stance towards it. Regarding the beloved disciple, the point, I think, is not why Jesus singled him out, but why John portrayed Jesus as singling such a person out.
But, since I was originally trained as a linguist-philologist with a necessity of immersing myself in Greek Christian texts of various sorts, I usually do best to leave the theological points to the theologians, rarely sticking my neck out as I did here.
Thank you for the stimulation, Kit.