In the life of our Lord from first to last there is a strange blending of the majestic and the lowly. When a beam of His divine dignity is allowed to shine out and dazzle us, it is never long before there ensues some incident which reminds us that He is bone of our bone and flesh of our flesh; and, contrariwise, when He does anything which impressively brings home to us His humanity, there always follows something to remind us that He was greater than the sons of men. Thus at His birth He was laid in a manger; yet out on the pastures of Bethlehem angels sang His praise. Long afterwards He was asleep in the end of the boat, and so overcome with fatigue that He needed to be awakened to realise His danger; but immediately He rebuked the winds and the waves, and there was a great calm. When He saw the grief of Martha and Mary, |Jesus wept|; but only a few minutes afterwards He cried, |Lazarus, come forth,| and He was obeyed. So it was to the very last. In studying the Second Word from the cross we saw Him opening the gates of Paradise to the penitent thief; to-day the Third Word will show Him to us as the Son of a woman, concerned in His dying hour for her bodily sustenance.
The eye of Jesus, roving over the multitude whose component parts have been already described, lighted on His mother standing at the foot of the cross. In the words of the great mediaeval hymn, which is known to all by its opening words, Stabat mater, and from the fact that it has been set to music by such masters as Palestrina, Haydn and Rossini,
|Beside the cross in tears
The woeful mother stood,
Bent 'neath the weight of years,
And viewed His flowing blood;
Her mind with grief was torn,
Her strength was ebbing fast,
And through her heart forlorn
The sword of anguish passed.|
When she carried her Infant into the temple in the pride of young motherhood, the venerable Simeon foretold that a sword would pierce through her own soul also. Often perhaps had she wondered, in happy days, what this mysterious prediction might mean. But now she knew, for the sword was smiting her, stab after stab.
It is always hard for a mother to see her son die. She naturally expects him to lay her head in the grave. Especially is this the case with the first-born, the son of her strength. Jesus was only thirty-three, and Mary must have reached the age when a mother most of all leans for support on a strong and loving son.
Far worse, however, was the death He was dying -- the death of a criminal. Many mothers have had to suffer from the kind of death their children have died, when it has been in great agony or in otherwise distressing circumstances. But what mother's sufferings were ever equal to Mary's? There He hung before her eyes; but she was helpless. His wounds bled, but she dared not stanch them; His mouth was parched, but she could not moisten it. These outstretched arms used to clasp her neck; she used to fondle these pierced hands and feet. Ah! the nails pierced her as well as Him; the thorns round His brow were a circle of flame about her heart; the taunts flung at Him wounded her likewise.
But there was worse still -- the sword cut deeper. Had not the angel told her before His birth, |He shall be great, and shall be called the Son of the Highest, and the Lord God shall give unto Him the throne of His father David; and He shall reign over the house of Jacob for ever; and of His kingdom there shall be no end|? This greatness, this throne, this crown, this kingdom -- where were they? Once she had believed that she really was what the angel had called her -- the most blessed of women -- when she saw Him lying in her lap in His beautiful infancy, when the Shepherds and the Magi came to adore Him, and when Simeon and Anna recognised Him as the Messiah. After that ensued the long period of His obscurity in Nazareth. He was only the village carpenter; but she did not weary, for He was with her in their home; and she was confident that the greatness, the throne, the crown, the kingdom would all come in good time. At last His hour struck; and, casting down His tools and bidding her farewell, He went forth out of the little valley into the great world. It is all coming now, she said. Soon the news arrived of the words of grace and power He was speaking, of the multitudes following Him, of the nation being roused, and of the blind, the lame, the diseased, the bereaved who blessed Him for giving joy back to their lives, and blessed her who had borne Him. It is all coming to pass, she said. But then followed other news -- of reaction, of opposition, of persecution. Her heart sank within her. She could not stay where she was. She left Nazareth and went away trembling to see what had happened. And now she stands at the foot of His cross. He is dying; and the greatness, the glory, and the kingdom have never come.
What could it mean? Had the angel been a deceiver, and God's word a lie, and all the wonders of His childhood a dream? We know the explanation now: Jesus was about to climb a far loftier throne than Mary had ever imagined, and the cross was the only road to it. Before many weeks were over Mary was to understand this too; but meantime it must have been dark as Egypt to her, and her heart must have been sorrowful even unto death. The sword had pierced very deep.
There were other women with Mary beneath the cross -- two of them Marys, like herself. As an ancient father has said, the weaker sex on this occasion proved itself the stronger. When the apostles had forsaken their Master and fled, these women were true to the last. Perhaps, indeed, their sex protected them. Women can venture into some places where men dare not go; and this is a talent which many women have used for rendering services to the Saviour which men could not have performed.
But there was one there who had not this protection, and who in venturing so near must have taken his life in his hand. St. John, I suppose, is included with the rest of the apostles in the sad statement that they all forsook their Master and fled. But, if so, his panic can only have lasted a moment. He was present at the very commencement of the trial; and here he still is with his Master at the last -- the only one of all the Twelve. Perhaps, indeed, the acquaintance with the high-priest, which availed him to get into the palace where the trial took place, may still have operated in his favour. But it was most of all his greater devotion that brought him to his Master's side. He who had leaned on His breast could not stay away, whatever might be the danger. And he had his reward; for he was permitted to render a last service to Jesus amidst His agony, and he received from Him a token of confidence which by a heart like his must have been felt to be an unspeakable privilege and honour.
It is most of all, however, with the impression made by the situation on Jesus Himself that we wish to acquaint ourselves.
He looked on His mother; and it was with an unpreoccupied eye, that was able to disengage its attention from every other object by which it was solicited. He was suffering at the time an extremity of pain which might have made Him insensible to everything beyond Himself. Or, if He had composure enough to think, a dying man has many things to reflect upon within his own mind. Christ, we know, had a whole world of interests to attend to; for now He was engaged in a final wrestle with the problem to which His whole life had been devoted. The prayer on behalf of His enemies does not surprise us so much, for it may be said to have been part of His office to intercede for sinners; nor His address to the penitent thief, for this also was quite in harmony with His work as the Saviour. But we do wonder that in such an hour He had leisure to attend to a domestic detail of ordinary life. Men who have been engaged in philanthropic and reformatory schemes have not infrequently been unmindful of the claims of their own families; and they have excused themselves, or excuse has been made for them, on the ground that the public interest predominated over the rights of their relatives. Now and then Jesus Himself spoke as if He took this view: He would not allow His plans to be interfered with even by His mother. But now He showed that, though He could not but refuse her unjust interference, He had never for a moment forgotten her just claims or her true interests. In spite of His greatness and in spite of His work, He still remained Mary's Son and bore to her an undying affection.
The words He spoke were, indeed, few; but they completely covered the case. Every word He uttered in that position was with great pain; therefore He could not say much. Besides, their very fewness imparted to them a kind of judicial dignity; as has been said, this was Christ's last will and testament. To His mother He said, |Woman, behold thy son,| indicating St. John with His eyes; and to the disciple He merely said, |Behold thy mother.| It was simple, yet comprehensive; a plain, almost legal direction, and yet overflowing with love to both Mary and John.
It is supposed that Joseph, the husband of the Virgin, had died before our Lord's public career began, and that in Nazareth the weight of the household had fallen on the shoulders of Jesus. No doubt, during His years of preaching, He would tenderly care for His mother. But now He too was leaving her, and the widow would be without support. It was for this He had to provide.
He had no money to leave her; His earthly all, when He was crucified, consisted of the clothes He wore; and these fell to the soldiers. But it is one of the privileges of those who, though they may be poor themselves, make many rich with the gifts of truth, that they thereby win friends who are proud and eager to serve them or theirs. In committing His mother to St. John Jesus knew that the charge would be accepted not as a burden but a gift.
Why she did not go to the home of one of her other sons it is impossible to say. They were not yet believers, though soon afterwards they became so; but there may have been other reasons also, to us unknown.
At all events, it is easy to see how kind and considerate was the selection of St. John for this office. There are indications in the Gospels that St. John was wealthier, or at least more comfortable in his circumstances, than the rest of the Apostles; and this may have weighed with Jesus: He would not send His mother where she would feel herself to be a burden. It is highly probable also that St. John was unmarried. But there were deeper reasons. There was no arm on which His mother could lean so confidently as that of him who had leaned on her Son's breast. St. Peter, with his hot temper and rough fisherman's ways, would not have been nearly so eligible a choice. John and Mary were kindred spirits. They were especially one in their intense affection for Jesus. They would never tire of speaking to one another about Him. He honoured both of them in each other's eyes by giving them to one another in this way. If He gave Mary a great gift in giving her St. John for a son, He gave him no less a gift by giving him such a mother; for Mary could not but be an ornament to any home. Besides, did He not make St. John in a quite peculiar sense His own brother by substituting him in His own stead as the son of Mary?
The Evangelist says that from that hour John took her to his own home. Many have understood this to mean that he at once gently withdrew her from the spot, that she should not be agitated by seeing the death-throes of her Son, though he himself returned to Calvary. It is said by tradition that they lived together twelve years in Jerusalem, and that he refused to leave the city, even for the purpose of preaching the gospel, as long as Mary survived. Only after her death did he depart on those missionary travels which landed him in Ephesus and its neighbourhood, with which his later history is connected.
It is not difficult to read the lesson of this touching scene. From the pulpit of His cross Jesus preaches to all ages a sermon on the fifth commandment.
The heart of the mother of Jesus was pierced with a sword on account of His sufferings. It was a sharp weapon; but Mary had one thing on which to steady up her soul; it kept her calm even in the wildest moment of her grief -- she knew He was innocent. He had always been pure, noble and good; she could be proud of Him even when they were crucifying Him. Many a mother's heart is pierced with anguish on account of a son's illness, or misfortunes, or early death; but she can bear it if she is not pierced with the poisoned sword. What is that? It is when she has to be ashamed of her child -- when he is brought to ruin by his own misdeeds. This is a sorrow far worse than death.
How beautiful it is to see a mother wearing as her chief ornament the good name and the honourable success of a son! You who still have a mother or a father, let this be to you both a spur to exertion and a talisman against temptation. To some is accorded the rarer privilege of being able to support their parents in old age. And surely there is no sweeter memory in the world than the recollection of having been allowed to do this. |If any widow have children or nephews, let them learn first to show piety at home and to requite their parents; for that is good and acceptable before God. . . . But if any provide not for his own, and specially for those of his own house, he hath denied the faith, and is worse than an infidel.|
But this sermon, delivered from the pulpit of the cross, has a wider range. It informs us that our Saviour has a concern for our temporal as well as for our eternal interests. Even on the cross, where He was expiating the sin of the world, He was thinking of the comfort of His widowed mother. Let the needy and the deserted take courage from this, and cast all their care upon Him, for He careth for them. It is often an astonishment to see how widows especially are helped through. When they are left, with perhaps a number of little children, it seems incomprehensible how they can get on. Yet not infrequently their families turn out better than those where the father has been spared. One reason is, perhaps, that their children feel from the first that they must take a share of the responsibility, and this makes men and women of them. But the chief reason undoubtedly is that God fulfils His own promise to be a Father to the fatherless and a Husband to the widow, and that they have not been forgotten by Him who in the hour of His absorbing agony remembered Mary.
|Woman, behold thy son . . . Behold thy mother.|
It is not certain whether John xix.25 describes three women or four. Is the second Salome, John's mother?
|Woman| may mean sadly (proleptically), |Thou hast no son now.|
1 Tim. v.6, 8.