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.
The image of Jesus on the cross is perhaps one of the most common religious images we have in western culture. But many depictions of the crucifixion feature either the image of Jesus, suffering on the cross, or a simple empty cross silhouetted against the sky. I don’t feel drawn to these images nearly as much as ones that depict one simple fact: Jesus was not alone as he was dying on the cross.
Maybe because of Hollywood or the myriad sentimental paintings throughout history, we often picture places like the stable in Bethlehem, the Upper Room, scene of the Last Supper, or Golgatha where Jesus was crucified as intimate, quiet moments. But does this correspond to the reality of the times? Absolutely not! What we miss are the noises, the crowds, even the smells of what “real life” would have been like in the time of Jesus.
One of my favorite paintings of the Last Supper is by Tintoretto. It isn’t at all like the carefully composed vision of Leonardo. The room is crowded and bustling, the painting dark and chaotic. It’s hard to pick Jesus out of the crowd. But in reality MANY more people would have been present besides Jesus and the twelve disciples. The Upper Room would have been alive with the business that accompanies a big dinner. There are many times when Jesus needs to go off by himself or with a small group of disciples. One such moment was immediately following the Last Supper. Jesus and the disciples sought some solitude in Gethsemane.
Jesus was not alone when he died, far from it. There would have been soldiers and bystanders as we hear in the narratives in the gospels. Perhaps the family of the others being crucified would have been there as well. I fear we have overly romanticized the scene at the cross, as if everyone there knew who this was dying between two thieves. The vision of everyone standing still to gaze upon Jesus as he breathed his last is firmly embedded in many of our minds. It makes for nice paintings and movie scenes, but reality was no doubt much more chaotic. Could people even have heard Jesus’ last words over the din? Was the centurion moved to faith because he was close enough to hear, to see the faces of Mary and the other mourners?
In this reading from John, we hear of this group of Jesus’ family and friends standing at the foot of cross. No, Jesus was not alone. At the foot of the cross stood people who loved him, but not his disciples. There were mostly women’s faces that he could see gazing up at him. In this account, John, the beloved disciple, was there too, standing with Mary, the mother of Jesus. It is to them that Jesus utters these words. But we listen in.
To his mother, Jesus says, “Behold your son.” Was he drawing her attention to John or to himself? She was already witnessing her son, bleeding and dying right before her eyes. She beheld him. But Jesus also draws her attention to the young man by her side, this beloved one, John. Was Jesus concerned for her welfare? Was he entrusting the care of his mother to this beloved disciple? Or was he saying more?
“Behold your mother,” Jesus says to John. Was this more than just an arrangement for John to care for Mary? Was Jesus pointing beyond the people standing there to the kind of family that all Christians would soon have to embrace? They may not always be surrounded by their blood relations. These followers of Jesus would soon have to make hard choices, ones that might render them widows and orphans. Is it with this in mind that Jesus looks upon the “family” standing beneath his cross?
Jesus looked on them with love and compassion. But it would be up to them to see that his wishes would be fulfilled. In his kingdom, there would be no widows, no orphans. All would have a home. All would be cared for.
This evening, as we stand looking up at the dying one, contemplating this carpenter’s son, nailed to a tree. As we see this man whose birth we celebrated just a few months ago, but now whose death we witness, let us ask ourselves, “What is he asking of me? What might he ask me to do? Who would he ask me to care for?”
In the din and bustle and chaos around the foot of the cross, Jesus’ heart came into clear focus. Love one another as I have loved you. In this way they will know you are my disciples that you love one another. Amen.