Mary at the Cross

Along with Gabriel’s Annunciation to Mary (Luke 1:26–38), her Visitation to Elizabeth (1:39–56), and Jesus’ birth and infancy (2:7, 16; Matthew 2:11), one other biblical scene depicting the mother of Jesus is especially prominent in the history of Christian art: Jesus’ death on the cross (John 19:25–27).

Alone among the evangelists, it is John who informs us that “standing by the cross of Jesus were his mother and his mother’s sister, Mary the wife of Clopas, and Mary Magdalene. When Jesus saw his mother and the disciple whom he loved standing nearby, he said to his mother, ‘Woman, behold, your son!’ Then he said to the disciple, ‘Behold, your mother!’ And from that hour the disciple took her to his own home” (ESV).

Tender meditations

Over the centuries this scene of immense tenderness immediately preceding the death of Jesus has inspired, not only many Byzantine ikons, works of statuary beyond count, and numerous paintings in every generation, but also a wealth of hymns penned and sung by Christians in both East and West. The poetry and imagery of these diverse hymns share the common purpose of bringing the Christian imagination into a vivid awareness of the pain and dereliction of Jesus’ mother standing by his cross, as he entrusts her to the care of “the disciple whom he loved.”

What has prompted Christians to think so long and lovingly on this theme?

The emotional impulse to dwell on the sorrow of Jesus’ mother at the foot of the Cross had its root in the very love symbolized by the Cross. Simply put, Jesus died because he loved us. And such sacrificial love elicited a responding love from the believing heart. Christian emotional response to the sufferings of Jesus, then, has traditionally been deep and abiding. We sense this in the devout tenderness of Paul’s assertion, “I have been crucified with Christ. It is no longer I who live, but Christ who lives in me. And the life I now live in the flesh I live by faith in the Son of God, wholoved me and gave himself for me” (Gal. 2:20 ESV). Paul was one of the first of those Christians who, from the very beginning, have demonstrated a sustained, overwhelming disposition to “survey the wondrous Cross where the young Prince of Glory died.”

Christians have always known, of course, that the victory of the Cross is inseparable from the Lord’s Resurrection. They have never been in doubt that Jesus was “raised for our justification.” Yet, their warmest sentiments have traditionally been directed to the harsher fact that He “was delivered up for our offenses” (Romans 4:25). From the beginning, that is to say, they were disposed to dwell in imagination, distress, and deep empathy on the thought of what Jesus endured on their behalf. Even his wounds were treasured, because He “Himself bore our sins in His own body on the tree, that we, having died to sin, might live for righteousness—by whose stripes you were healed” (1 Peter 2:24).

Entering the sorrowful scene

What did this sort of reaction look like in the early church? We have an answer from the eyewitness account of the nun Egeria, a pilgrim from Gaul who recorded her experience of the Good Friday services in Jerusalem probably held around 381–4:

"The entire time from the sixth to the ninth hour is occupied by public readings. They all concern the things that Jesus suffered; first they have the psalms on this theme, then the Apostolic Epistles and Acts which deal with it, and finally the passages from the Gospels. In this way they read the prophecies about what the Lord was to suffer, and then the Gospels about what He did suffer. Thus do they continue the readings and hymns from the sixth to the ninth hour, showing to all the people by the witness of the Gospels and the writings of the Apostles that the Lord actually suffered everything the prophets had foretold. They teach the people, then, for these three hours, that nothing which took place had not been foretold, and all that was foretold was completely fulfilled. Dispersed among these readings are prayers, all fitting to the day. It is impressive to see the way all the people are moved by these readings, and how they mourn. You could hardly believe how every single one of them weeps during those three hours, old and young together, because of the way the Lord suffered for us” (The Travels of Egeria, 37).

If such were their own emotions when they pondered the price of their salvation, it is no wonder that Christians were also disposed to take note of the internal suffering of Jesus’ mother. When they found themselves in devout imagination at the foot of the Cross, it was impossible that they would not observe the mourning mother who stood there with them. If they themselves wept (for three hours, said Egeria!) at the vivid remembrance of Jesus’ suffering, how could they not take note of the sorrows of Mary? In any case, it is an historical fact that they did. The history of Christian art testifies to the fact in great abundance. Among the four canonical evangelists, John’s Gospel dominates traditional portrayals of the scene on Calvary. When paintings and statuary portray sorrowing figures gathered at the foot of the Cross, these figures are invariably the ones listed in John’s Gospel, which alone records the presence of Jesus’ mother and “the disciple whom Jesus loved.”

"… stood the mother, weeping”

John’s account also dominates the hymns both East and West that deal with the crucifixion. And so here, too, Mary is prominent. Compared to the East, Western hymnody on the theme of Mary’s sorrow at the sufferings of Jesus is sparse, with the one notable exception being the immensely popular Stabat Mater. It is nearly impossible to exaggerate the fervor and devotion this hymn has inspired since it was first sung in the 14th century.

Composed in three-line segments (terza rima), the hymn establishes its theme in the first of its nineteen stanzas: Stabat Mater dolorosa/ Juxta crucem lacrimosa/ Dum pendebat Filius, commonly paraphrased as “At the cross her station keeping/ Stood the mournful mother weeping/ Close to Jesus to the last.” Through the subsequent stanzas the hymn keeps repeating the same theme, meditating on the sword that Simeon predicted would pierce the heart of Mary. The hymn then beseeches Mary herself, “Let me share with thee his pain/ Who for all my sins was slain/ Who for me in torments died.” As though to identify its singers with that beloved disciple who stood beside her at the cross, the hymn addresses Mary as “mother.”

We observe in these lines the same impulses Egeria had described 1,000 years earlier: a strong, emotive appreciation of Christ’s love as he died in torment and a craving to be united to that love ("let me share") in personal devotion. This is how Christians traditionally interpreted Paul’s assertion, “I have been crucified with Christ. It is no longer I who live, but Christ who lives in me.”

Although its ascription to the leader of the strict Franciscan “Spirituals,” Jacopone ("Crazy Jim") da Todi (1230?–1306?), is dubious, the Stabat Mater does seem to have been particularly popular among his fellow Franciscans. We find it in several missals (Mass books) of the 14th century, and in 1727 the hymn appears for the first time in the Roman Breviary (the daily prayerbook for monks and clerics), where it is assigned to a special liturgical feast instituted at Rome that year, The Feast of Mary’s “Seven Sorrows.”

Outside of that limited liturgical usage, the Stabat Mater is perhaps more often sung as part of the popular practice of the Way of the Cross, a devotional service that traces the path of Jesus’ sufferings through fourteen “stations” (stopping places) from Pilate’s tribunal all the way to Jesus’ grave. Following the prayers and meditations associated with each of these “stations,” it has long been customary to sing a stanza or so of the Stabat Mater. Indeed, since that hymn was removed from the Roman Mass by the liturgical reforms of Vatican II, it is likely that many Catholics do not often sing it any more outside of the Way of the Cross.

Hymns of the Christian East also dwell tenderly on Mary’s presence at the foot of the cross. In the East, however, this image of Mary beside the cross is usually woven into the larger story of the Lord’s passion, rather than—as in the West—isolated in individual hymns. Probably the best examples of this thematic weaving are to be found in the “Lamentations” sung in the Byzantine rite of Matins (morning prayer) for Holy Saturday, though by long custom it is invariably chanted on the night of Good Friday. In this lengthy liturgical service (lasting three hours and more in an average Orthodox congregation), these Lamentations set the tone.

Although this lengthy hymn (185 stanzas!) does not directly address the mother of Jesus, it repeatedly describes her sorrow, dwelling on her wrenching empathy with the sufferings of her Son. We find such lines as “Thy virgin mother mourned, sighing ‘Woe is me, O Light of the world! Woe is me, mine Illumination! O most beloved Jesus,’” and “Thy pure mother, O Savior, in thy death lamented with thee mourning,” and “The virgin mother, the bride of God, cried out: ‘Who will give me the water for tears, that I may weep for my sweet Jesus.’”

The Hour, the Glory, and the Woman

Such riches of music and art, all inspired by three little verses in the Gospel according to John. What, we may ask, was in John’s own mind as he wrote about Mary at the cross of her son?

Let us step back to another scene near the beginning of John’s gospel; namely, the wedding feast of Cana (John 2:1–12). These two portrayals, both found only in John among the evangelists, have several things in common. First, Mary does not appear in John’s Gospel outside of these two places. Second, in both places she is called only “the mother of Jesus” and never named. Third, in each instance Jesus addresses his mother as “Woman” (gyne). Fourth, in both cases a “new family” is formed—in the first scene by the wedding itself, and in the second scene by a kind of adoption, in which the beloved disciple “took her to his own home.”

John’s “mother of Jesus” does play an important part near the beginning of his account of the Lord’s ministry, in “the first of his signs,” wherein he “manifested his glory” at Cana (John 2:11). In the dialogue leading up to this manifestation, Jesus seems at first to bridle at his mother’s hint that he relieve the shortage of wine at the wedding feast. He explains to her, “My hour has not yet come” (2:4). These words closely tie this scene at Cana to the scene at the cross later on. When the “hour” of the passion does finally come, it will once again be in reference to the manifestation of Jesus’ glory: “Father, the hour has come. Glorify your Son, that your Son may also glorify you” (John 17:1). John uses similar language of Jesus’ mother, telling us that it was “from that hour the disciple took her to his own home” (19:27). When the hour arrives for the King to be identified upon the throne of the cross (19:19), John is the only one of the evangelists to speak of the King’s mother (p. 38) standing beside it (19:26).

Another feature linking John’s depictions of Cana and the cross is the word “woman,” by which Jesus addresses his mother in both places. Though this bare expression strikes the modern ear as impolite, perhaps even harsh, it was in fact a formal and decorous way for women to be addressed in biblical times (see, for example,Matthew 15:28; Luke 13:12; John 4:21; 8:10; 20:13).

Mary the symbol of the church

In John’s Gospel the word “woman,” gyne, seems especially significant. Besides at Cana and at the Cross, the Lord elsewhere uses this same word “woman” to portray the coming “hour” of His own passion: “When a woman is giving birth, she has sorrow because her hour has come, but when she has delivered the baby, she no longer remembers the anguish, for joy that a human being has been born into the world” (John 16:21 ESV). This sorrow of the childbearing “woman” is likened to the sorrow experienced by the disciples of Jesus at his coming passion: “I say to you, you will weep and lament, but the world will rejoice. … but I will see you again and your hearts will rejoice, and no one will take your joy from you” (16:20, 22 ESV). The “woman” facing the hour of the Lord’s passion, then, is identified with the Messianic congregation itself, rather as we find in chapter 12 of the Book of Revelation.

If the community of faith can symbolize the mother of the Messiah, then the physical mother of the Messiah can certainly symbolize the community of faith. Indeed, this symbolic development is hardly surprising. The mother of Jesus, after all, is portrayed in much of the New Testament as the model Christian. According to Luke, she “kept all these things and pondered them in her heart” (Luke 2:19 NKJV). She declared herself “the maidservant of the Lord,” eager for God’s will to be accomplished in her life (1:38 NKJV). Indeed, in the whole New Testament she is the first to speak of “God my Savior” (1:47). If all Christians feel in their depths the love of Christ poured out for them upon the Cross, would this not be supremely true of his mother who stood in faith beside it?

Consequently, John places the mother of Jesus within the company of Christian believers, herself even serving as a sign and symbol of that community. Luke, we recall, portrays Mary in the midst of the church in the upper room, awaiting the coming of the Holy Spirit (Acts 1:14). John for his part depicts her within that even smaller church gathered beside the cross to bear witness to the Lord’s redemptive death, clinging there to the “disciple whom Jesus loved” and who now takes her into his own home. Together they both bear witness as Jesus, “bowing his head, handed over the Spirit” (paredoken to Pneuma—19:30).

That scene has haunted generations of believers since the church’s birth. Through song and art, worshippers have entered the deep sorrow of Mary and the beloved disciple, and bathed with them in the blood and water that flow forever from his sacred side. CH

By Patrick Henry Reardon

[Christian History originally published this article in Christian History Issue #83 in 2004]

Patrick Henry Reardon is a senior editor of Touchstone: A Journal of Mere Christianity (www.touchstonemag.com).
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