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:
HOMILY: GOOD FRIDAY, APRIL 10, 2009
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.”