"Near the cross of Jesus stood his mother..." (Jerusalem Bible, John 19:25)
After the Archangel Gabriel had told the Blessed Virgin that she was to be the Mother of God’s Son, she visited her cousin Elizabeth and there she sang the Magnificat, “My soul magnifies the Lord, and my spirit rejoices in God my Saviour” (NRSV, Luke 1:46,47).
And we must be glad for her sake that she did rejoice because her joy was short-lived. When her holy Son was born and she presented him in the Temple to God, a shadow fell across her life as she heard the ominous prophecy of old Simeon that her Son would be for a sign that would be spoken against. And a sword would pierce through her own soul also – through her innermost being.
And that shadow, having fallen, did not leave her. More than once she thought the sword stroke was imminent: as when Joseph roused her in the night to flee to Egypt before Herod’s soldiers arrived in Bethlehem to wipe out all the boys of two years old and under. Even during his childhood in Nazareth she must have been conscious that one day, sooner or later, something terrible would happen to her Son and she would be there to see it.
It is no wonder that Mary was frantic with worry when Jesus was missing on their return from his first Passover in Jerusalem – for ordinarily a Jewish boy of 12 would have had some independence and could be relied on to look after himself on such an occasion. And it was then that another pain also gripped her as she realised for the first time that, close though the two of them were, and would ever be, she would have to let him go to do the will of God. “…your father and I have been searching for you in great anxiety”, she said. And he replied, “Why were you searching for me? Did you not know that I must be in my Father’s house?” (NRSV, Luke 2:48,49).
So the years passed but the shadow remained because Mary knew that every year brought nearer that terrible thing which the unknown future held in store. At the age of 30 Jesus left home and, so far as we know, returned but once, and that was to preach to the people of Nazareth with whom he had been brought up. But so incensed were they with what he said, that they surrounded him and marched him away to throw him off the hill-top. And Mary, as she followed, must have felt the old fear gripping her heart like an icy hand as she hoped against hope that this was not how it was all going to end.
Although so little is said about Mary during the three years of Jesus’ public ministry, yet we are conscious of her presence, content to watch and suffer silently as the hostility to him deepened and spread, but always ready to help him if the need arose. Thus Mark records how on one occasion in Capernaum the rumour went round that he was losing his reason (3:20-33). As soon as Mary heard it she hurried to the house where he was and sent a message to him through the crowd. Was this the disaster which old Simeon had foretold, the overthrowing of so noble a mind through the strain of overwork? If so she was ready to take him home with her and care for him until he was well again. As it was, she soon found it was a false alarm.
At last came the journey when she accompanied Jesus and his Apostles to Jerusalem for the Passover. During Holy Week she saw the undisguised glint of hatred and death in the eyes of his opponents as they tried to trap him in his speech. Then, in the early hours of Good Friday it was John, most likely, who came to her with the news of his arrest, and at that moment she knew that the hour had come, and the sword long prophesied began relentlessly to enter her soul until she found herself witnessing the horror of the Crucifixion.
No words can describe her agony, and St John makes no attempt to do so. He just states, with poignant simplicity, “Near the cross of Jesus stood his mother…” and records how her Son entrusted her to his care (Jerusalem Bible, John 19:25-27). One does not know how many pictures have been painted of that scene or of the sorrowing Mother holding in her arms the body of her dead and crucified Son. But it is something which will haunt the minds of painters until the end of time.
For some 33 years, therefore, Mary was under great and protracted nervous strain, and when old Simeon’s prophecy was fulfilled, it must have gone far beyond her worst fears and forebodings. It has been truly said that Mary “without dying gained the palm of martyrdom” beneath the Cross of the Lord. (1)
With this example of Jesus and Mary in front of us, it is strange that we expect that life, however difficult it may be for other people, should be easy for ourselves; stranger still when we have been repeatedly warned that the opposite is virtually automatic in this world.
“…human beings are born to trouble just as sparks fly upward” (NRSV, Job 5:7).
“In the world you will have trouble…”, says Our Lord (Jerusalem Bible, John 16:33).
“We all have to experience many hardships…before we enter the kingdom of God”, echo Paul and Barnabas (Jerusalem Bible, Acts 14:22).
It was so for Our Lord. It was so for Mary who trod that same road from Nazareth to Calvary which her Son also had trodden. Furthermore, their sufferings were entirely innocent. From the world’s point of view they had every excuse, every reason, for rebelling against life and for rebelling against God.
So today people are provoked by suffering, and especially innocent suffering whether in themselves or in others – are provoked to reject God, but in so doing they do not realise they are also rejecting the Crucified. For, as the believing Christian knows, God is a God of love and the measure of his immeasurable love for mankind is shown and proved by the Crucifixion, the price he willingly paid for coming into this world to restore us to himself. For the purpose of our life in this world is to enable us to share God’s life in the next. In other words, we are born only that we may be enabled to die so that we may live with him.
If we follow Christ at all, we must be prepared to follow him all the way – not only through the smiling fields and orchards of Galilee but also along the Way of Sorrows in Jerusalem. Such sorrows may be some of:
“…The heart-ache and the thousand natural shocks
That flesh is heir to…” (2);
but for the faithful and resolute Christian there is also added the hostility of the non-Christian world around. As Jesus put it the night before his Crucifixion, “If the world hates you, be aware that it hated me before it hated you. If you belonged to the world, the world would love you as its own. Because you do not belong to the world, but I have chosen you out of the world – therefore the world hates you” (NRSV, John 15:18,19, our emphasis).
Indeed, did not Our Blessed Lord picture his Christian followers as a procession of cross bearers with himself at their head? And we, like him, can turn suffering to good account: we can try to face it as he did, with courage and patience, and we can offer it to God as a way of expressing our desire to be united with Christ. For the Christian life is a sharing in the life of Christ, but it has to be in his life as a whole; a sharing not only in his strength and comfort, but also in his sorrow and trouble and pain.
But we have his own assurance that those who thus share his life to the full, will share his joy also to the full.
“Blessed are you who weep now,” he said, “for you will laugh” (NRSV, Luke 6:21).
“Blessed are you when people revile you and persecute you and utter all kinds of evil against you falsely on my account. Rejoice and be glad, for your reward is great in heaven…” (NRSV, Matthew 5:11,12, our emphasis).
So it was for Mary. In her great love for Jesus she shared his sufferings. Her road through life was his road, and when at last she reached its end, he was there waiting for her, and so she attained the reward which awaits all who follow in his steps – she saw the King in his beauty and entered into the joy of her Lord where for evermore she rejoices in God her Saviour.
1. Cited in Frost, B. (1938) The mystery of Mary, London and Oxford: A.R. Mowbray & Co Limited. (The quotation is from the Communion verse for the Feast of the Seven Sorrows of the Blessed Virgin Mary).
2. Shakespeare, W. (1600-1601) Hamlet, Act 3, Scene 1, lines 62-63. Available from:
http://www.shakespeare-online.com/plays/hamlet_3_1.html (Accessed 24 August 2015) (Internet).