Good Friday Tre Ore, Seven Last Words/Tenebrae Vespers

Download or listen to The Third Word: “Woman, Behold Thy Son/Behold Thy Mother”

In the Name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.

This is perhaps the strangest of the Words of Jesus from the cross, or maybe just the hardest to preach. There is no easy theological meaning to be had here. There is no easy analogy to be drawn for our own lives from the words of Jesus to His Mother and the beloved disciple. It is perfectly orthodox to speak of Mary being the mother of the Church, since she is the mother of Christ, whose body is the Church. But it is not a small leap to draw that conclusion from Jesus’ Words to Mary and John, because then we also have to make John into an analogy for us. So why does John record these words for us? Is it simply that Jesus fulfilled the entire Law and here He completes His Fourth Commandment obligations to His Mother? Without a doubt, Jesus does so. But is that all?

Perhaps it would help to consider the fact that Mary shows up only one other time in John’s Gospel; both here and there she is called, simply, “His mother.” The first time is at the wedding in Cana, where Mary seems to have something to do with the wedding reception. Perhaps the man and woman getting married are her relatives. We do not know; but we do know that Mary feels enough of an obligation that she tells Jesus, “they have no wine” (John 2:3). But before Jesus does the first of His Signs, He does what He often does in the Gospels: He distances Himself from Mary. He calls her “woman,” not “mother,” and He asks her what it has to do with Him. My hour is not yet (2:4). In other Gospels, Jesus rebukes His Mother for not knowing that He had to be about the business of His Father in His Father’s House (Luke 2:49); He says, when His Mother and brothers are looking for Him, “Who is My mother? And who are My brothers? And He stretched out His hands over His disciples and said, ‘See, My mother and My brothers; for whoever does the will of My Father in heaven, this one is My brother and sister and mother’” (Matthew 12:48-50); later, when a woman shouts from the crowd, “Blessed is the womb that bore You, and the breasts at which You sucked!” Jesus says, “On the contrary, blessed are the ones hearing the Word of God and keeping it” (Luke 11:27-28).

Why this distancing? Why all these words, which sound so harsh to our ears? Is it, perhaps, that even Jesus’ Mother has no extraordinary relationship with her divine Son? That she must now come to Him, not by her blood, but by His? Not even Mary, the bearer of God in the flesh, comes to the Father except through the Son. There is no exceptional grace for salvation granted to her. Humanly speaking, of course, there is no one closer to Him. Humanly speaking, she is blessed above all others, because God chose no one else from whom to take human flesh. He lived for nine months only in her womb. It is from her that He received His human DNA, and through her that He is descended of David, Moses, Abraham, and Adam. As Christ prays through the Psalmist: “Yet you are he who took me from the womb; you made me trust you at my mother’s breast. On you was I cast from my birth, and from my mother’s womb you have been my God” (Psalm 22:9-10, ESV). She is truly, as all Christians confess, the Mother of God. And now, when His hour has come, Jesus makes provision for His Mother. He provides for her well-being by His beloved Apostle, whether because He has no other physical relatives, or because His brothers do not yet believe in Him. And that is grace for this life, for both Mary and John. And yet, more is necessary for them, and for us.

The hour has come for Jesus to complete what was begun at His conception in the womb of Mary: to suffer under the weight of her sin, and John’s sin; your sin, and mine. It is just as Simeon said, in a strange blessing: he said to Mary of her Son, “See, this One is appointed for the falling and rising of many in Israel and for a Sign that is spoken against—and a sword will pierce through your own soul also—in order that the thoughts of many hearts might be revealed” (Luke 2:34-35). Here, before the Sign of her Son on the cross, Mary’s broken heart is healed by the blood that flows from the cross. Here, John receives a mother and Mary receives a son. Here John sees the love by which His Lord and friend loved him and the whole world. From that hour, John took Mary to his own things. Because from that hour, Jesus was related to them not only by blood and friendship, but as the sacrifice for their sin, which He finished in His own body, taken from His Mother. For Mary and for John; for you and for me, the blood and the water poured from the Lord’s side. “He who has seen it has borne witness, and his witness is true, and that one knows that he speaks truly, in order that you may believe” (John 19:35). We see here that Jesus has distanced Himself only to draw all people to Himself.

Mary was granted the grace to be the Mother of God, and John was granted the grace to bear witness to the glory of Christ on the cross; but it is all—His conception, birth, life, and death—all so that you will have the assurance of faith; all so that you may believe that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of God, and by believing, have life in His Name (John 20:31). As freely as Jesus gives John a mother and Mary a son, so freely the Father gives you His Son to whom you may cling in the face of your sin and your death. And freely He has given you the Church as your mother, through whom He nourishes you and feeds you with holy Word and holy Sacrament. And neither the Son nor the Mother will fail you, even unto death. You have Christ’s Word on it.

In the Name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.

– Pr. Timothy Winterstein, 4/19/11

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