"Woman, behold thy son! Behold thy Mother!" (St. John 19:26,27.)
Up to this moment what a succession of sad and sorrowful sights had confronted our Lord. The senses have been called the gateways of the soul, and through this gateway of the eyes there had pressed upon His heart every spectacle of sin that could afflict and weigh down His pure and sinless soul.
As we meditate upon the sad and patient eyes of Jesus, weary with looking upon sin, let us remember that though now humbled and made ashamed for us, they are in. truth the eyes of the Lord which are in every place, beholding the evil and the good. St. John, who alone records this Word from the Cross, was afterwards to behold these eyes as flames of fire; and as he tells us in the Revelation, to fall at His feet as dead.
Yet now they have their sad share in the humiliation and suffering of His Passion. Earlier this morning these eyes which search every heart, and are to try all men at the last, were made to look for the first time upon the actual implements of the Passion. They rested upon the scourge as it hung idle in the hands of a soldier, and studied the cruel ingenuity of which He knew He was to make trial in streams of His Blood. They looked steadily at the Cross, as the actual instrument of the Passion was first brought to His view, all unstained as yet with His Blood, and He weighed in His perfect foreknowledge the suffering it should exact from His sinless Flesh. "Instruments of cruelty are in their hands," and as these tender and loving eyes make acquaintance with them, one by one, He reads in each the ingratitude of His chosen people, and of us who have joined with them in preparing a Cross for our Saviour.
Through the constantly changing scenes of last night and this morning He has been led from place to place, and as one, and then another of the principal figures in the Passion has passed before Him, His eyes have looked into each face, and have pierced down through every deceit to read the very secrets of the heart. Everywhere He has encountered the enmity and the malice of sin. Before these meek and patient eyes pass in turn the pride and arrogancy of the Chief Priests, the envy and craftiness of the Scribes and Pharisees, the moral cowardice of Pilate, the sensuality of Herod.
And now, as He hangs uplifted what does He behold in that sea of upturned faces? Men are critically reading the title on the Cross, or noting with heartless unconcern the lingering torture of Crucifixion. The words of the Psalm are the voicing of His complaint: "They stand staring and looking upon Me" (Psalm xxii. 17). Pride and hatred, envy and malice, lustful greed, and cruel sensuality are all gathered here. "Many oxen are come about Me, fat bulls of Basan close Me in on every side" (Psalm xxii. 12).
As Noah looked forth from the Ark upon the flood, and gazed afar upon the waste of waters that had overwhelmed the world in its sin, so our Lord looks down from the Cross upon the angry multitude which gathers up and exhibits before Him every type of wickedness and makes manifest the malice of that world-wide, age-long torrent of sin which He had come to atone. But yet again, as from the waters of the Flood, the dove afterwards brought back to Noah the olive leaf plucked off, the pledge of safety, the promise of peace, so with this third Word, there emerges as it were from the deluge of sin which surges around the Cross, the form of our Lord's Blessed Mother, the promise of a restored world, the earnest of a new heaven and a new earth.
"Now there stood by the Cross of Jesus His Mother, and His Mother's sister, Mary the wife of Cleophas and Mary Magdalene; when Jesus therefore saw His Mother, and the disciple standing by whom He loved, He saith unto His Mother, Woman, behold thy son! Then saith He to the disciple, Behold thy Mother! And from that hour that disciple took her unto his own home" (St. John xix. 25-28).
"When Jesus therefore saw His Mother." O how gladly we turn from the thought of the sin which the eyes of Jesus here encountered, to their resting for a time in the contemplation of His Blessed Mother! True, there is a sense in which the meeting of the eyes of Jesus and those of Mary meant for them both a keener and deeper pang of suffering, as in that bond of love which bound together the immaculate Mother and her Divine Son, He suffered in her, and she in Him. Yet we listen to the brief narrative which accompanies this Word with a sense of relief and of holy comfort. For here, the suffering however great, is a suffering born of sympathy and love, and the love which begets the suffering remains as its consolation. And how patient have been these eyes which now turn toward her whom He loves as son never before loved mother! He has prayed first for His murderers, then He has pardoned and consoled the penitent, and last of all He searches out His nearest and dearest. And in all it is as ever looking unto His Father, and as fulfilling His will. "I have been left unto Thee ever since I was born: Thou art He that took Me from My mother's womb" (Psalm xxii. 10).
And on Mary's part, how had she waited for this moment, and for the word addressed to her! Is there not a lesson here for those called into special nearness to God, that like the Blessed Virgin and St. John they may value above their own spiritual consolation the work that Jesus does for those in special and urgent need of mercy and forgiveness? How in St. John's simple narrative is it assumed, as a matter of course, that Jesus must first minister to the needs of men, who, as the world would say, had no claim upon Him, before He turns with this assurance of love and His word of consolation to those nearest to Him. "I came not to call the righteous, but sinners to repentance."
We may not fathom the mystery of that communion in which the eyes of Jesus and of His Mother meet, a communion too deep for words. "From those earliest years in Nazareth it must have been thus that Mother and Son held communion together, as heart spoke to heart in a depth of spiritual understanding for the utterance of which words would be at once unnecessary and inadequate. How few are the recorded words of Jesus to His Mother; while of Mary's words after her Magnificat, we have almost none. But from the time that as a little Babe He lay in her arms, and His eyes looked up into hers, what communings were theirs, and what depths of understanding.
It is nothing strange, then, that here also it should be less by spoken words than by His look that our Lord addresses His mother. As interpreted in that look there is no lack of endearment in the term "Woman." It may be that He would spare her the suffering which the use of the more tender word Mother would have involved at such a time, and there seems to be a purpose in our Lord's reserving this term to express her new relation to St. John and through him to His whole Church. Certain it is that the title "Woman" recalls to her mind, as no other word could have done, the glory and dignity of her vocation. At least once before, at the marriage feast in Cana, He had used this term in addressing her, and by using it had pointed forward to this hour when He should no longer say, "Woman, what have I to do with thee?" (St. John ii. 4); but, His hour having now come for the making perfect His Sacrifice, should call upon her to take her part with Him, and to unite her will to His in the oblation He would make. How in this word must she have recalled Cana, and how must the title "Woman" have summoned her to that supreme surrender in which even this holiest and dearest of all earthly ties should be swallowed up in that holier relation still, as she unites her will to His in the Sacrifice He offers for the sins of the world.
And further back still her memory must have gone to that moment when, after losing the joy of her eyes, she had found Him after three days in the Temple. O the gladness of beholding Him, and the love with which His eyes had then met hers after this first separation between them! But now as these same eyes look upon her from the Cross, with what new depth of meaning is borne upon her memory the saying of Jesus when but twelve years old, "Wist ye not that I must be about My Father's business?" Yes, this is that business, for which even then He was preparing both Himself and her. How mercifully had His loving Providence led her on, that parting with Him willingly at the Cross she may find Him on the third day in the Temple of His Risen Body.
And then her memory goes back to the sacred Infancy of her Son and Lord. She remembers how she had had her part to fulfil as in her arms He was carried to the Temple, there to be offered in His Father's House. The suffering of this present hour is only in fulfilment of what she then undertook when so long ago she had given Him back to God. How had this lesson, that what God gives is in order to sacrifice, been impressed upon her from the beginning! When He was but eight days old she had learned it in the shedding of the first drops of His precious Blood. And now, as in. the completion of His Sacrifice, He ia shedding the last drops of that Blood, she learns at once the unity of His work, and the consistency of that vocation which has bound up her life with His. Simeon's prophecy of the sword that should pierce her own heart also, is remembered with deep inward exultation, as she realizes now its fulfilment in a suffering which binds her indissolubly to her Divine Son.
It is with His eyes, even more than with His lips that our Lord addresses His beloved Disciple. He does not here call that disciple by name. St. John marks the movement by which the eyes of Jesus turn from His Mother to rest upon him. "Woman, behold thy son," He had said; and then looking into the eyes of His disciple, but without addressing him by name, "Behold thy mother." "I will guide thee with Mine eye." Those who live close to God are directed and ruled wonderfully and secretly by His Holy Spirit. Our Lord has purposes for us which it is His will we should learn without their distinct enunciation by a word of command; but as we grow more and more into the knowledge of His will through the sacramental life. "If it were not so I would not have told you" (St. John xiv. 2). It is St. John himself who tells us, "Ye have an unction from the Holy One, and ye know all things." "The anointing which ye have received of Him abideth in you, and ye need not that any man teach you, but as that same anointing teacheth you all things, and is truth and is no lie, and even as it hath taught you ye shall abide in Him" (I. St. John ii. 20, 27).
And now let us consider what it is that Jesus here accomplishes. He draws the eyes of His Mother and of this disciple to Himself to meet His gaze, and then He hids them turn their eyes upon each other. "Behold thy son: Behold thy mother." He is teaching us that in every tie of kindred, and in every bond of holy friendship we are to see Him. Our loved ones are His gift to us. The loved ones who received and sheltered us when we came helpless into the world, and every pure friendship which has come into our lives since, are alike from Him. And as they came from Him so are they meant to lead back to Him. O how blessed and happy may such ties become if this is remembered, and if we let Him hallow them and consecrate them to Himself as He offers to do. As at Cana He changed the water into wine, so will He, as we ask His blessing on those ties of kindred or friendship which we cherish in His fear and love, change what is weak and unstable into the wine of His grace, purifying, strengthening, and consecrating forever the ties which bind us to each other in Him.
To-day, then, as we behold Him, Mary's Son, and the Son of God, in the midst of mortal agony, consoling His Blessed Mother and His beloved disciple, let us commend to Him our loved ones. Let our gratitude ascend to Him for every gift of love "with which He has enriched our lives. May His Presence and His grace guard us from all selfishness, teach us the beauty of self-sacrifice, and enable us to fulfil every responsibility to which He has annexed the consolations of earthly friendship. And so as we have received these dear ones from Him, may we love them in Him and for Him, and may we with perfect resignation, whenever He may require it, surrender them back to Him.
And then shall we not see in this bond created at the Cross between the Blessed Mother and St. John the beginning and the ideal of the Communion of Saints? In that wider fellowship which binds together in one all the people of God, here is the pattern from which we are to learn. He who looks from the Cross upon His loved ones and bids them look upon each other, is the Center and the Source of the Communion of Saints. Let us not fear to enjoy what He has blessed. Death does not interrupt this communion, for He who established it has Himself triumphed over death. He would have us remember our blessed departed. He loves to hear the prayers which witness to the enduring after death of the ties which He created, and has promised to bless. And in regard to those holy ones, His blessed saints now glorified and in His Presence, His will is that we should turn our eyes often upon them. Since communion with them honors His victory over death, and since we cannot speak to them without speaking of Him, He would leave us free in this blessed intercourse. As bound to Him, we are bound to each other in the fellowship of Saints. In giving His Blessed Mother to St. John, He gave her to us all, and has charged her to remember us with more than mother's love. For each of us He said, "Woman, behold thy son," and to each of us His eye is turned as He adds, "Behold thy mother."
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