Woman, behold your son…
Disciple, behold your mother…
By Yolanda Pierce, Ph.D.,
The Lenten season is almost at an end and I am left to reflect on one of the final moments Jesus experienced before his state-sanctioned execution. While in deep agony, Jesus relinquishes his filial duty to his mother. As the eldest son, her continued well-being was his responsibility. And so, into the hands of one of his disciples, Jesus commits the care of the woman he so dearly cherished. Not even the approach of death could diminish the love and respect he had for the one who had ushered him into the world.
This is Mary, the woman whose body and very being made the life of Jesus possible. This is Mary, whose blood was shed in the bearing of her child. But this is also a mother who would soon know the grief and sorrow of her son’s death at the hands of imperial authorities. This is a mother who would know the scorn of the world, those reveling in the death of her son. This is a mother who would be forever marked by the slaughter of her innocent child at the hands of unjust structures and systems.
This brief exchange reveals something even more profound. It establishes a kinship bond between Mary, the mother of Jesus, and the disciple to whom Jesus entrusted her care. It was not, as patriarchal culture would have demanded, the transfer of ownership of a woman from one male authority to another male authority. Instead, this move was a radical alteration of familial relationships. No longer would the ties of flesh and blood, or even marriage, be the only determinants for participation in a divine lineage. Mother and brother, sister and father, are no longer simply terms of biological destiny, but of right relationship. Kinship is transformed; family becomes a beloved community in which we are called to care for each other, without respect to blood ties. This is also the work of the Cross – a radical reordering and disruption of how we understand family.
How would our world look if we took this radical act at the foot of the cross seriously? How would we treat each other if we understood salvation as connected to being in right relationship with all our brothers and sisters? How would we change our politics and our policies if we imagined each person as our kin? How would our nation change if we respected each family structure as equally valuable? How would we live if we treated each member of our community as beloved in the sight of God?
That prisoner, freshly released from jail with no job skills, the victim of prison rape, functionally illiterate, with no place to go and no moral standing in the community – Behold, your son!
That woman, sleeping under the protection of the restaurant awning, with all her earthly belongings stuffed into a shopping bag, feet swollen from untreated diabetes, heart broken from abuse and neglect, hair matted and spirit cast down – Behold, your mother!
As this Lenten season approaches Holy Week, may we reflect on all that is necessary for people to be whole, healthy, and holy. The fullness of salvation involves filling hungry bellies and repairing broken bodies. The work of the Cross necessitates caring for the physical and tangible needs of our neighbors. On Calvary, Jesus pauses in his agony to simply say to two of the people he loved: “you need each other.” And a new family is born, even in the midst of sorrow and grief. May we behold the most vulnerable, the outcast, and the untouchables in our midst and claim them as our parents and siblings, loving them and loving ourselves into wholeness. We need each other.
Rev. Dr. Yolanda Pierce is the Director of the Center for Black Church Studies at Princeton Theological Seminary, where she is also an Associate Professor of Religion & Literature. She blogs at Reflections of an Afro-Christian Scholar and you can find her on Twitter @YNPierce.