Mary at the foot of the cross

Apr 28, 2014 by

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As we experience another Easter season, I’m thinking of Mary, the mother of Jesus. I know, she’s not the first biblical figure who comes to mind at this time of year — we tend to associate her almost exclusively with the church seasons of Advent and Christmas — but if we look to the Gospel narratives of Jesus’ life we find that Mary reappears at the end of her son’s life.

Stained glass window of Mary holding the body of Jesus. Photo by Frank Vincentz, found at Wikimedia Commons.

Stained glass window of Mary holding the body of Jesus. Photo by Frank Vincentz, found at Wikimedia Commons.

And I really do mean that she reappears. Though the Nativity stories at the beginning of Luke and Matthew feature Mary prominently and Luke includes a couple of moments from Jesus’ childhood as well (Luke 2), there are only a handful of other references to her in the Gospels. Plus, several of these references involve perplexing situations in which Jesus seems to almost reject his biological family, including Mary, perhaps as a way of countering his (and our!) society’s pressure to make biological family the absolute center of faith instead of the new “family” of those who do God’s will (Luke 11:27-28; Matt. 12:46-48).

But the Gospel of John seems to be doing something a bit different with Mary and seems to have a bit of a higher regard for all forms of family. You see, only in John does Jesus begin his ministry at a wedding in Cana, at the starting point of a new family, and only in John is Mary with Jesus at this point. She even has a hand in ensuring he (somewhat reluctantly) performs his first miracle, since she nudges him to take action when the wine runs out (John 2:1-11).

Likewise, John is also the only Gospel which has Mary standing at the foot of the cross at the end of Jesus’ earthly ministry — so she bookends his ministry. And John has the crucified Jesus make provisions for his mother to be cared for in her old age — but by an adoptive, not a biological, son (John 19:26-27). So from on the cross itself, Jesus both does his duty as a good son, but also broadens family beyond blood alone.

In the end, John leaves us with a poignant, heart-wrenching image: the mother of Jesus standing at the foot of the cross as he’s dying. I can’t imagine the anguish she must have endured there — arguably more than that of Jesus’ friends and disciples. Others, though, have tried to imagine this, and I leave you with two examples: one is the image above of Mary cradling the body of her dead son after he has been taken down from the cross, and the other is this poem about Mary by Frances Croake Frank:

“Did the woman say,
When she held him for the first time in the dark of a stable,
After the pain and the bleeding and the crying,
‘This is my body, this is my blood’?
“Did the woman say,
When she held him for the last time in the dark rain on a hilltop,
After the pain and the bleeding and the dying,
‘This is my body, this is my blood’?”

Susie Guenther Loewen is a doctoral student in theology, specializing in the themes of gender, suffering and the cross, and she attends Toronto United Mennonite Church. This blog post is provided thanks to our partnership with the Young Voices blog of Canadian Mennonite magazine.

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