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.
An Act of Entrustment
When I felt called by God to become a religious sister, my most pressing concern was for my mother – my mother is single, and with no other children. This weighed heavy on me: I worried how she would feel, how it would impact her emotionally, spiritually, financially. I worried how I would experience our separation. I wondered whether God was truly asking me to leave her when it seemed on the human level to be imprudent or even cruel.
And yet, my mother always wanted me to be free to make my own choices in life, to live authentically and with integrity wherever it would take me, even if she couldn’t understand the choices I made. It took an enormous act of trust for me to accept that if God was calling me to religious life, then surely he would take care of what I cared about, first and foremost, my own mother.
In today’s Gospel, the most singularly destructive act done by man is happening: Jesus our God is being crucified. The last words of a dying person hold a particular fascination and gravity to us as human beings. What are the words Jesus utters in the middle of his death agony? These: “Woman, here is your son,” and to the disciple, “Here is your mother.” From that time on, his disciple took her into his home. These words are the moment of Christ’s entrustment of Mary to all believers. There are two important points about the act of entrustment – St John’s response, he who is symbolic of all disciples, and Mary’s identity and vocation in the Church.
First of all, the act of entrustment is a more radical act than we may sometimes realise. The many anecdotes I have heard from medical staff, priests, or military personnel relay that those who are dying most frequently call out for their mother. Dying returns us to the vulnerability and dependency of childhood, it completes the life cycle we have been given. It is natural to long for our mother, when in fact we are being prepared to for our Father. Christ, fully human, also addresses his mother in the hour of death. Christ, fully divine, goes further: Mary is addressed as ‘woman’ rather than as mother.
The difference in Mary’s title is significant. First, it is a profound act of personal detachment: the natural affective bond uniting Christ to Mary is surrendered and made spacious to receive others. This is not the detachment of disinterest but of sacrificial love. As St John of the Cross would testify in his work the Ascent of Mount Carmel eighteen hundred years later, detachment is the path to perfect union. Christ does not cling to his mother self-centredly, instinctually, as could be expected of any other dying man, but entrusts her to St John as a most precious parting gift. She is his last will and testament.
Secondly, it is through his death that he releases her into a new and glorious vocation. Mary will be Mother and Queen of the Church. This continues and intensifies the embryonic vocation that developed within her at the Annunciation: in conceiving Christ physically, Mary also conceived what would emerge as His spiritual, mystical body, which is the Church. At the crucifixion, Christ’s life momentarily eclipses as a consequence of death, while Mary’s expands, as she inherits every spiritual child her son’s blood will ransom. Christ’s address to her as ‘woman’ is therefore a reference to her as the New Eve, and it moves her from being his particular mother to mother of all believers. Christ dies in total poverty, materially and spiritually. He gave away His life, and He gave away His mother, for our sake.
A maternal relationship with Mary is a gift Christ gives to each Christian, but not one that is automatic; attachment takes time. I was a Catholic for about six years before I truly discovered a relationship with Mary. As Jesus himself says, you do not cast pearls before swine, you do not give what is precious where it cannot or will not be valued. Of all the Twelve apostles, Christ specifically chose St John to care for Our Lady, for he was found worthy of the gift. Entrusted with Mary, St John’s response is to take her into his own home. These words teach us the heart of Marian devotion and consecration. We actively need to make room for Our Lady in our hearts, to willingly entrust ourselves to her care and intercession, confident she will always lead us to her Son.
When I entered the convent, my mother and I thought we were losing each other, a necessary separation as part of the cost of discipleship. At the foot of the Cross, it must have looked the same to those on the outside – Mary, the mother of a convicted blasphemer, left widowed and now childless, a totally vulnerable position in First Century Palestine and still a precarious one today for many women across the world. The early Church recognised this, perhaps all the more urgently in the presence of Mary’s own heroism. The Letter of St James 1:27 would later say that “Religion that God our Father accepts as pure and faultless is this: to look after orphans and widows in their distress”. The predestination of Christ, recognised by Simeon during Christ’s presentation in the Temple, was prophesied as a sword that would pierce her own heart too.
Yet, her fate was not only to experience grief. The gift of a child is always a double-edged sword of holding joy and sorrow together. At the foot of the cross, she is already the first heiress of the Resurrection, she is the vigilant keeping watch over the promise, as she receives St John and the disciples as spiritual children. Christ promised to those who left the good things of the world to follow him that they would receive a hundredfold. It was true of Our Lady, and it is true of my own mother. Through entering the convent, my mother’s mission also expanded. She did not lose her only child but gained a whole community of spiritual daughters and sisters. The power of grace is such that our hearts can stretch beyond the bounds of our own natural blood ties to encompass those who need the gift of our own sacrificial, spiritual maternity, the gift so extravagantly expressed by Our Lady of Sorrows.
Scripture passage from the New Revised Standard Version Bible: Catholic Edition, copyright 1989, 1993, Division of Christian Education of the National Council of the Churches of Christ in the United States of America. Used by permission. All rights reserved.