Betty Jarrett reflects on Our Lady’s emotions as she stood by the Cross — fear, helplessness, but above all, love
Anyone hoping for a theological treatise this afternoon is really in for a disappointment, or perhaps there may be relief that this will be nothing of the sort! After more than twenty years of working as a psychotherapist with those in pain and distress, I have become acutely aware of some of the feelings evoked by being at the foot of the cross. That very phrase ‘being at the foot of the cross’ trips lightly off the tongue and we almost take it for granted and treat it superficially. I am going to look more deeply at some of the feelings which may have been evoked in Our Lady as she stood watching her son die. Some of those feelings may ring true for us and may be appropriate in some of the situations in which we find ourselves today, whether personally or within the Church.
Imagine that we are standing at the foot of Our Lord’s cross some two thousand years ago. It is not some beautiful renaissance painting, nor a medieval rood screen. It is the rubbish tip outside Jerusalem. Think for a moment about pictures we see on news broadcasts of the beggars scavenging among the debris in places like Cairo and I do not suppose there will be much difference. The assault on our senses would be horrific. Palestine is a hot country and the stench of rotting rubbish and worse would be truly offensive. There would probably be feral dogs running around scavenging food. The noise would be great. There would be the actual sounds of crucifixion, hammering in the nails and the shouting instructions.
There is a very moving picture in the art gallery in Bergamo in Northern Italy of Our Lord sitting in contemplation on the cross, which is lying on the ground, prior to being raised up. The screams of those being crucified would have been unbearable. There would probably be a huge crowd. We know from our own country’s history that public executions brought out the crowds. What a noise and hubbub. There in the midst of it all stands Our Lady and the other two Marys with the beloved disciple, a still silent reflective group.
We may well wonder why this group is there. After a]1 it would seem that none of the other disciples turned up. Maybe they had, at that point, scattered in fear. The three Marys and John would seem to be there simply because they loved Jesus. The love of a mother for her child whatever he or she has done or become is something amazing. The story of the woman caught in the siege in Nairobi a few months ago caught the imagination of the world as she lay on top of her children to protect them from the gunmen. Her safety did not matter. Her children were to be protected. The overwhelming love Our Lady had for her son impelled her to be there. She was helpless in the face of the Jewish crowds. There was nothing she could do but watch.
It is such a normal activity to gather at the side of someone suffering. It is particularly painful for a mother at the side of her child. Often we feel helpless as we watch loved ones suffer and matters seem to be out of our hands. To watch a child dying as Our Lady did is perhaps the most painful experience for any parent. Things are in the wrong order our children bury us. However, Our Lady was not sitting beside a bed watching a child die of a tragic disease. This was a mother watching her son dying painfully, executed as a common criminal.
Difficult to understand
So then, Our Lady would have been puzzled. From the moment she said `Be it unto me according to Thy word’ she had lived in the knowledge that her son was to be the ‘Son of The Most High and would be given the throne of his ancestor David: What that really means is very difficult to understand, particularly for a young woman in Palestine some two thousand years ago. For all of his life, Jesus had done unexpected things. He had run off in the temple when he was twelve to talk to those in power. He turned water into wine at a wedding, again with Our Lady watching and telling those in authority to do whatever he tells them.
His healing, teaching and preaching work throughout the region must have left Our Lady wondering just what this was all about. She held on to the promises made to her by the Angel at Jesus’ conception. Now it must have seemed like the end of everything. A sword had pierced Our Lady’s heart.
Bound up in all these emotions must have been fear. As I said earlier, we are told that there were j ust the three Marys and John standing at the foot of the cross. None of the others had come to see what was happening as far as we know. Later in the story we are told that the disciples were in a locked room for fear of the Jews. The disciples must have worried that the same fate would befall them as had happened to their Master. Peter’s denial on the night of Jesus’ arrest is testament to this. It must have taken great courage to remain there.
These emotions of love, bewilderment and fear must seem familiar to anyone standing at the foot of a cross. It is a hard place to be for anyone. We are helpless to change anything. There is part of us which feels that we would take the place of the other if only we could. The strain and agony of those watching and praying is intense, and often the cry is `Where is God in all this?’
To some of us within the Church of England at the moment, it must feel that we are watching a loved one suffer. Some parts of the church seem unrecognizable and perhaps we feel that there is nothing that we can do to help. The world around is beset with consumerism, individualism, divisions between rich and poor, haves and have nots. There are wars and rumours of wars. This appears to be a collection of things closely resembling an allegorical rubbish tip. The body of Christ, his Church is pilloried, mocked and derided. Internally the Church is ‘By Schisms rent asunder, by heresies distressed’ and perhaps one could add by anomalies perplexed. We are in that interesting place standing at the foot of the cross and being members of the Body of Christ. So how do we react? There must surely be a temptation to behave like the disciples, to find a convenient upper room, run away and lock oneself in it. Even if we do not lock ourselves away physically, we may do emotionally and intellectually by refusing to join in discussion and debate, and refusing to get our hands dirty in the messy world.
Love for all humanity
There is, however another way. No matter what fears and doubts Our Lady had she went on standing at the foot of the cross. She went on standing there because of the love she had for her Son. Love is the undergirding of the whole story of Holy Week and Easter. God so loved the world that he gave us his Son. Jesus loved us so much that he was willing to face crucifixion and death. In his dying moments on the cross, his love was shown. As we hear in the very familiar story from St John’s Gospel, Our Lord says, `Woman, here is your Son’. Then he says to the disciple, ‘Here is your Mother’.
There are many interpretations of this passage, depending on which commentary is being read. It seems to me, though, that Our Lord was giving our care into the hands of his Mother. She becomes a symbol of the Church and John symbolic of all those who are members of that church. Our Lord’s care and love for all humanity shines forth in those last conscious moments on the cross. Jesus takes all the evil which this world can throw at him but does not retaliate. His response is love.
St Paul in his letter to the Romans, sums it all up as he says ‘Who will separate us from the love of Christ?’ It is not a simple namby-pamby kind of love. It is the love which is never afraid to challenge and confront in the face of wrong-doing. It is the challenging of the moneylenders or the courage to heal on the Sabbath. It is also the love shown supremely by Our Lady. This is the tough love of a parent watching her child grow and develop in ways over which she has little influence and yet being alongside whatever happens. God loves us totally and unconditionally. Perhaps you and I are being called to love in that way. We sometimes stand in puzzlement when confronted by situations which we do not understand. You and I may wonder where God is in all this. We remember Our Lady standing at the foot of the cross in similar distress and puzzlement but like here we do not stop loving.
There is, however, a difference for us. We all know how the story continued. For Our Lady and the disciples the Crucifixion must have seemed like the end of everything. There had been clues and hints and prophesies about what might happen, but no one had imagined the Resurrection appearances and the coming of the Holy Spirit. You and I now have more hints and clues and live in a world which has been given hope and trust.
For those first disciples, experiencing the risen Christ was often unexpected, on the road to Emmaus, in the Upper Room, or on the lakeside. The disciples were not in control of the situation. Things happened as they happened. We so often think we can predict the end of the story. We want to be in control, but God has other ideas. We see resurrection after the death of a child which leads to the founding of a charity to help others suffering still-birth or neonatal death. It is there in the broken and wounded soul who after years of battling with an eating disorder recovers and becomes a carer and befriender. Seeds of resurrection are sown and grow in the most unpredictable ways.
We are aware of Resurrection. We grasp at least something of the way in which the triumph of the cross might be understood in the light of Easter Day. This insight gives us the courage to stand with Mary and John at the foot of the cross. It is right sometimes to feel puzzled and scared and worried about what is happening. It is important to recognize the love we have for Our Lord — that is what keeps us there. At the same time we must also be aware that God is in control and will bring about his kingdom of justice, love and peace in his way and not in ours. It would have been so easy for the disciples and Our Lady to become bitter and introverted but they were open to the work of the Holy Spirit which invigorated and renewed them. That same spirit is within all of us. As with Our Lady and the disciples it will give us courage to face whatever the world throws at us. As we stand at the foot of the cross we can recall the words of St Paul,
`For I am convinced that neither death nor life, nor angels, nor rulers, nor things present, nor things to come, nor powers, nor height nor depth nor anything else in all creation will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus Our Lord:
What an encouragement that is.