Jesus’ ministry is “framed” by Mary in the Gospel of John. The word “Emmanuel” means God with us, and was used in the way Matthew told the story of Jesus’ birth, when an angel in a dream told Joseph that Jesus was to be Emmanuel – God with us. Matthew came back to this idea when he ended his gospel. By chapter 28, the resurrected Jesus has gathered his disciples on a mountain. Just before his ascension into heaven, he commissions them. Tells them to go into the world and make disciples. And as he promise, he states, “I will be with you, even till the end of the age.” Matthew’s gospel is framed by this idea that Jesus is always with us.
In John’s gospel Jesus’ ministry is framed by Mary. She is there at the beginning of his ministry, when he turned the water into wine at the wedding in Cana. She is there at the ending, being one of the few disciples to stay with him at the cross. Mary plays the role of Emmanuel in Jesus’ life. She is the one always there – for better or worse. She’s the one telling him to fix the problem at the wedding. She’s the one who wonders if he’s gone crazy and needs to come home so she can straighten him out. Only Peter dares to rebuke Jesus as strongly within his tribe of followers.
Mary, playing the role of Mother Emmanuel, is the first human being to have expectations for Jesus. As the one who carried him in her womb, even before others talked about him, she was already wondering about him. To stay with him at the cross is to face the reality that her expectations didn’t come true (surely, she didn’t expect this!).
What did it mean that she came to the cross?
Did her place there reveal steps along the journey away from Mary the mother of baby Jesus and towards Mary the disciple of Jesus? What do Jesus’ words to her, mean to her? Is it the final severance of an umbilical cord? Or is it the beginning of something new?
Sometimes to get unstuck, expectations have to be shattered, first. Death comes before resurrection.
The exchange between Jesus and Mary and the other disciple reads a bit cold to us-21st-century people. “Woman, here is your son,” he says to Mary. Then to the unnamed disciple, he says, “Here is your mother.” There certainly is no warmth in the exchange of words. It is matter of fact. Simple. To the point. That Jesus was in immense pain and suffering at the time might be cause to cut him some slack on how he spoke to his mother, but given how other gospel passages show Jesus speaking to Mary this interaction looks sadly familiar.
20th century biblical scholars do not help illuminate the conversation. Most focus on it symbolically, which seems a bit like the moments so frequently depicted in movies when the monarch lies on their deathbed making a succession proclamation, or that moment in the Godfather when you see the mantle pass from father to son. Call me skeptical. Don’t get me wrong, I love rich symbolism. But to boil this moment down to an academic exercise misses the intimately interpersonal nature of these powerful words. Furthermore, it belittles the very humanity of Jesus. He wasn’t a messianic robot void of feelings and incapable of meaningful relationships. He was a man who loved others deeply. Hanging on the cross, is a man bearing the painful agony of torture, as he prepares to take his last breath, looking down to met the eyes of the woman who bore the painful agony of birth as he prepared to take his first breath.
We can talk about how Mary was a symbol of past tradition all we want but that still doesn’t change the fact that she is so much more than symbol – she is the person who shared the most intimate connected with Jesus. Most commentators on this passage continue the pattern of overlooking Mary beyond her Madonna and child pose.
Why is that? Is it simply a matter of sexism? The patriarchs of the Church muted portraits of Mary the disciple because Mary the mother fit the image of women in the Roman Empire by the late first century? And centuries of male chauvinism continue to taint the interpretation of our exchange today? Or is it more prevailing than that – that once you think you have someone figured out, it is just a lot easier that person through that set of lenses than to be open to new understandings?
What would happen if we chose just to see this exchange as something going on between Mary and Jesus as real, living, feeling, connected people?
On the surface this seems to be Jesus looking out for his mother and making sure that Mary is taken care of after he is gone. But this is odd for a couple of reasons. First, there isn’t any evidence that Jesus took care of Mary during his the time of his ministry. In the gospel accounts of Jesus and Mary, even as early as when he was age 12, in every exchange between them there is an undercurrent of his refusal to be and do what she wants him to be and do. He continually reframes the demands they put on him as family by redefining family. He leaves his hometown touring around teaching and healing, and, when he does return to his hometown he doesn’t return to her home.
Furthermore, she isn’t left all on her own after Jesus dies. She isn’t like Ruth and Naomi who were left with no family and had only each other. Mary has other sons and daughters that are still living. Her son, James, becomes the leader of the Jerusalem Church after Jesus’ ascension into heaven. She wasn’t left without any family to care for and be cared for. Jesus didn’t need to connect her with the beloved disciple so that she wouldn’t be left alone and vulnerable. So, why did he do it? The final words of the dying are typically laden with intentionality and purpose. So, what was it that Jesus was really saying and doing in this moment?
As we saw in last week’s story when Jesus returned to his hometown he didn’t return to Mary’s home. Word gets to Mary that Jesus is talking like he’s lost his mind. People fear he’s gone crazy. And so she and her other sons and daughters go to find him and bring him home where they can fix him. But when Jesus hears his family has come for him he says, “Who are my mother and brothers? Whoever does the will of God is my brother and sister and mother.” Jesus claims the band of misfits and outcasts that surround him as his family. Mary was saying, “Come home.” Jesus said, “I’m already home.” Family for Jesus had expanded. From family of origin to family of choice. His comment then to his mother and siblings was not a rejection, but an invitation. An invitation for their old relationship to be transformed.
Maybe today’s passage is Jesus’ last invitation to his mother into his family of choice. For Jesus, family had expanded to include his disciples. This intimacy carried on in the Jesus’ movement after his death, resurrection and ascension. All of the books of the New Testament, which originally were letters, speak of fellow Christians as brothers and sisters.
At the cross, Jesus is not dictating his last will and testament and securing protection for his aging mother. He had plenty of siblings to care for her.
At the cross, Jesus is welcoming her into his family of choice, his family of faith and bestowing upon her an elder title of mother, not just sister. Jesus is reorienting her as mother disciple, as Mother Emmanuel.
In Acts 1:13-14 we see a final picture of Mary. It reads, “When they had entered [Jerusalem], they went to the room upstairs where they were staying. Peter, and John, and James, and Andrew, Philip and Thomas, Bartholomew and Matthew, James son of Alphaeus and Simon the Zealot, and Judas, son of James. All these were constantly devoting themselves to prayer, together with certain women, including Mary the mother of Jesus, as well as his brothers.”
Here is Mary the mother disciple, praying with the community, her family of choice, as they all awaited the Holy Spirit to come. Why don’t we have mosaics of Mary praying with the disciples, awaiting the Holy Spirit? This is the climax of her journey– this is the transformative moment – Mary beyond the manger; Mary as praying disciple.
In these three sermons, we’ve seen Mary as she has made the transition from mother to follower – from Madonna to disciple. But in this moment, Jesus seems to entwine those two. Neither is exclusive of the other. And he seems to be blessing that Mary’s future includes the passion of her past. At the end Jesus opens the way for Mary to return to the role of mother, but not as his mother. As a mother disciple.
This is another way in which we might move from one stuck place in the past to a new beginning. To move on in our lives doesn’t have to mean that we never return to enjoy the things we loved in the past. We just have to enjoy them in new incarnations.
So, the star athlete might return, not to revel in old glories, but as a coach to help a new generation become stars on the field. Or the retired engineer might return not to a familiar office and role, but as the leader of a Habitat work team. Or the retired teacher might return not to lead a classroom, but to be a tutor for at risk kids in a local school.
The late-pastor, R.F. Smith discovered this in aftermath of his teenage son’s tragic death. Several months after Forest’s death, a friend of Dr. Smith’s said to him, “Reinvest your love for Forest in other people. You will find it redemptive.” Within a year of his son’s death, Marshall University hired a new football coach. The university was just a handful of blocks from the church and several university leaders were in the congregation. So, when the new coach was looking for a chaplain, R.F. was the first person he contacted. For the next five years, he was a father figure for roughly 100 young men – who were the same age as his son would have been, had he lived.
Tragic circumstances had taken away his role of being father to a son. But in reinvesting the love he had for his son into the lives of dozens of young men his friend’s words proved prophetic. It was redemptive. It helped him grieve and it helped him live again.
Dr. Smith was the mentor of my friend and mentor Tim. So, Dr. Smith is my grand-mentor in a way. At R.F.’s funeral, Tim was seated among the honorary pallbearers. Seated next to him was Sonny Randle, that old coach. He leaned over to Tim and said, “That man saved my life. I became a Christian while he was chaplain of our team.” Tim patted him on the shoulder and replied, “When you asked him to be chaplain to those young men, you might have saved his life as well.”
When Jesus spoke to Mary from the cross, he wasn’t ending her role as mother to him. He was inviting her to a new incarnation, a new role of being mother. To be a mother disciple in the community of the Church, his family of choice and her family of choice.
This is an invitation to all of us…an invitation to break free from expectations, roles, and moments that limit our lives. It is an invitation to a relationship with Jesus the Christ that will inevitably transform and change us. Thanks be to God. Amen.