Before the Cross of Jesus: Mother and Son

15 Mar

200_29(a sermon for March 15, 2015, the 4th Sunday in Lent; third in a series, based on John 19:25-27)

All this week as I’ve been preparing today’s message, there’s been a song running through my head; and interestingly enough, it’s a Christmas song. Granted, it’s kind of an obscure song, an English Carol that dates back hundreds of years: it’s called “The Seven Joys of Mary,” and it’s actually a “counting song,” reminiscent of “The Twelve Days of Christmas,” and trust me, it’s got the kind of melody that sticks with you forever!

The first good joy our Mary had,
It was the joy of one:
To see the blessed Jesus Christ
When he was first her son.
When he was first her son, good man:
And blessed may he be,
Praise Father, Son, and Holy Ghost,
For all eternity.

It’s a song that’s meant to be sung with spirit and great vigor; and in fact, back before the Puritans banned the singing of Christmas carols (believing them to be paganistic), there were actually dance moves attached to the singing of this song (!) which is why these days you often hear this song performed by Celtic folk groups.  There’s at least seven verses (some versions have even more than that), and each one “counts up,” describing Mary’s joy in being the mother of Jesus: the joy of two, which is “to see her own son Jesus when he was sent to school;” three “to make the blind to see;” and so on, all very joyous and celebratory until… you get to the sixth verse:

The next good joy our Mary had,
It was the joy of six;
To see her own son Jesus Christ
Upon the Crucifix.
Upon the crucifix, good man:
And blessed may he be,
Praise Father, Son, and Holy Ghost,
For all eternity.

Quite a change… I remember when I first heard this song some years ago I was struck not only by just how abruptly the tone of the thing changed (I mean, for a song associated with Christmas, this was a long way from angels, shepherds and wise men!), but also how anyone – poet, songwriter or otherwise – could possibly associate this moment of crucifixion with joy, most especially as “the next good joy of Mary?”

It has been rightly said, you see, that the sacrifice of the cross is the sacrifice of Jesus, who gave up his life for our sin.  And we know in faith that the sacrifice of the cross is also the sacrifice of God, the Father “who spared not His own son, but delivered Him up for us all.”  (Romans 8:32)  However, what we often don’t consider is that in a very real way the sacrifice of the cross was also the sacrifice of Mary, his mother, who stood meekly “before the cross of Jesus” as her son hung there to die.

It’s only mentioned briefly in John’s Gospel – only three scant verses in the midst of the larger passion narrative – nonetheless in this passage we’re given some small sense of the ordeal faced by Mary at that moment of crucifixion; as this man who once had been the very child she bore in her womb now suffered in agonizing pain as the life slowly ebbed out of him. A horrible experience, and unspeakable; this was truly every parent’s nightmare, amplified to an infinite degree, and of all the words that might describe the moment, “good joy” would certainly not be among them.

That said, however, it couldn’t have been wholly unexpected.

After all, this hour of sacrifice had had its foreshadowing some 30 years before; it’d come at the moment Mary and Joseph had brought their new-born son to the temple for presentation; when the old man who was called Simeon took the baby in his arms, and said to Mary, “This child is destined for the falling and the rising of many in Israel, and to be a sign that will be opposed… and a sword will pierce your own soul, too.” (Luke 2:34-35)  In the years that would follow, like so much of what had been told her concerning this child, Mary would ponder these things in her heart; and as Jesus grew and “increased in wisdom,” (v. 40) so also grew the chilling fear deep within Mary’s heart that someday the moment of piercing would come.  And now, at Jesus’ dying hour, that fear had been wholly realized; and we can only begin to imagine what an overwhelming experience that must have been for her.

I mean, think about this for a moment: not only is there the undeniable and indefinable anguish of a parent losing her child; not only that, but also there’s the fact that it’s this child!  This child who, even before he was born, had been called holy and “Son of God” by the angel of the Lord; this child who’d been welcomed into the world by a light of radiant star and the triumphant chorus of the heavenly host!  This was the one for whom Mary herself had sung a hymn of jubilation and victory, a song rejoicing in God the Savior who’d sent a child destined to lift up the lowly, fill the hungry with good things, but scatter the proud in the thoughts of their hearts!  He was truly the advent of love in the world; Mary knew this to be true, and in truth she’d seen that love expressed – countless times – in her son’s compassion; his acts of healing and in the ways that he always seemed to embrace those the world deemed unlovable, even when doing so inevitably ruffled the feathers of the powers that be. And up until very recently, it had seemed as though the promises of the angels were all about to be fulfilled.

But that was before… before Jerusalem… before the betrayal… the arrest… the scourging… before the cross.

Now, on this ever darkening Friday afternoon, rejoicing has turned to grieving and Mary’s standing there on the hill of Golgotha, clinging to the two “other” Marys, and staring in utter disbelief at was happening; or maybe not so much disbelief as surrender. Just as the old man predicted, a sword had indeed pierced her soul; because her son, who was the Son of God, was dying; and there was nothing that could be done about it.

And though John’s gospel doesn’t say, you have to imagine that in those dark moments at the cross, Mary might well have pondered if the promise would die with him.

Speaking of things Celtic, there is actually a Scottish tradition that refers to our Lord as “Jesus MacMary,” that is, “Jesus, Son of Mary.”  I love that; not only is it fun to say (!), but it also serves as a reminder that as Christians each one of us carry not only a divine connection with Jesus our Lord, but also a human connection.  In theological terms, what we’re talking about here is Jesus being “fully God and fully [hu]man,” and so Jesus’ death on the cross represents a tragedy on both a divine and human level.  But here’s the thing, and here’s what’s at the center of everything we believe: yes, on that dark Friday afternoon “Jesus MacMary” died on the cross, executed at the hand of a sinful humanity, but the promise of his coming was only just now coming to fruition. Of course, we know how this story ends and we understand how this finds its divine expression in an empty tomb and a resurrected Savior; but what about the human expression?  Where do we find in the moment of unspeakable grief the assurance – for his mother, for the other Mary’s, or, for that matter any one of us who has ever despaired at the cross – that love prevails; that it always prevails and the promise goes on?

tissot-woman-behold-your-son-sabat-mater-369x730At its heart, I suppose, it’s what any good son would do under the circumstances; Jesus was simply making sure that his mother would be well taken care of when he was gone.  In fact, Roger Frederickson, a biblical commentator, has written that what Jesus does in his hour of death does nothing less than reflect the same care that Mary gave to Jesus himself in his boyhood years; and, I might add, is not unlike what happens to those among us who have been put in the position of caring for their elderly parents at the end of life.  Even in his great distress, seeing the anguish in his mother’s eyes and turns to John (who is also standing there near the cross), immediately commending him and his mother to each other.  “Woman, here is your son,” he says, and then to John, “Here is your mother!”  It’s a verbal last will and testament; a not-so-simple act of providence borne in love, as Jesus looks to two person he loves dearly and says, “You are family now… he is your son, she is your mother; take care of each other.”

Biblical scholars have long speculated that this passage of John is symbolic of the church’s call to care for the least of our brothers and sisters; and there’s truth in that. But I also have to say that at the heart of this small exchange, which on the face of it seems a relatively small act of care and compassion amidst the overwhelming agony of that moment, lies a glorious example of his promise – and of love – fulfilled.  For now we discover that that the promise – this same promise of the angel who announced the coming of a Savior who would turn the world upside down; the same promise proclaimed by a young, impoversished girl who would gladly become “handmaiden of the Lord; the same promise that led John and the other disciples to drop everything else in their lives to follow Jesus as his disciples; the very same promise that has sought to move and shape our very lives, yours and mine – come to find out is a promise not merely to be fulfilled on a cosmic scale; but also a personal one!  It’s a promise that’s also meant to be received on a human level; in other words, it belongs to us… where we are and how we are!

You see, the fact that at the very end of his time on earth, Jesus can look to two people who he dearly loved – his great friend and his own mother – and connect them together for life (!) serves as a reminder that as we are connected to Jesus, so we are connected to one another; and through Jesus, individually and collectively we are part of his kingdom and the fulfillment of his promise; and not even death on a cross can stop that.

There’s a scene from the Dustin Hoffman movie (from almost 40 years ago!), “Kramer vs. Kramer,” that has always resonated with me.  If you’ve seen the movie, then you’ll remember that this was story of a distant and disinterested parent who becomes a deeply caring father when he forced to raise his son alone. And there’s this one amazing scene when this man’s little boy falls off a jungle gym in the playground, and he is rushed, in the arms of his father running through the streets of New York City, to the emergency room.  And while the doctor is cleaning the wound, with the child in great pain, you see that the father clearly feels every throb of that child’s hurt.  When the little boy cries, the father cries; when the boy jerks because of the pain of the stitches, the father does the same. As a Dad, I’ve been there, folks; because when you’re in a situation like that, suddenly love is is not just something talked about in the abstract, but something real, something that requires from us commitment and sacrifice.  It is empathy in its purest sense, it is love indeed, and in its own unique and powerful way, it is everything that love should be!

And it’s what we see on the cross.

My point is even that at that moment “before the cross of Jesus” when her soul was pierced in pain and grief, Mary experiences love as it has always been meant to be, manifest in the kind of divine empathy and infinite care shone forth in the person of Jesus Christ on the cross; and because of this, her soul could indeed continue to magnify God, as the very kingdom that her son proclaimed and exemplified continued to unfold, in divine and in human ways, even in the midst of what appeared literally “for all the world” as its utter defeat.

Perhaps that’s the reason this moment can be considered “the next good joy of Mary,” and why it is that you and I, even as we stand in stark reality “before the cross of Jesus,” can continue our journey of faith, hope and LOVE for the sake of Christ and his kingdom; for these represent the sure and certain promises of God, and nothing in heaven and on earth will keep those promises from being fulfilled.

There is, after all, another verse of the song…

The last good joy that Mary had
It was the joy of seven
To see her own son Jesus Christ
To wear the crown of Heaven
To wear the crown of Heaven, good man
And blessed may he be,
Praise Father, Son, and Holy Ghost,
To all eternity.

Thanks be to God!

Amen and AMEN.

c. 2015  Rev. Michael W. Lowry

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Posted by on March 15, 2015 in Jesus, Lent, Sermon, Sermon Series


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