Picture Jesus swollen and tattooed with bruises, stripped of his clothes, adorned with a crown of thorns, with pieces of metal pounded through his hands and feet. He hangs vulnerable and in pain in front of enemies and followers and his mother Mary. In the midst of this great suffering, Jesus looks down at his mother and says, “Woman, behold your son.”
These four simple words would change Mary’s life and her identity, forever – just like words changed the course of her life and her identity when she was a young teenager. Years before, the angel Gabriel appeared to Mary and said:
Behold, you will conceive in your womb and bear a son, and you shall name Him Jesus. He will be great and will be called the Son of the Most High; and the Lord God will give Him the throne of His father David; and He will reign over the house of Jacob forever, and His kingdom will have no end.
In the span of two sentences Mary learned that she would become the world’s first pregnant virgin, a miracle bearer, the mother of an eternal king.
What would it have been like to receive that announcement? As a teenager I thought about Mary’s life a lot. How did she not curl up in the fetal position when an angel appeared before her? How could she have absorbed, let alone believed Gabriel’s words? She was just a simple Jewish girl from an inconsequential town far from the pomp and circumstance of the capital city and the temple! Mary’s response astounds me. To all of the unexpected and inconceivable announcements in her life, Mary’s response was to treasure them and ponder them in her heart.
Flash forward three decades to the crucifixion when Mary now watches her beloved son, the long-prophesied Messiah, dying before her. He calls her “woman” not “mother” and I wonder if she had a moment of doubt. Is Jesus being cruel, asking his mother to look upon the pierced and bleeding body of her son? Did Mary experience pain at his words? Remember, it wasn’t too long ago that she and her sons went to visit Jesus in a village nearby. The crowd was so thick they had to call to him from outside the door of the home where he was teaching. One of the listeners said, “Behold, your mother and brothers are outside looking for you.” Unexpectedly, Jesus asks, “Who are my mother and my brothers?” and then he redefines ‘family’ to be those who do God’s will. Could Mary hear his comments from outside the door? If she did, was she confused or hurt by the distance her son seemed to create between them?
And now, witnessing her son’s death, hearing him call her “woman” – was Mary to lose every connection to her treasured firstborn? She’s already lost her husband Joseph and with him her security. Would this vulnerable woman now lose all consolation available to her on earth?
“Woman, behold your son.”
Jesus’ second word to Mary is our clue that something significant is about to happen. “Behold” is the language of good news, of angelic proclamations, of divine intervention. It appears again in Jesus’ next words to the disciple John, “Behold your mother.” These are not words of abandonment. This is a proclamation of justice, compassion and love. In two sentences, Jesus gives his anguished, vulnerable mother hope for a secure future and a family in whom she will belong.
Scripture says that from that very hour the disciple John took Mary, literally, “into his own.” Translators often supply the word “household” or “home.” I like to leave the phrase open-ended. I hear Jesus’ words and see John’s action as a divine embrace.
As a young woman Mary put her future, her womb and her motherhood into the hands of God. There is no greater intimacy. Through this humble woman the King of kings was born. Jesus uses some of his very last gasps of air to bless Mary’s servanthood to the will of his Father. With these words, we behold the son of God proclaiming this once-insignificant Jewess from Nazareth a woman to be treasured in the hearts of all.