Standing Near the Cross

Dear Friends:

This message may seem a bit intense given the season, but it is vapid sentimentality to separate the manger of Bethlehem from the cross of Calvary. Jesus Christ entered this world to save us from our sins and reconcile us with God for eternity. He did not come to make us feel better about ourselves nor to teach us to be more moral men and women.  No one would have known this better than Mary. Here are some thoughts about her experience at Jesus’ crucifixion.

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Meanwhile, standing near the cross of Jesus were his mother, and his mother’s sister, Mary the wife of Clopas, and Mary Magdalene. When Jesus saw his mother and the disciple whom he loved standing beside her, he said to his mother, “Woman, here is your son.” Then he said to the disciple, “Here is your mother,” And from that hour the disciple took her into his own home (Jn 19:25-27).

The holly bears a prickle
As sharp as any thorn
And Mary bore sweet Jesus Christ
On Christmas day in the morn.
. . .
The holly bears a bark
As bitter as any gall,
And Mary bore sweet Jesus Christ,
For to redeem us all.

(The Holly and the Ivy, 18th Century English carol)

It began with Mary’s submission to the will of God. “Here am I, the servant of the Lord; let it be with me according to your word,” she told the Archangel Gabriel (Lk 2:38).

“Do whatever he tells you,” she had told the servants at the wedding feast at Cana, before Jesus had turned the water into wine (Jn 2:5). Her faith in him, seeded by the Holy Spirit and nurtured over thirty years of loving companionship, was confident and shining.

From the start, she accepted the fact that this child belonged to God not to her. With a mother’s proud love, she has followed him all the way from the stable at Bethlehem to this grotesque rocky outcropping known as the “Skull” on this violent Friday noon. Her son is being murdered before her eyes for the very reason she bore him into the world. Does she have to accept this too?

When Gabriel first appeared and gave Mary the Lord’s greeting, she’d pondered whether God’s interest in her was a good thing. “Do not be afraid, Mary, for you have found favor with God,” Gabriel assured her (Lk 2:28-30).  She’s clung to that assurance through the absences, the long, exhausting road trips, his choice of fishermen, tax collectors, and rebels as companions, the miracles, the controversies and the death threats.

In this moment, though, there is only unrelenting brutality, piercing the hands that healed and the feet that carried the good news. The merciless violence shreds her assurance even as it rips into his flesh. Her tears vaporize before they fall like summer rain in the desert. Her grief crushes her thoughts to choking dust before they even find expression in words.

Yet, her mother’s devotion does not flinch away. Mary stands near to her bleeding, ravaged son. That means she stands near to the brutal Roman power that is responsible for his execution and to the pompous sarcasm of the religious establishment that seeks to exploit Jesus’ death for its own preservation. Even more, she stands near to torture and pain against which she is helpless, except that Jesus can see her from the cross and knows that her love is faithful to the end.

There are no words, yet there will be centuries of words after this. Songs will be written, paintings created, churches built, and a billion replica crosses made and sold to tourists all in the vain commemoration of a dark bottomless pain that can never be replicated and, in its singular blessing, will never have to be repeated.

The worst of it will be the arguments over the “why” of it. In the “courage” of the aftermath, men and women will seek to explain the event with a clinical detachment and a philosophical perspective that minimizes its power and deflates its price. They will do this because they cannot understand a sacrificial love that will endure such horror to the end and cannot cope with their capability of inflicting such malicious carnage to protect themselves. Those are matters to be taken up later. “Today’s trouble is enough for today” (Mt 6:34).

The sun darkens. The air is heavy with sorrow and reeks of blood. Thieves yell and shriek in terror. Soldiers gamble for Jesus’ robe, indifferent to the pain and shame they’ve inflicted on his naked body. The betrayal of the law for unjust ends is carried out. In anguish, Jesus screams the ultimate prayer of sightless faith, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” (Mt 27:46). Hearing this, Mary’s heart, loyal to God, but filled with an overwhelming love for the Son she shares with him, tears apart with the strain of a compassion beyond her strength and resolve.

In this worst of moments, even as his life fades, Jesus speaks his love for her. It is an unexpected and rational mercy like a shaft of warming sunlight blazing through the storm.

He cares what happens to her. Joseph, righteous, dependable Joseph is long gone. It is Jesus’ desire, as the eldest son, that Mary be sheltered in a loving relationship after he’s gone. He sees John standing beside Mary. He knows John’s heart, knows that John has been transformed from a son of raging thunder into a man forever altered by the love of his Savior. Out of his agony, Jesus’ thought is for his mother. “Woman, here is your son.” Then, he speaks to John, “Here is your mother.”

With that kind detail addressed, Jesus is done. He takes a final bitter drink, and says, “It is finished.” He bows his head and dies. The wonder of the manger has ended in the devastation of the cross.

The days that follow are a blur of grief and danger, rumors and reports of resurrection. From the very hour that Jesus died, John treats Mary as his own mother. Surprisingly, Jesus’ death and resurrection heals the old divisions between her own sons (Jn 7:1-9). They set aside their impatient bluster and jealousies and join Mary and the little band of believers who gather in a succession of upper rooms to wait and pray for the promised visitation of the Holy Spirit (Acts 1:14). “Whoever does the will of God is my brother and sister and mother,” Jesus had said and now the family reconciles on that very principle (Mk 3:31-35).

On the day of Pentecost, the family is ready and waiting with the others when the Holy Spirit ignites the Church to life with tongues of fire (Acts 2). The story moves on and we learn it even as we become another chapter in its telling.

I have reflected on Mary’s experience at the cross every day of this Advent season. The Holy Spirit of God had conceived Jesus’ life in her with tender expectation of joy. God was enlarged in her soul. But the reality of God’s presence was more than she could contain or comprehend.

Simeon warned Mary and Joseph that many would fall or rise in response to Jesus, and the sword-thrust of opposition to him would pierce her soul (Lk 2:22-35). He was only 12-years-old when her anxiety was stirred by his brief and unexplained absence, and she asked, “Child, why have you treated us like this?”

“Did you not know that I must be in my Father’s house?” was his reply–a question answered with another question. Mary struggled for understanding then and always (Lk 2:41-51).  Slowly, she came to understand through contemplation of her son’s life in the light of Scripture, that God comes with questions, not with answers. Extraordinary as it is, Mary learned that love, of the kind that Jesus brought, requires freedom, not answers. She was challenged by this and so are we.

Human love seeks to possess, but Jesus’ love releases. The effect can be jarring to sensibilities conditioned by the insecurities of sin. Jesus thinks in possibilities, while we consciously or unconsciously react to  human limitations. Jesus desires communion. We compete for scraps and leftovers. He smiles and says, “In me you have life, abundance and freedom.” We squint and ask, “What’s the deal?”

Then comes the day, when it all goes wrong for us. We can’t win for trying. The broken pieces won’t fit. The losses are unsustainable. The best that we can offer is rejected. We demand of God to know, “Where is that favor you promised me on the day we met?”

When we encounter our day of distress, we are inclined to withdraw and hide-out in isolation. Our sin-perverted instinct is to seek self preservation. Faith calls us against instinct to stand near the cross like Mary, even in the presence of our enemies.

Jesus still speaks to us from the cross. “I know your grief and weakness. My prayer, ‘My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?’speaks raw faith when there is nothing else to cling to except the mere thought of God. My words to Mary and to John tell you that no loss is final and no grief is endless with me. Love is the light that will lead you home and relationship is the road. Trust this and you will live.”

“O taste and see that the Lord is good. Happy are those who take refuge in him (Ps. 34:8).

Under the mercy of Christ,

Kent

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