Woman, Here Is Your Son

In John's gospel, Jesus is nobody's victim. He needs no help carrying his cross. No one mocks him as he hangs on the cross. While he is there, he makes provision for his mother, he says he is thirsty not because he is but in order to fulfill the scripture (Psalm 69.21) and he pronounces his job finished without the loud cry that all the other evangelists agree on.

In John's gospel, he is in charge all the way. We do not have to worry about him, then, but we do have to worry about those he leaves behind. What will happen to his disciples? Will they be able to carry on his work, or will they end up as he has? What will happen to his mother? In those days, a mother's children were her Medicare, her social security, and her pension.

This is Mary's second appearance in John's gospel. The first was three years ago, when she badgered her son about the shortage of wine at that wedding in Cana of Galilee. "Woman," he said way back then, "what concern is that to you and to me? My hour has not yet come."

Now, presumably, it has. It is the wine of his blood that is running out this time, right there where she can smell it. Fortunately, she is not alone. Her sister is there, along with Mary Magdalene and Mary the wife of Clopas. The beloved disciple is also with her—a man who is never named in John's gospel, although he appears at least five times. Jesus' love for him is the only thing about him that matters, apparently. That is his only identity: that Jesus loves him. We don't even know why.

Perhaps it is his loyalty, since he is the only male disciple standing there. The women are not in nearly as much danger as he is. Since a woman's testimony won't hold up in court, they are not likely to be stopped and questioned, but he is, especially if he looks and sounds like a Galilean.

Where are the others? You will have to ask them. Safe, somewhere. Safe and guilty. This may take a load off Jesus' mind, since he does not have to worry about them, but it may also hurt him as much as the nails do, because they would not follow him all the way. We do not know any of this. All we know is that Jesus concerns himself with those who are there—with his mother, whose face is dissolving in front of him, and with the beloved disciple, who has appointed himself her bodyguard.

Although they are near enough to hear him, he does not seem to see them at first. There is a lot going on. The soldiers are dividing up his clothes into four piles: robe, prayer shawl, belt, sandals. Passers-by are straining to make out the sign over his head while the chief priests are arguing that Pilate should change what it says.

But finally Jesus does see them, and when he does, he speaks. First he looks at his mother. "Woman," he says—the same thing he called her before, at the wedding—"Woman, here is your son." Then he looks at the disciple standing beside her and says to him, "Here is your mother." Since his hands are not free, he has to do a lot of work with his eyes, indicating which woman and which man. When he is through, the adoption is final. From that hour, John says, the beloved disciple took Jesus' mother into his own home.

It is a gesture of surpassing sweetness, and yet you have to wonder which way it went. Was Jesus looking out for his mother or for his disciple? Who needed whom more?

That Jesus placed his mother in the care of his disciple is our clue that she is a widow. Although Joseph is mentioned twice by name, he never shows up in John's gospel at all. He has presumably died by the time Jesus reaches adulthood, which makes Mary an 'almana,' or widow, whose status depends on the surviving members of her husband's household. When Jesus dies, she will belong to no one. She will be responsible to and for herself.

If she were a wealthy woman, this might be good news to her, but she is not. It is far more likely that she will eat other people's leftovers for the rest of her life, with no father, no husband or son to protect her from the cruel things people say and do.

So it is merciful of Jesus to give her a new son. But it is also merciful of him to give that son a new mother, especially this one. Mary cannot be more than fifty years old when her son is crucified—younger than Sarah was when she gave birth to the nation of Israel; younger than Anna was when she recognized the redeemer of Jerusalem in a baby boy named Jesus.

When the beloved disciple takes Mary home, and when the other disciples come crawling out from under their rocks, they will find themselves in the presence of someone whose contact with the Holy Spirit has been far more intimate than theirs. She has seen things they have only heard about. She has felt things inside of her that they cannot even imagine. Perhaps that is why she stayed put by her son while they fled. Perhaps that is what allowed her to look full into the ruined face that no one but her (and her new son) could bear to see.

While the principalities and powers believe they are tearing his family apart, Jesus is quietly putting it together again: this mother with this son, this past with this future. Although his enemies will succeed in killing him, he will leave no orphans behind. At the foot of the cross, the mother of the old becomes the mother of the new. The beloved disciple becomes her new beloved son. "And from that hour the disciple took her into his own home."

Copyright ©2000 Barbara Brown Taylor

This homily was delivered at the Lenten Noonday Preaching Series at Calvary Episcopal Church, Memphis, Tennessee, on April 21, 2000. An earlier version of this sermon appeared in Home By Another Way (Cowley 1999).