When my son Benjamin was 7 weeks old, he developed a fever that landed him in the hospital for 4 days. It turned out to be viral meningitis, which sounds worse than it was – he never really was very sick, and he recovered quickly. But with such a little baby, they take every measure to be sure – so he was tested for all kinds of terrible things, and he and I had to stay together in the hospital until they were quite certain all was well. We were there in mid-December, including December 12, the day of the festival of the Virgin of Guadalupe. I had a lot of quiet time to reflect and pray and worry. And on that day I found myself talking to the Guadalupe, begging her presence, knowing that she of all people knew well what it was to lose her son. I don’t know if it’s true what some people tell me, that there’s a special bond between mothers and sons – maybe it’s that, or maybe it’s that early scare, or maybe it’s simply that with this my second child I’m more able to relax and love him – but the idea of losing my little boy fills me with dread I can’t even voice. And on this day, this Good Friday of remembering Jesus’ death, I can’t help but think of Mary losing her little boy.
John is the only gospel that includes that detail of Jesus on the cross, giving his mother Mary into the care of his beloved disciple John. In many ways I find the Jesus in John’s gospel less human than in the others, but this one little exchange opens this window into the very human relationship between Jesus and Mary. Luke is the one who gives us more of a picture of the young Mary with the baby, her firstborn – a child born in such extraordinary circumstances, with angels visiting her and Joseph, and strangers coming from all around to see the newborn child. And Luke gives us that glimpse into parenting the adolescent Jesus, when Joseph and Mary have to return to the temple to find their missing son, only to have him seemingly dismiss their concern with ‘didn’t you know I’d be here?’ John has the story of Mary prodding Jesus into his first miracle, changing the water into wine to save the wedding celebration from shame and ruin. And there are hints in the other gospels of Mary turning up with her other children to persuade Jesus to stop this crazy preaching and come home. What would it have been like to mother Jesus? The sword that the prophet Simeon predicted would pierce her soul seems to have done so over and over again – piercing her with his youthful rejection, with his heedless march into public infamy and danger, and finally with his humiliating, criminal death on the cross. Could she possibly have held onto the message the angel gave her at the very beginning, that all of this was somehow meant to be? What parent could allow suffering in their child without suffering even more intensely themselves?
Especially in the Renaissance, artists were drawn to depict this suffering – the sculpture theme of the Pieta, where Mary holds her dying son, was popular for devotional art in Europe for several centuries; as well as paintings of Mary weeping or standing at the foot of the cross. In the Pieta, Mary holds Jesus as she must have held him when he was small – this grown man spread across her lap just as the baby and then the boy once was. That human sense of a mother’s loss serves as a sign of the real physical death of the real physical Jesus. It is a very physical thing, being a parent – maybe especially being the mother, whose body is slowly changed by the growing baby, who gives birth and nurses him at her breast, one of the surest reminders we have that we are incarnate beings. Messy and amazing all at the same time, there you are, holding that child, shocked at the physical realness of this being who has come into the world in ways we still can’t really fathom even though we were there. Imagine Mary then, holding her son’s dead body at the end, feeling the weight of his physical self, and yet knowing that he is no longer there. Oh, what an ache to let him go.
That letting go, of course, is an inherent part of parenting. This small creature comes from you, and yet from the very beginning they start moving away from you. Indeed, your purpose as a parent is to help them move away from you, hard as it may be. Our culture probably prizes children’s independence more than any other, but everywhere, children do and must grow up, separate individuals inside their own minds, with paths to follow that are only theirs. As little as she may have understood him, Mary had to let Jesus go do what he was called to do and be – even as what he did and who he was led him inexorably toward suffering. She must have been afraid for him; perhaps she was sometimes disappointed in him, just as many of those who followed Jesus for a while turned away later when they realized he wasn’t who they thought he was. At times she probably thought he was on the wrong path altogether. Could she have at all understood what he was meant to be, even with the divine messages at the beginning? None of his disciples really did, even though Jesus told them over and over again. What Jesus was and what he was about were so radically new and different that no one really seemed to grasp it until later – and maybe even now we’re still not so sure. With all of that, Mary had to let Jesus go more completely than any other parent.
But that letting go is also an essential part of the spiritual life for all of us. We all carry with us dear images and plans that we hold onto as tightly as a child, as if they were physically real. Images of God and how God works in our world. Plans for our lives and what we want to do with them. Visions of the future and where we’re going. And as we progress along in life, these images and plans and dreams have a way of getting blown up, getting smashed or changed or redirected in ways that bring us disappointment, grief, and confusion. We thought we would get the job, and we don’t. We thought the marriage would last all our lives, and we find ourselves alone. We thought that God would heal our loved one, and they die. It can leave us angry with God. It can leave us reeling and unsure where to turn next. If we are honest, we want to say to God, how could you? How could you leave me like this? How could you lead me so far only to disappear at the end?
Which is one reason why the gospel stories hold so much power for us, centuries later. All of those with Jesus, his friends and followers and family, all faced this grief and disappointment and loss at his death. Whatever they thought he was, they each were bound up with him, entwining him with their own hopes and dreams, their own visions for what would happen next and what he meant to them and to the world. And then he died. And they had to let him go, and with him, all of what they had projected onto him. Just as we do, every time we come to this point of death in our lives.
But this point of loss and grief is not the end point. Jesus returned to them, his friends and family – but differently. There is another Mary, Mary Magdalene, who was one of the first to experience Jesus after the resurrection. But Jesus tells her, do not hold onto me. Let me go. Her first instinct must have been to reach out to him, to grab onto him and hold him close. But perhaps he is saying, holding onto my physical presence is not the point. I am here in front of you, but everything has changed. You have something to do now, a message to give, a witness to proclaim. Let me go, and go be my apostle. Jesus’ friends did indeed have to let go of him, and they did not get him back again. Instead, they got more, more than they could grasp and hold onto, more than they could comprehend or imagine. Their lives were utterly changed and redirected.
None of the gospels mention Jesus appearing to his mother after his resurrection. I wish I knew if he did, and what that was like for her. Perhaps there was a fresh kind of pain in seeing her own flesh and blood so completely changed before her, so beyond her ability to have and to hold. But in and despite that pain, what joy. Her child, now the Lord of all life. Her hopes and dreams taken up, blessed, broken, and given to feed the world. What Jesus would have offered to her he offers to us all: let go. Let go of what you insist upon so dearly; let go of the pain and the grief and the loss; let go and let the fuller life I have for you begin. Be changed, and be new. And see, our resurrection too begins. Amen.