Woman behold your son ... behold your mother

We had a Lenten day of reflection at St. Mary-on the-lake today. It was a great day, with reflections on the seven last words of Jesus by various CSJP Sisters & Associates. I was invited to give a reflection on the third word: "Woman behold your son .. behold your mother." I'll share my reflection here below.
Growing up, Lent was simply a season of “giving up” for me. I’d spend days agonizing on what to give up. Should it be chocolate? My favorite television show? Being mean to my sister? My understanding was simple, but my intention was sincere. I wanted to pick something that would really matter.

As we grow older, hopefully our understanding of this season deepens. Through our own life experiences, we gain a broader understanding of the themes of repentance and sacrifice, reconciliation and forgiveness. We begin to use the season of Lent as an opportunity to go deeper into our own spiritual practice.

In my own life, I don’t think I began to fully grasp the meaning of this season until I walked with my mother on her own road to Calvary. Five and half years ago, after a two-year journey that seemed much longer, I lost my mother to cancer. She was 69. I was 31.

There is so much that changed in my life through that experience, but perhaps the most important is that somehow along the way, I began to grow up … spiritually. I stopped – for the most part – throwing temper tantrums at all the pain and suffering in the world. I stopped asking why God allowed all the suffering to exist in the first place, and instead saw the gift of God present in the suffering that is. In the words of theologian Elizabeth Johnson I began to understand that:

“This is one way the symbol of the suffering God can help: by signaling that the mystery of God is here in solidarity with those who suffer. In the midst of the isolation of the suffering the presence of the divine compassion as companion to the pain transforms suffering, not mitigating its evil but bringing an inexplicable consolation and comfort.”

Yes there is tremendous pain and suffering in our world. But God is with us through it all.

“Woman, behold your son … behold your mother.”

The presence of divine compassion is expanded at the foot of the cross to include each of us, mother and father, sister and brother to each other, companion to the pain. We are meant to be the face of God to each other, to provide consolation and comfort, to transform suffering, to be in solidarity with all of God’s creation, our family.

Jesus, on the cross, looks down and sees his mother and his friend. He knows that they will miss his physical presence among them in the days to come. He knows that they will have their own struggles with pain and suffering. And so he reminds them that they have each other.

When I got the news that my own mother had died, I was 3,000 miles away in my apartment in Portland, Oregon. I’d been planning a trip to Washington, D.C. – where my parents lived – a few days later to see my mom one last time. Instead, I found myself making arrangements to leave the next morning to help my dad plan for the funeral.

I calmly called the airline and changed my flight. I called my boss and left a message that I’d be gone for a few weeks. I then called my friend Nicole, planning to ask her to check on my house while I was gone. Instead, when I heard her voice on the other end, I couldn’t talk. Somehow, she knew and told me to stay put. She was coming over.

About twenty minutes later there was a knock on my door. I opened the door and was enveloped in a gigantic hug. All the emotions I’d been holding in as I calmly made my travel arrangements came gushing out. I felt completely vulnerable, yet safely held in the embrace of my good friend, safely held in the embrace of God.

I imagine that this is what it was like for Mary and the beloved disciple, in the days after Jesus’ death on the cross. Together in the sorrow. Together in their hope. Together.

We are all God’s family. Brother and sister, father and mother to our neighbor in the next pew, to the grieving mother in Iraq, to the men and women in suits in the halls of power, and the homeless man holding his sign begging for money that I see each day on my way to work.

What would the world be like, I wonder, if we actually lived out this reality?

In his book on the seven last words, Timothy Radcliffe shares a story about Dom Helder Camara that I’d like to share with you:

"Archbishop Helder Camara of Recife in Brazil, had a deep sense that the very poorest people were his family. If he heard that one had been unjustly arrested, then he would telephone the police and say, ‘I hear that you have arrested my brother.’ And the police would become very apologetic. ‘Your excellency, we are so sorry. We did not know he was your brother. Please come and collect him.’ And when the Archbishop would go to the police station to collect the man, the police might say, ‘But your Excellency, he does not have the same family name as you.’ And Camara would reply that every poor person was his brother and sister."

This, I think, is truly what Jesus is calling us to at the foot of the cross. Not to be hung up on our family names, on our shared national interests, on our need to protect “our own.” But rather, to embrace the gift of solidarity. To recognize the divine presence in our neighbor, near or far, and reflect that back to them. Especially in times of sorrow, sadness, crisis, and pain.

What if we looked into the eyes of the homeless man we usually ignore and saw our son? Or into the eyes of a worried mother in a war-torn Iraq and saw our own mother? Would the world be any different? Would we be any different?

Woman, behold your son … behold your mother. I’m going to pass out a prayer card with pictures of two members of our global family. In our quiet reflection time, I invite you to gaze on their pictures. Imagine Jesus calling to you, at the foot of the cross, inviting you to embrace your son. To embrace your mother.


Anonymous said...

Sister, this was beautiful. More so because you brought in real life experiences and it was more than just a 'sermon'. Thank you.... I have been struggling with the question of suffering myself and this has helped me on my way...

Susan Rose Francois, CSJP said...

Thank for your comment! I'm so glad it was helpful.

I think the struggle with suffering is lifelong.

Episcopal priest in Jamestown, NY said...

Thank you so much for your wonderful comments on this deeply moving passage from John's Gospel. I am an Episcopal priest who is preaching for the first time on this passage at a Good Friday service, and will be using some of your comments, as well as your story of Archbishop Camara in my sermon.

Susan Rose Francois, CSJP said...

I'm so glad you found my reflections helpful. And the Camara story (which I borrowed from Timothy Radcliffe) is amazing, isn't it?