Jaroslav Pelikan’s marvelous book Jesus Through the Centuries takes a sojourn through the vast and complex history of the interpretations of Jesus. Among the chapters is one entitled, “Christ Crucified,” in which he notes the disproportionate focus on Jesus’ crucifixion and resurrection in the gospel accounts. By even the most “generous” reading, he notes, we have at most information about less than a hundred days of Jesus’ ministry on earth, but of the last few days we have an hour by hour account.
Says Pelikan, “What was said of the thane of Cawdor in MacBeth was true pre-eminently of Jesus: ‘Nothing in his life/Became him like the leaving of it.’” It is clear that the gospel writers intend for us to focus our attention here, to the foot of the cross and the edge of the empty tomb. These are the founding images of the Christian faith, called the “Passion” of Jesus Christ.
Surprisingly little is said of the actual method of crucifixion. The most agonizing details of the death itself have been multiplied by morbid preaching, but the gospels pass over those details in near silence. They do not seem to be interested particularly in the pounding of the nails or biology of asphyxiation. The fact of his crucifixion seems enough.
We do, however, have seven short sayings and attributed to Jesus as he died on the cross. They have fascinated preachers through the centuries. Why, of all things he might have said, did he say these in his final hours? And if there was more, why were these the sayings remembered by the gospel writers? We will not know the answers to those questions on this side of heaven, but we can still listen in fascination.
After all, who can resist overhearing the last words of any dying person? Every child at a bedside strains to hear a word of love, reconciliation, summing up, or release from a dying parent. These words say some significant things to us if we have ears to hear them. They seem random at first, but have resonated in the Christian tradition:
John 19:26-27-“Son, behold your mother…”
John 19:28-29-“I thirst”
Luke 23:32-38-“Father, forgive them, for they do not know what they are doing.”
Mt. 27:45-54-“My God, My God, Why Have You Forsaken Me?”
Luke 23:39-43-“Today, You Shall Be with Me in Paradise”
Luke 23:44-46-“Into Thy Hands I commit my Spirit”
John 19:28-30-“It is Finished!”
While many of the words are about lofty things—surrender to God, eternal hope, abandonment, forgiveness, there are two that are very poignant for their simple earthiness and pathos. “I thirst” is a cry of a suffering human being. And “Son, behold thy mother,” was Jesus speaking to John, we assume (the disciple Jesus loved, John humbly refers to himself). He was asking him to care for his mother. As a last act on his earthly life, he turned to maternal love and the anxiety of leaving her. We assume Joseph perhaps has already died and she is now losing a son. John says that from that day on, the disciple took her into his own home.
Now I’ve been thinking about that again as the pain of George Floyd’s death has returned to us through a trial. And beyond the infamous words of not being able to breathe, it was the cry for his mother that undoes me. For all the anger, pain and sorrow of what happened last year, at the core of every bit of human brokenness is love and sorrow. In the anguish of an ordinary moment on a city street gone bad, something in me feels sadness above all else. All the pain in the world ends up as the separations from one another—life lost, families broken, neighbor love replaced by anger and distrust, and all that wells up.
No, “Son, behold thy mother” is not housekeeping. It is every bit as deep and profound as all the theologically lofty words that followed. Perhaps in this moment, too, it is this simple recognition of one another’s profound and vulnerable humanity, a child and mother, that has been lost in this virtual world of ours, only revealed in those moments of terrible unjust suffering. Don’t hurry past it. Take it in. It’s the only way back.