Woman, Behold Thy Son!

[Taken from The History of the Passion, Fr. James Groenings, SJ. Imprimatur: Archbishop Glennon, Jan. , 1908.]

The first word of Christ on the cross concerned His enemies, who, however, instead of being converted, continued to offend Him. They, indeed, more than others, needed His pity, His help and His prayers. The second word was addressed to a repentant sinner to whom Christ bequeathed paradise. Not until He spoke the third time did He address His relatives and friends.

St. John records this incident in the following terms: “Now there stood by the cross of Jesus his mother, and his mother’s sister, Mary of Cleophas, and Mary Magdalene. When Jesus therefore had seen his mother and the disciple standing, whom he loved, he saith to his mother: Woman, behold thy son. After that, he saith to the disciple: Behold thy mother. And from that hour the disciple took her to his own.” (John 19, 25-27)

The persons to whom Christ addressed the third word were His holy mother and the disciple whom Jesus loved.

The mother of Jesus, then, stood under the cross, a fact which was indeed astonishing. Was it not unheard of for a mother of her own volition to assist at the execution of her son, especially when the execution was not a hurried one, such as decapitation, but one accomplished by a slow process of terror-inspiring torture? Still, the mother of Jesus was present at the place of execution; she even looked attentively upon the different scenes. She did not, like Agar, turn away her eyes so that she might not behold her Son dying. No, like the mother of the Maccabees, she had her eyes fixed constantly on her dying Son. That such was the case is clearly indicated in the Scriptures. For when the Savior said, “Woman, behold thy son,” it was only by His look that He could show His mother that He meant her and not one of the other women. Their looks, then, must have met. Mary, therefore, beheld the thousand wounds form which the blood flowed to the ground; she saw the hands and feet pierced with nails; she saw the cruelly lacerated body; she heard the blasphemies and the jeers of His enemies. She heard and saw all this, and it must indeed have caused indescribable pain to her maternal heart. Besides, she could do nothing to allay the sufferings of her Son. The wounds were open; she could not bind them. The lips were parched with a burning thirst; she could not hand Him a refreshing drink. The Holy Face was disfigured by spittle and blood; she could not refresh it. The honor of her innocent and suffering Son was attacked; she could not defend Him. He was forsaken by heaven and by earth, and she could give Him no comfort. What a difference between times gone by and the present, between the manger and the cross! Certainly even then, His couch was not strewn with roses, but she could at least take care of Him, she could, in her maternal love, dry the tears fo the moaning Babe, she could fold Him in her maternal arms. What a difference between the crib and the cross! There was life, here is death; there the adoring shepherds and the Magi, here the blaspheming Jews and the Gentiles. There the songs of angels abounded, here all is total abandonment. Even the very honor of the mother of God was attacked by the Jews. Instead of sympathy and consolation, she received from them railings and ridicule. “She thought herself,” we may suppose they said, “the mother of the Messiah. Now she can see to what sort of a Messiah she given life.” But more than all this, the thought grieved her that these cruelties to her Son were offenses against the Heavenly Father. The thought, finally, that the Blood of her Son was being shed in vain for millions of people, filled the measure of her woe and made of her a sorrowful mother indeed.

However, Christ was to suffer death for the welfare of mankind; such was the will of the Heavenly Father, and not one human soul could be saved otherwise. She, therefore, bore her mental anguish with the utmost resignation, with heroic patience. She stood beneath the cross, says the Gospel. She did not faint and drop from exhaustion, as some pictures represent her. Nor did she lacerate her flesh in the greatness of her sorrow, says St. Anselm; she murmured not, she did not appeal to God’s vengeance, she did not tear her hair, nor did she fill the air with her cries. No; she stood beneath the cross, erect, subdued, modest, her eyes filled with tears and her heart with woe, our true model when we assist at the death of relatives. We may then, indeed, be sad, but not like to those who have no hope. Our sadness should partake of a Christian and not of a pagan character. Mary stood under the cross; she bore all her sufferings with a heaven-born patience. Even more; she took part, as much as a merely human being could, in the sacrificial act of Christ. For, while her Divine Son, as the High-Priest of the New Law, offered up to Heaven His Blood and His Life, she made the offering with Him. She put her heart and all its sorrow into the chalice of the Redeemer. “It was well,” once remarked a mother after listening to the narrative of Abraham’s sacrifice, “that God demanded this sacrifice of the father, for the heart of the mother would never have been equal to it.” Mary, however, subdued even the power of her own maternal heart. Thus did the second Eve re-establish what the first Eve, standing beneath the tree, had destroyed.

The Sorrowful Mother and the Beloved Disciple, from The Passion of the Christ

The other person to whom the third word as addressed was St. John. His presence beneath the cross is also a cause for wonder. For, at the seizure of Christ, he with the other apostles had lost courage and had hastily fled. But, after his first fright had subsided, he soon, happily for him, joined Mary, and sought refuge with her. At her side, and led as it were by her motherly hand, he courageously ascended Calvary. Mary led the deserting apostle back to the Redeemer.

Thus John arrived near the cross where a threefold and very painful trial awaited him. First, his humility was put to the test. He was recognized as an adherent and disciple of the Crucified One. “It had been better for him,” they said, “had he remained at his nets instead of joining an imposter; but undoubtedly he thought he would obtain, through him, something worth having.” Then his faith was tried. Nothing of what he saw on Golgotha, betrayed the only-begotten Son of God, the wonder working Master. What he did see in the Crucified One, wounds, ignominy and weakness, apparently militated against His Divinity. But John held in abeyance his reason and his senses. He doubted not, neither did he take umbrage nor was he scandalized at his Crucified Master. The most painful trial was reserved for his love. What torture for his loving heart to behold his Redeemer in such torments and to know that the hour of separation was fast approaching! However, John, like Mary, stood beneath the cross, his eyes unceasingly turned on the Holy Face. The humility he shows in speaking of his steadfastness is truly touching. He does not mention his own name; he merely says, “There stood the disciple whom Jesus loved.” He wished to intimate thereby that he owned his steadfastness not to his own power, but solely and alone to the love and grace of the Redeemer, upon Whose breast he had reclined at the Last Supper.

When Jesus, therefore, says Holy Writ, had seen His mother and the disciple standing whom He loved, He said to His mother, “Woman, behold thy son.” After that He said to the disciple, “Son, behold thy mother.” Let us examine this third word more closely.

The first part of the third word of Christ was addressed to His mother. For He took deeply to heart her sorrow and sadness. He alone, Who knew the greatness of her love, could know the greatness of her sorrow. She had, indeed, a powerful claim on His filial love and gratitude. For thirty years He had grown under her watchful care. The unceasing industry of her hands had provided, in His infancy, for His daily sustenance. Then all the rude trials to which Mary had been subjected for His sake passed before His mind: the suspicion, albeit guiltless, of St. Joseph, the journey to Bethlehem, the contempt met with there, the flight into Egypt, the three days’ search for the boy of twelve years, the meeting on the way to Calvary. And now Hid death is to inflict on her the hardest blow of all. It touched Him. From filial love and as an example to all children, to all sons and daughters, He provided as well as He could on His death-bed for His mother. He confided her to a man, who, He was convinced, would fill His place as far as was possible and who would lighten the sorrow of Mary at the loss of her Son. “Woman, behold thy son.”

“But, O good Jesus,” asks St. Bernard anent these words, “why art Thou ashamed to call Mary Thy mother, who bore Thee under her heart, who nourished Thee and who cared for Thee so tenderly? Why dost Thou say so harshly: Woman, behold thy son?” We might remind the Saint that at that time the word “woman” had not the contemptuous sense which nowadays is sometimes attached to it, but that it had an honorable meaning. But it still remains true that it has not the significance of the word “mother.” Why, then, did not Christ call Mary mother? Because, in the first place, He would not increase her suffering nor render more acute her sorrow by pronouncing the sweet name of mother. For separation from dearly beloved persons is made lighter by showing apathy and want of feeling and by refraining from marks of tenderness. Then the Savior avoided mentioning the name of mother in order not to excite and embitter against the mother the enemies of the Son. He, as it were, represented her to the Jews as being a stranger to Himself. These words, moreover, contain a mysterious reference, filled with solace and comfort for Mary, to the glad tidings which God announced to our first parents when He spoke of the woman who should crush the serpent’s head. Finally, the words of the Savior enfolded another great mystery. For, whenever He acted as God, as for instance, at the marriage feast of Cana, or before that, when He was found by His parents is the Temple, He never called Mary mother; He rather considered her as His creature. And now Christ, the Eternal High-Priest, was about to redeem Mary, as well as the rest of mankind, by His death.

No matter how considerate and forbearing the Savior meant the words to Mary to be, many holy Fathers nevertheless opine that at this word the prophecy of Simeon was accomplished: “Thy own soul a sword of sorrow shall pierce;” that, at this moment, Mary became the queen of holy martyrs. For at this moment she sacrificed the last claims of her maternal love. It was indeed a sad exchange. The servant should now be her son instead of the Lord; the disciple, instead of the Master; the son of Zebedee, instead of the Son of God; the mere man, instead of the true God. “My son,” Mary could well exclaim, “why hast thou done so to me?” “Call me not Noemi (that is, beautiful,) but call me Mara (that is, bitter,) for the Almighty hath quite filled me with bitterness.” But in all humility she now received the sad message as she formerly received the glad tidings of the angel. “Behold,” she said, “I am the handmaid of the Lord. Be it done to me according to His word.”

The second part of the third word was addressed to St. John. The Savior was touched also by the grief and sadness of this disciple who so faithfully stood beneath the cross. To console him for the dire loss which he was to suffer in His death, Christ gives him His own mother as a compensation: “Son, behold thy mother.” Hereby Christ reminds the disciple of his duty to care for Mary as a good child ought. And John, from that hour, took her unto his own.

By these words of the Redeemer an extraordinary distinction and honor was conferred upon St. John. How a minister feels honored when representing a mighty king or emperor at a foreign court! But what is all that in comparison with the distinction accorded to St. John, who, in relation to Mary, was to represent the King of kings, the Son of God? What an honor, besides, was it not for St. John to be permitted to greet as his own mother, the mother of God. It was certainly a glorious feast in heaven when Christ, some years later, took Mary, body and soul, into heaven. All angels and archangels, all cherubim and seraphim felt honored when greeting her as their queen. In honor, therefore, of their mistress and queen they chanted their most beautiful lays. They saluted her as the Queen of glory, as the exalted Queen of heaven, but as their mother – never! They dare not call the Blessed Virgin mother, that was the privilege of St. John.

This distinction was, furthermore, richly fraught with grace for St. John. And did not Christ owe it to His mother, ay, to His own honor, to adorn His representative with virtues and heavenly gifts? Most certainly He did. And what an increase was added to these graces through the intercession and the example of the Blessed Virgin! We may truly apply to St. John what St. Thomas of Villanova says of St. John the Baptist: “If a single salutation of this Virgin could sanctify the precursor of the Lord before his birth, what, think you, did the society of Mary during many years, effect in St. John?” But if we ask for the reasons why it was St. John who received this great distinction, the holy Fathers are unanimous in answering that it was above all the virginal purity of this apostle which attracted the heart and the eyes of Christ. We ought, then, to preserve unsullied the purity of our state of life. “It is good and wholesome also,” says one holy Father in reference to this distinction, “to stand under the cross of Christ and to persevere beneath it.”

“Woman, behold thy Son! Son, behold thy Mother!” Although these words of the dying Redeemer fill our hearts with sadness at Mary’s afflictions, although they spur us on to assure the mother of Jesus, standing under the cross, of our admiration and of our sympathy, still they are for us, as they were for St. John, words of the sweetest consolation. For in saying these words, Christ also thought of us. Undoubtedly John was privileged, inasmuch as he alone took the mother of Jesus into his own house and cared for her as for his own mother. But it is the conviction of Holy Church that, at that moment, John also represented the entire human race. In the name of us all, John received the consoling message. By consenting to the incarnation of the Son of God, Mary had already become our mother. But, before departing, Christ wished solemnly to declare her as such and to recommend the care of her spiritual children to her who is the second, better Eve and the true giver of life. Therefore the words of the Savior, “Behold thy mother,” are to be taken not merely as an instance of tender, filial solicitude, but also as a last act of love on the part of the dying Redeemer, intended to embrace the whole world.

According to the will of Christ, then, Mary should be our spiritual Mother and we should be her children. For which reason we ought to render ourselves worthy of such a great honor by daily greeting her as our mother, by loving and revering her and by imitating the glorious example of virtues she gives us, especially of steadfastness in suffering. But she ought to be the mother not only of each one in particular, but also of all Christian families. Every Christian family should take her, as John did, and receive her joyfully into their house. Especially should we invoke the Mother of Sorrows at the hour of death. She assisted so lovingly at the death of her Divine Son, she will also assist us maternally at our demise and obtain for us the grace of a happy death.