Friday, March 29th, 2013
Trinity Anglican Church, Bradford, ON
The Rev. Daniel F. Graves
Text: John 18:1-19:42
“Woman behold your son; son behold your mother.”
In the church in which I grew up, a church dedicated to St. Mary the Virgin, above the altar in the original church is a window. In the centre is Christ, on his right side his mother reverently prays, on his left side, St. John, the beloved disciple and author of the Fourth Gospel, stands with quill and book in hand as a witness, testifying to the truth. This image is clearly meant to evoke the scene in the Gospel of St. John in which Jesus, from the cross, commends his mother into St. John’s care and keeping with the words, “Woman, behold your son; son behold your mother.” Jesus is not portrayed on the cross in this window, but rather as a priest offering the chalice to the faithful who are gathered for worship in that church, in much the same spirit as the image of Jesus portrayed in the window above the altar of this very church. The St. Mary’s window invites us to join with St. Mary and St. John around the foot of the cross and receive the benefits that are poured out in Jesus’ sacrifice.
In that same church it was our custom, much as it is in this very church, that during Holy Week we would follow the Way of the Cross, moving from station to station, re-enacting the Passion of our Lord. In that parish, I had a dear friend, whose name was Dorothy. Dorothy was about my grandmother’s age and she was a spiritual mother to me. Dorothy was one of those great servants of the Church with a deep faith and a spirit of true Christian servant-hood, she was a Christian friend to everyone and admired by all. Very early in my Christian journey she took me under her wing and taught me the faith as a mother.
Dorothy had three children. When her only daughter Linda was in her thirties, Linda died of cancer. This was an extraordinary blow to Dorothy, especially given that Linda had a young son, who was soon to pass into Dorothy’s care. One Wednesday in Holy Week, a day I shall never forget, we were walking the Way of the Cross, and we got to the station in which Jesus commends his mother into the care of the beloved disciple. Canon Bob Leckey asked Dorothy to read the Gospel appointed for that station. She quietly for a moment and then read, “Woman behold your son; son behold your mother,” and we responded with the Trisagion, “Holy God, Holy and Mighty, Holy and Immortal One, have mercy upon us.” After we had finished walking the stations she shared with me how profoundly moving it had been for her to be asked, on the spur of the moment, to read that particular passage. I asked he why this was. She responded, “Dan, only Jesus knows how I feel.”
It is said that there is no greater pain than losing a child. It is also said that when this happens you feel so alone and no one can understand what it is like. In that moment in which she read those sacred words of the Gospel, Dorothy felt the grace and understanding of Christ wash over her. Dorothy standing in the place of Mary, but saying the words of Jesus, knew the comfort of his love poured out on the cross. She knew and understood at the deepest possible level what Mary felt, for like Mary, she too had lost a child. She knew at that very moment what St. John felt, for she knew what it was to have another trusted into her care. And yet, uttering the very words of Jesus from the cross, she knew and felt his loving compassion, his deep care and longing for her well-being, and the depth of his sacrifice for her. Only Jesus knows how I feel.
For Dorothy, the Church had always been, but became more and more as the years rolled on, a family, her family. At the foot of the cross we receive our salvation, not only for eternity, but for the present. When we lose so much, it can seem like we cannot go on. When we make terrible mistakes it can seem like we cannot go on. When we lose those closest to us it can seem like we cannot go on. And yet, even as we lose, Jesus not only understands our pain, he ministers to us through his church: “Woman behold your son; son behold your mother.” We become Mary. We become the Beloved Disciple.
In the Gospel of Mark, Jesus is speaking with his disciples and he is interrupted by someone telling him that his mother and brothers and sisters have arrived. What is his response? “Here are my mother and my brothera and my sisters.” It is not that he does not care for his own family; rather he radically and powerfully reorders our reality, he expands our kinship. For Christians, the ties of kinship are not biological. They are spiritual. That is why at the foot cross, St. John becomes the son of Mary, and Mary becomes his mother. This is not simply the story of Mary and John. It is our story. This is what the cross does. As Christ is bound to the cross, we are bound to each other both now and in the age to come. The pain of loss is real, and yet the kinship we share with each other in Christ is even greater.
My dear friend Dorothy not only felt these things, she not only believed them, she lived them. She became a mother, a mother in the Spirit, a mother in Christ, not only to me, but to so many. When she left this earth at the age of 95 many of us felt a deep loss. How is such a gap to be filled? And yet, the words of Jesus echo in our ears again to each of us as we stand by the grave of any loved. Look about, “behold your mother; behold your son,” and “these are my mother, and my brothers, and my sisters.” The kinship we share is nothing less than the work of the cross. And the work of the cross is that though death’s mightiest powers have done their worst, Jesus’ hath his foes dispersed. What Jesus gives us in our holy kinship is a faith, a hope, and a love stronger than death. Jesus knows how we feel, and he ministers to us through each other in the midst of it all.