The Beatles had a song called I Saw Her Standing There and it describes a sudden awareness and the transformation that accompanied it.
This year as I contemplated the Crucifixion, I “saw her standing there” – in this case, Mary, the Mother of Jesus.
The ancient Latin term Stabat Mater literally means “mother standing there” or “mother staying put” and for me the image of Mary at the Cross stood out and got my attention and touched my heart in a powerful way.
The ancient hymn Stabat Mater (which we just sang) is a meditation on the suffering of Mary during Christ’s crucifixion. The Stabat Mater theme is so compelling it has been set to music by numerous famous composers. This mother who refuses to move, who remains present, is most compelling indeed.
There were different responses to Jesus’ arrest and execution. Most of his followers – the ones who had professed their absolute loyalty – the ones who said they loved him – all ran away. Judas took the money and ran out. Peter, despite his promises, when faced with the possibility of being pulled in to Christ’s suffering, literally denied who he was. Another disciple was so scared, the Gospel of Mark describes him as literally running out of his own clothes to get away. Others not only abandoned Jesus in the moment, but left Jerusalem and started back to where they came from. I have seen people react this way so many times in the face of suffering and death that it no longer surprises or even frustrates me. Most of us will do anything to avoid being singled out or facing mortality, whether that of others or our own. So we avoid, we deny, we run away.
But some stayed, some remained present to everything that happened, even when it was difficult and even dangerous to be there. And in the forefront was Mary, the mother of Jesus.
The Book of Lamentations asks: “Is there any sorrow like my sorrow?” We typically and rightly focus on the image of the crucified man, the one on the cross in the centre of the picture, but you could say there was also a crucified woman, as we consider Mary suffering her own crucifixion as she stood there and watched her son die a slow and agonizing death, helpless to intervene. How could she not feel like she was also there on the Cross with her beloved child?
The saying goes that we should never have to bury our children. On this dark day, we stand at the cross in solidarity with all those women, like Mary herself, who had to stand by as her child suffered, who had to let go of someone who was an integral part of her own being, and had to place her dead child in the earth.
St Paul would later say “nothing shall separate us from the love of God.” Where do we get ideas like that? Maybe from our mothers, particularly from mothers like Mary.
The Gospels all chose to make it known to future readers that women were front and centre in this critical, crucial moment, very close to the heart of God in suffering.
On Good Friday that sword that Mary had been warned about pierced her heart. I wonder: how much did she know or believe about the nature of this man who had been her son? It is terrible enough to lose your son, but she raised him, so no one knew better what he was about than she did. If we assume that she believed that he was meant to be something special, someone meant to make a great difference in the world, the One, and then witnessed him being ridiculed, abused and executed in that way must have been overwhelming. For her to see religious leaders (“men of God”) spitting at him and taunting him, and people repeatedly striking him in the face; to stand by as the soldiers not only nailed him to the cross but stripped off all his clothing and then gambled for it . . . it’s traumatic just to think about what she must have gone through.
The inclination to reach out to him, to touch him, and hold him, and comfort him, was no doubt denied her, and must have been excruciating for her as his mother, as the Roman guard stood by to ensure no interference with the process of dying. The Romans were very orderly, after all – there was a proper way to do these things that had to be observed.
A great deal of pastoral care and indeed of spiritual life is simply a choice to stay put, not to run away, and to be present to grief, fear, and deep disillusionment – the choice not to avoid the suffering of others or our own.
The readings for today are a call to persist in the face of suffering and disappointment and apparent failure – to trust in the way of God even when the way seems dark and impossible to comprehend.
Esther De Waal (in Living With Contradictions p. 49), speaks of the Benedictine commitment in a chapter called Living With Myself: “The vow of stability tells me that I must not run away from myself. It tells me to stand still, to stand firm, not in the sense of standing still in some geographical spot, which of course is simply not possible for most of the time in our highly mobile world, but in the more fundamental sense of standing still in my own centre, not trying to run away or to escape from myself, the person who I really am. Whenever I encounter that insidious temptation to say ‘If only,’ whether of the past or of the future, I must firmly put it away from me, and instead tell myself that God is present in my life here, in this moment in time and in this place, and it is no good searching for some other place and time where I believe I might find him. ‘You have a home,” Henri Nouwen reminds us that Christ is telling us. ‘I am your home … claim me as your home… It is right where you are … in your innermost being … in your heart.’ The more attentive we are to such words, the more we realize that we do not have to go far to find what we are seeking. The tragedy is that we try to find that place elsewhere, that we wander off searching for it, and so we become strangers to ourselves, people who have an address but are never at home. And, we might add, unless we are at home we shall never be able to receive the figure of Christ who stands outside, knocking, waiting to come in.”
For me the words of Isaiah in the old King James Version spoke powerfully: “He was despised and rejected of men; a man of sorrows, and acquainted with grief: and we hid our faces from him; he was despised, and we esteemed him not. Surely he hath borne our griefs, and carried our sorrows: yet we esteemed him stricken, smitten of God, and afflicted.”
If I didn’t know it already, through my own early disappointments and struggles in life, I soon learned in the ministry what it means to be “a man of sorrows, acquainted with grief” – what it means to be the suffering servant – what it means to be the lamb that has nothing to say in the face of injustice and abuse — what it means to stand there powerless as people you care about suffer and die.
As Jesus enters the process of dying, he says to those fixing him to the instrument of his death: “Forgive them – they do not know what they’re doing.” It is so hard to stay present when things are harsh and ugly, when they are not unfolding as you imagined or were led to believe they should.
I remember a woman whose husband developed Alzheimer’s and she stayed by his side despite the fact that he no longer seemed to know who she was, swore and screamed at her, and regularly attempted to harm her physically and often did.
Despite the injuries and the inconvenience and the sheer disappointment of it all, when I asked her how she could persist in going every single day, she told me matter-of-factly: “He doesn’t know what he’s doing – and he would do the same for me.”
It struck me that 60 years previous, when that beautiful young couple looked into each other’s eyes and said “for better for worse … in sickness and in health …” they had no idea what they were saying, and how different that would look 60 years later. But in a way they were quite right – the only thing we really have is our fidelity to the present moment, and the only place we can be is here, now.
It is often mothers who courageously take on this role of being present to the difficult things in life, which is one reason it’s good that we have women in ministry, but I have seen many men hanging in there as well. In every parish and in every care home and hospital I have been, I have seen the spirit of Mary at work: loving through suffering; persisting through pain; present even when everyone else has given up hope or been overcome by fear and gone away.
Staying near the cross on Good Friday can be almost as difficult and uncomfortable for us as it was for Mary – to be open to the reality of death, to the injustice of it, to enter into the emotional impact and the suffering, can be trying.
Bu as the Buddhist teacher Pema Chodron wisely says: “Take an interest in your pain and fear. Move closer, lean in, get curious; even for a moment experience the feelings beyond labels, beyond good or bad. Welcome them. Invite them. Do anything that helps melt the resistance. … Learn to stay. Learn to stay with the uneasiness, learn to stay with the tightening, learn to stay with the itch …. so that the habitual chain reaction doesn’t continue to rule our lives, and the patterns that we consider unhelpful don’t keep getting stronger as the days and months and years go by. Someone once sent me a bone-shaped dog tag that you could wear on a cord around your neck. Instead of a dog’s name, it said, ‘Sit, Stay. Heal’” (from Taking the Leap: Freeing Ourselves from Old Habits and Fears).
We stand today at a dangerous and confusing intersection – one that has a lot of heavy traffic – and various things tend to collide here. On Good Friday, we intentionally and voluntarily come and stand in the dangerous intersection between the mysterious ways of God and the frailty and folly of human nature; between hope and futility; between the way of life and the fact of death. Like Mary, we are not allowed to really do anything, but just stand there. It is very easy to get hurt standing in this intersection – the intersection that we call the Cross.
It can mean being present to the death of ideals and hopes, and our sense of how life should be going or should have gone. It can mean being present to our own mortality. As Joseph Campbell said “You must give up the life you planned in order to have the life that is waiting for you.”
A certain solemnity is required on Good Friday, a different kind of discipline is called for, a different kind of presence than normal, and for me that’s a good thing even though it’s hard. Good Friday is hard; life is hard, and the rewards are not always obvious or immediate or what we expect.
People rarely speak of Good Friday as their favourite service or time of the Christian Year. Yet there is great power and potential in Holy Week, especially as we journey through the Paschal Triduum, just in the simple act of learning to be present. In a way, all we can do is stand there, in mute solidarity, with Mary, and with all those past and present and future, who have suffered, who are suffering, who will suffer. But great things can happen as we refuse the temptation and the urge to do something heroic, or to run away, and simply make that choice to stay put – to stand there, as Mary did, before the Cross, with her heart open.
After all, it was Mary and the other women, perhaps by virtue of their willingness to stay present to the Passion, who were also the first ones to be present to the Resurrection.
“Be still and know” as Psalm 46 says. On Good Friday, in anticipation of the celebration of Easter, perhaps we come to know a little better that when we are still, when we learn to stand still like Mary and contemplate and even embrace the death of all we are, then indeed we are in a place where we can truly know God and experience God, because we need to, because we are finally aware enough of the insufficiency of all our little charades that we can know something of the all-sufficiency of God.
The Venerable Grant Rodgers+
Readings for Good Friday:
Isaiah 52:13 – 53:12 See, my servant shall prosper; he shall be exalted and lifted up, and shall be very high. Just as there were many who were astonished at him — so marred was his appearance, beyond human semblance, and his form beyond that of mortals— so he shall startle many nations; kings shall shut their mouths because of him; for that which had not been told them they shall see, and that which they had not heard they shall contemplate. Who has believed what we have heard? And to whom has the arm of the Lord been revealed? For he grew up before him like a young plant, and like a root out of dry ground; he had no form or majesty that we should look at him, nothing in his appearance that we should desire him. He was despised and rejected by others; a man of suffering and acquainted with infirmity; and as one from whom others hide their faces he was despised, and we held him of no account. Surely he has borne our infirmities and carried our diseases; yet we accounted him stricken, struck down by God, and afflicted. But he was wounded for our transgressions, crushed for our iniquities; upon him was the punishment that made us whole, and by his bruises we are healed. All we like sheep have gone astray; we have all turned to our own way, and the Lord has laid on him the iniquity of us all. He was oppressed, and he was afflicted, yet he did not open his mouth; like a lamb that is led to the slaughter, and like a sheep that before its shearers is silent, so he did not open his mouth. By a perversion of justice he was taken away. Who could have imagined his future? For he was cut off from the land of the living, stricken for the transgression of my people. They made his grave with the wicked and his tomb with the rich, although he had done no violence, and there was no deceit in his mouth. Yet it was the will of the Lord to crush him with pain. When you make his life an offering for sin, he shall see his offspring, and shall prolong his days; through him the will of the Lord shall prosper. Out of his anguish he shall see light; he shall find satisfaction through his knowledge. The righteous one, my servant, shall make many righteous, and he shall bear their iniquities. Therefore I will allot him a portion with the great, and he shall divide the spoil with the strong; because he poured out himself to death, and was numbered with the transgressors; yet he bore the sin of many, and made intercession for the transgressors.
Hebrews 10: 16–25 This is the covenant that I will make with them after those days, says the Lord: I will put my laws in their hearts, and I will write them on their minds’, he also adds, ‘I will remember their sins and their lawless deeds no more.’ Where there is forgiveness of these, there is no longer any offering for sin. Therefore, my friends, since we have confidence to enter the sanctuary by the blood of Jesus, by the new and living way that he opened for us through the curtain (that is, through his flesh), and since we have a great priest over the house of God, let us approach with a true heart in full assurance of faith, with our hearts sprinkled clean from an evil conscience and our bodies washed with pure water. Let us hold fast to the confession of our hope without wavering, for he who has promised is faithful. And let us consider how to provoke one another to love and good deeds, not neglecting to meet together, as is the habit of some, but encouraging one another, and all the more as you see the Day approaching.
John 18: 1—19:30 After Jesus had spoken these words, he went out with his disciples across the Kidron valley to a place where there was a garden, which he and his disciples entered. 2Now Judas, who betrayed him, also knew the place, because Jesus often met there with his disciples. 3So Judas brought a detachment of soldiers together with police from the chief priests and the Pharisees, and they came there with lanterns and torches and weapons. 4Then Jesus, knowing all that was to happen to him, came forward and asked them, ‘For whom are you looking?’ 5They answered, ‘Jesus of Nazareth.’ Jesus replied, ‘I am he.’ Judas, who betrayed him, was standing with them. 6When Jesus said to them, ‘I am he’, they stepped back and fell to the ground. 7Again he asked them, ‘For whom are you looking?’ And they said, ‘Jesus of Nazareth.’ 8Jesus answered, ‘I told you that I am he. So if you are looking for me, let these men go.’ 9This was to fulfil the word that he had spoken, ‘I did not lose a single one of those whom you gave me.’ 10Then Simon Peter, who had a sword, drew it, struck the high priest’s slave, and cut off his right ear. The slave’s name was Malchus. 11Jesus said to Peter, ‘Put your sword back into its sheath. Am I not to drink the cup that the Father has given me?’
So the soldiers, their officer, and the Jewish police arrested Jesus and bound him. They took him to Annas, who was the father-in-law of Caiaphas, the high priest that year. Caiaphas was the one who had advised the Jews that it was better to have one person die for the people.
Simon Peter and another disciple followed Jesus. Since that disciple was known to the high priest, he went with Jesus into the courtyard of the high priest, 16but Peter was standing outside at the gate. So the other disciple, who was known to the high priest, went out, spoke to the woman who guarded the gate, and brought Peter in. 17The woman said to Peter, ‘You are not also one of this man’s disciples, are you?’ He said, ‘I am not.’ 18Now the slaves and the police had made a charcoal fire because it was cold, and they were standing round it and warming themselves. Peter also was standing with them and warming himself.
Then the high priest questioned Jesus about his disciples and about his teaching. 20Jesus answered, ‘I have spoken openly to the world; I have always taught in synagogues and in the temple, where all the Jews come together. I have said nothing in secret. 21Why do you ask me? Ask those who heard what I said to them; they know what I said.’ 22When he had said this, one of the police standing nearby struck Jesus on the face, saying, ‘Is that how you answer the high priest?’ 23Jesus answered, ‘If I have spoken wrongly, testify to the wrong. But if I have spoken rightly, why do you strike me?’ 24Then Annas sent him bound to Caiaphas the high priest.
Now Simon Peter was standing and warming himself. They asked him, ‘You are not also one of his disciples, are you?’ He denied it and said, ‘I am not.’ 26One of the slaves of the high priest, a relative of the man whose ear Peter had cut off, asked, ‘Did I not see you in the garden with him?’ 27Again Peter denied it, and at that moment the cock crowed.
Then they took Jesus from Caiaphas to Pilate’s headquarters. It was early in the morning. They themselves did not enter the headquarters, so as to avoid ritual defilement and to be able to eat the Passover. 29So Pilate went out to them and said, ‘What accusation do you bring against this man?’ 30They answered, ‘If this man were not a criminal, we would not have handed him over to you.’ 31Pilate said to them, ‘Take him yourselves and judge him according to your law.’ The Jews replied, ‘We are not permitted to put anyone to death.’ 32(This was to fulfil what Jesus had said when he indicated the kind of death he was to die.)
Then Pilate entered the headquarters again, summoned Jesus, and asked him, ‘Are you the King of the Jews?’ 34Jesus answered, ‘Do you ask this on your own, or did others tell you about me?’ 35Pilate replied, ‘I am not a Jew, am I? Your own nation and the chief priests have handed you over to me. What have you done?’ 36Jesus answered, ‘My kingdom is not from this world. If my kingdom were from this world, my followers would be fighting to keep me from being handed over to the Jews. But as it is, my kingdom is not from here.’ 37Pilate asked him, ‘So you are a king?’ Jesus answered, ‘You say that I am a king. For this I was born, and for this I came into the world, to testify to the truth. Everyone who belongs to the truth listens to my voice.’ 38Pilate asked him, ‘What is truth?’
After he had said this, he went out to the Jews again and told them, ‘I find no case against him. 39But you have a custom that I release someone for you at the Passover. Do you want me to release for you the King of the Jews?’ 40They shouted in reply, ‘Not this man, but Barabbas!’ Now Barabbas was a bandit.
19Then Pilate took Jesus and had him flogged. 2And the soldiers wove a crown of thorns and put it on his head, and they dressed him in a purple robe. 3They kept coming up to him, saying, ‘Hail, King of the Jews!’ and striking him on the face. 4Pilate went out again and said to them, ‘Look, I am bringing him out to you to let you know that I find no case against him.’ 5So Jesus came out, wearing the crown of thorns and the purple robe. Pilate said to them, ‘Here is the man!’ 6When the chief priests and the police saw him, they shouted, ‘Crucify him! Crucify him!’ Pilate said to them, ‘Take him yourselves and crucify him; I find no case against him.’ 7The Jews answered him, ‘We have a law, and according to that law he ought to die because he has claimed to be the Son of God.’
8 Now when Pilate heard this, he was more afraid than ever. 9He entered his headquarters again and asked Jesus, ‘Where are you from?’ But Jesus gave him no answer. 10Pilate therefore said to him, ‘Do you refuse to speak to me? Do you not know that I have power to release you, and power to crucify you?’ 11Jesus answered him, ‘You would have no power over me unless it had been given you from above; therefore the one who handed me over to you is guilty of a greater sin.’ 12From then on Pilate tried to release him, but the Jews cried out, ‘If you release this man, you are no friend of the emperor. Everyone who claims to be a king sets himself against the emperor.’
13 When Pilate heard these words, he brought Jesus outside and sat on the judge’s bench at a place called The Stone Pavement, or in Hebrew Gabbatha. 14Now it was the day of Preparation for the Passover; and it was about noon. He said to the Jews, ‘Here is your King!’ 15They cried out, ‘Away with him! Away with him! Crucify him!’ Pilate asked them, ‘Shall I crucify your King?’ The chief priests answered, ‘We have no king but the emperor.’ 16Then he handed him over to them to be crucified.
So they took Jesus; 17and carrying the cross by himself, he went out to what is called The Place of the Skull, which in Hebrew is called Golgotha. 18There they crucified him, and with him two others, one on either side, with Jesus between them. 19Pilate also had an inscription written and put on the cross. It read, ‘Jesus of Nazareth, the King of the Jews.’ 20Many of the Jews read this inscription, because the place where Jesus was crucified was near the city; and it was written in Hebrew, in Latin, and in Greek. 21Then the chief priests of the Jews said to Pilate, ‘Do not write, “The King of the Jews”, but, “This man said, I am King of the Jews.” ’ 22Pilate answered, ‘What I have written I have written.’ 23When the soldiers had crucified Jesus, they took his clothes and divided them into four parts, one for each soldier. They also took his tunic; now the tunic was seamless, woven in one piece from the top. 24So they said to one another, ‘Let us not tear it, but cast lots for it to see who will get it.’ This was to fulfil what the scripture says, ‘They divided my clothes among themselves, and for my clothing they cast lots.’ And that is what the soldiers did.
Meanwhile, standing near the cross of Jesus were his mother, and his mother’s sister, Mary the wife of Clopas, and Mary Magdalene. 26When Jesus saw his mother and the disciple whom he loved standing beside her, he said to his mother, ‘Woman, here is your son.’ 27Then he said to the disciple, ‘Here is your mother.’ And from that hour the disciple took her into his own home. After this, when Jesus knew that all was now finished, he said (in order to fulfil the scripture), ‘I am thirsty.’ 29A jar full of sour wine was standing there. So they put a sponge full of the wine on a branch of hyssop and held it to his mouth. When Jesus had received the wine, he said, ‘It is finished.’ Then he bowed his head and gave up his spirit.