Listen to the sermon HERE.
Good Friday can feel like a lonely day: the spare, quiet church, the prayers of penitence, psalms of lament, and mournful music. It all can contribute to a sense of aloneness, of individuality, and isolation. The focus of the day is Jesus dying of the cross. But what happens on the cross is described somewhat differently, depending on the Gospel one reads. And some accounts, the Passion is lonelier than in others.
Matthew’s Gospel has Jesus in anguish, crying to God, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” (Matthew 27:46) Jesus is alone, surrounded by strangers and criminals. In a similar way, Mark’s Gospel also includes this cry of abandonment—this cry of frustration, of loneliness, of fear, even. And this can raise a lot of questions: Has God abandoned Jesus? Is Jesus truly alone?
If Jesus dies alone, we might wonder about ourselves? When face death (whether in the face of illness, or violence, or accident, or a graceful and peaceful end) are we also left alone, like Jesus? Will our prayer be like his: “Why have you left me, God?” “Where are you?”
But here is where a little bit of biblical literacy is a very helpful thing. Each Gospel has its point of view, but in the search for truth, we should read each one and allow each one to contribute to the conversation. We don’t conflate all the Gospel accounts into one.
John’s Gospel, the one we have just heard, includes no sense of abandonment. God is there. Fully, richly, completely.
The theologian Jürgen Moltmann explains it this way: “To understand what happened between Jesus and his God and Father on the cross, it is necessary to talk in trinitarian terms. The Son suffers dying, [but] the Father suffers the death of the Son. The grief of the Father here is just as important as the death of the Son. The Fatherlessness of the Son is matched by the Sonlessness of the Father…. (The Crucified God, p. 243).
And so, in John’s Gospel, Jesus dies on the cross, but he is not alone. There is the company of the Father, and the presence of the Spirit. But this community extends into our world, there at the foot of the cross, where Mary the Mother of Jesus, the Mother of God stands watching (and weeping.)
Every Friday night in Stations of the Cross, we have sung of Mary’s presence,
At the Cross her station keeping
Stood the mournful mother weeping,
Where he hung, the dying Lord.
For, her soul of joy bereaved,
Bowed with anguish deeply grieved,
Felt the sharp and piercing sword.
Mary is there, along with her sister. Also there’s Mary the wife of Clopas and there’s Mary Magdalene. The Beloved Disciple is there. Even though the Beloved is not named, tradition points to John, and if, in fact the Beloved Disciple is the author of this Gospel, his anonymity might be explained by humility.
From the cross, Jesus speaks to Mary and the Beloved Disciple. “Woman, here is your son.” And then to the disciple, “Here is your mother.” On one level, this seems like a logical thing to do. But haven’t the Gospels suggested elsewhere that Jesus had (at least) step-siblings? Where are they? Is there nowhere else for Mary to go? Her sister is there with her at the cross, and yet Jesus does not entrust Mary to her. Presumably, Joseph has died, so he’s not there, either.
Another explanation of this new bond of Mary with John comes from a theologian named Tim Perry. Father Perry is a priest and professor in Canada and he thinks a lot about the Virgin Mary’s role in the Church and he explores it from a Protestant perspective. He wonders if there isn’t more going on here than we might first imagine.
Father Perry points out that by giving Mary to the disciple and the disciple to Mary, Jesus is forming a bond, a new relationship, between the CHURCH and the TEACHING OF THE APOSTLES. “On the one hand,” Father Perry suggests, “all people who would receive the salvation Jesus brings (symbolized by the mother of Jesus) must come under the care of those who knew Jesus best, the apostles (symbolized by the Beloved Disciple)…. [But on the other hand]”… the apostles’ teachings are cared for, preserved, protected, and indeed understood nowhere other than the Church.” (Blessed is She: Living Lent with Mary, p. 91-92). Both need each other.
In other words, Mary can represent the Church at its best—showing up, serving, doing, praying, loving, abiding in the love and life of Jesus. John, the Beloved Disciple, represents the apostolic tradition in which we all play a role—learning, teaching, meditating on the way of Christ, deepening our lives and the life of the Church through spiritual disciplines. Mary and John need each other.
Perry suggest that reading Mary as symbolic of the Church and the Beloved Disciple as symbolic of the apostles can serve both as a warning and a promise for us.
As a warning, it reminds us that it’s not all about me. It’s not about “me and Jesus.” It’s not enough for me to walk in the woods and create a special relationship with Jesus and have that rule the day, must less rule other people. My conception of Christ needs the Church to shape it and test it and encourage it. And the Church risks losing its soul when it drifts too far from the teaching and wisdom of the apostles. Both happen in our day just as much as they have happened in history.
But there is also great promise in this relationship of Mary with the Beloved. The cross does not leave us alone. We are never forsaken. We have been grafted into the church through baptism and we have been entrusted into the care of the apostles. When we hear the scriptures, when we receive the sacraments, when we walk and talk together in faith, we are in the presence of the Risen Christ.
At the Fourteenth Station of the Cross, as Jesus is laid in the tomb, we affirm, “You will not abandon me to the grave: Nor let your Holy One see corruption.” And then we sing, with Mother Mary and the Beloved Disciple, and all the Company of Heaven,
Jesus, may thy Cross defend me,
And thy saving death befriend me,
Cherished by thy deathless grace.
When to dust my dust returneth,
Grant a soul that to thee yearneth
In thy Paradise a place. Amen. (Stabat Mater, Jacopone da Todi, 13th c.)
The love and presence of the Holy Trinity means that no matter how we might feel, no matter what the presenting evidence might suggest, WE ARE NEVER ALONE. With God’s abiding and loving presence, may we be kept safe until we, too, are brought to new life in the Resurrection.
In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.