John 19:26-27 reports, “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.” I have always read this as Jesus’ act of compassion toward His mother. In this, He “loves his mother and father” as we are commanded in Exodus 20:12. Women in that period were left particularly vulnerable after the death of their husbands and male children. We see this in Naomi’s story in Ruth 1:6-7 and we can even see this in our own culture. Not that women are or ever were incapable of protecting and providing for themselves—but many women adjust to a different division of household labor after the death of their spouse. It is easy for us to see this scene. Isn’t it often the case when people approach their death they want to be surrounded by their family and loved ones? Jesus was no different and has utmost compassion for His mother losing her child in such a tragic, humiliating, and unjust way. When my own father approached his death, he charged us to look after his elderly mother. In this small human moment, we can see Jesus’ love for His mother.
Good Friday was not the first Mother’s Day. But there is something more here. As we see in the gospels, Luke 2 and Matthew 12, Jesus is less than sentimental about his earthly parents. We see this in Luke 2:41-52 when the boy Jesus went missing for three days. After his parents find him, he doesn’t apologize. He says, “Why were you looking for me? Did you not know that I must be in my father’s house?” (Luke 2:49) We also get this odd scene in Matthew 12 when Jesus’ mother and siblings want to talk him while he is teaching and healing. Jesus does not respond with his usual kindness and compassion. Instead he rebukes them and says, “Who is my mother and who are my brothers?” He stretches out his hands and says, “Here are my mothers and brothers. For whoever does the will of my Father in heaven is my brother and sister and mother.” (Matthew 12:48-50) Jesus’ words and actions in the Gospel narrative point make his actions at the cross strange and leads me to believe Christ invites us to a bigger sense of family beyond our flesh and blood. In John 14, Jesus expands on his speech to his parents in Luke 2:49. For he will be gone for three days—and return His Father’s house. As Jesus prepares Himself and his disciples for his death a note in John 13 reveals the very heart of Jesus. John reports, “Now before the Feast of the Passover, when Jesus knew His hour had come to depart out of the world to the Father, having loved his own who were in the world, he loved them to the end.” In this love and perhaps learning from his parent’s distress in Luke 2:28, instead of leaving us in the anxiety of His death, he speaks to us words of comfort in John 14. He says, “Let not your heart be troubled. Believe in God and also in me. In my Father’s house are many rooms. If it were not so, I would have told you that I go to prepare a place for you? And if I go and prepare a place for you, I will come again and will take you to Myself that where I am, you may be also.” (John 14:1-3) Jesus continues and explains to the disciples the promise of the Holy Spirit that will live and dwell in them forever. (John 14:15-17)
A verse from this discourse that has always stood out to me is John 14:18. The pastor at my father’s funeral preached on this text. As I am sitting graveside staring down into my father’s tomb, Jesus said through this pastor, “I will not orphan you.” I felt abandoned by God. For six months, I watched my father suffer and his body waste away from cancer. I prayed for healing and comfort that never came. I heard nothing but silence from God until the day of my father’s funeral. Though I lost a parent, though my dad would not continue to be with me– I heard God clearly and distinctly: “I will not orphan you.” I am not without a father because God is my Father. This is not just a trite way to make me feel better. But a way to demonstrate the point of Jesus’ departing words to the disciples. Jesus comforts His disciples by offering them a deeper, richer relationship with Him than their earthly relationship.
In John 19:26-27, Jesus doesn’t merely provide his mother a new son to replace him. A theologian writes this, “While the principalities and powers believe they are tearing his family apart, Jesus is quietly putting it together again: this mother with this son, this past with this future. Although his enemies will succeed in killing him, he will leave no orphans behind. At the foot of the cross, the mother of the old becomes the mother of the new. The beloved disciple becomes the new beloved son.” Christ, by this action creates a new community of adopted sons, daughters, mothers and fathers.
The Church Fathers have traditionally read John 19:26-27 as the establishment of the church. Cyprian of Carthage (210-258) wrote, “He can no longer have God as His Father, who has not the Church for His mother.” Historically, the church has been seen as a mother figure that nurtures us with spiritual food in faith. At the cross, Christ established the institution of the Church. But even more so, He invites us into a larger relationship with Himself in the Trinity. We’re called in the next chapter of John, to abide in this relationship with the Father through the Son in the Holy Spirit. (John 15:1-11) And as we abide with Christ and with others who abide in Christ, we live as a new church family. Families fight. Families don’t always agree—the history of the church testifies to this. But together, beyond denomination, as one in Christ Jesus we labor together to bring about the Kingdom of God in our cities and neighborhoods.
Mother’s Day and Father’s Day and all family gatherings are still difficult even five years after the death of my father. There is and always will be a missing seat at my table. Paul calls us to live as one body—with Christ at our head. Like our body, the whole body suffers if we so much as stub our toe. If this holiday is hard for you, if you have lost your mother, your relationship to your mother is strained or if the chair you’re missing at the table is a high chair, Christ points to the Church and says, “Behold, your mother.” The loving arms of the Church weep with you. Even if this holiday is not difficult for you, Christ points to the hurting around you and says, “Behold your son.” To the fatherless and the motherless, we are called as the Church to be fathers and mothers. You are not orphaned. You are not childless. Christ charges all of us to, “Behold, your mother and your sons.”