For the last three years I’ve had the privilege of participating in an annual ecumenical and interracial Good Friday service, “Women’s Views of the Cross.” This year I’ll preach from the perspective of Mary, the mother of James and Joses, who appears for the first time in the Gospel of Mark as a witness to the death and burial of Jesus (Mark 15). For those of you who can’t be part of this wonderful worship experience, below is my sermon:
The Witness: Mary, the Mother of James and Joses
It is striking that Mary the mother of James and Joses only appears once in Mark’s Gospel— here—at the cross. Mary’s presence is remarkable for the very reason that the other disciples are absent; her presence will become especially important in just two days’ time when Mary will be able to say not only that she was there when they crucified her Lord and that she was there when they buried Him; but that she was also there on Easter morning to find the tomb so gloriously and frighteningly empty.
And for this reason alone our Scriptures remember an otherwise forgettable Mary the mother of James and Joses. In a day and age when women were considered unreliable, second-rate witnesses at best—as they still are in various places around the world—Mary’s word only really mattered to the early church because it was either her word or no real word at all. Only Mary, the mother of James and Joses, along with her friends Mary Magdalene and Salome, could claim based on firsthand experience what Christians have proclaimed ever since. In the form of the Nicene Creed. Christ was “crucified under Pontius Pilate, suffered death and was buried and on the third day rose again.”
We have Mary to thank in good part for this claim and its historical veracity—all because Mary bears witness to the death and burial of Jesus. Mary’s witness, and the witness of Mary Magdalene and Salome with her, means the difference between urban legend and the kind of good news we can bet our lives on.
But I wonder why Mary chooses to bear witness. She has to be afraid, maybe even for her life. After all, this is the same woman who, upon beholding the empty tomb, will run away trembling and bewildered and, out of fear, say nothing to anyone. Surely watching Jesus die has to be at least as frightening, even from a distance. The taunts and jeers of the crowd, and in the midst of them the loud, desperate cry of this once larger-than-life man now aspirating on a cross, are too much to watch. But she watches all the same—maybe from behind a veil of tears, her hands tightly clutching the other women’s hands, her body coiled in fear, grief and despair.
Mary, after all, is a mother. She knows the way her body has given birth to at least two children. How her womb had to stretch and expand to make room for the new life inside her. How those near-death labor pains like tidal waves had finally thrust up in bloody abandon two precious little lives now forever linked to hers.
Maybe this is why Mary stays to watch. Because she is a mother. Because she belongs to a sisterhood of women who, because they have brought life into the world, and because with their breasts and bodies they have nurtured and sustained that new life, have come to see that so much of what it means to be a mother is simply being there, no matter how scary or painful that might be.
Being there for scraped knees and bedtime stories and basketball games.
Being there for first steps and graduation days and broken hearts.
Being there even for death sometimes, like the mother I met the other day in a hospice room. Her 40-year-old daughter was dying from breast cancer, and through tears, this mother had uttered the words, “It wasn’t supposed to be this way.”
No, it wasn’t supposed to be this way, but this mother was there, anyway. Because that is what we mothers so often do for our children and for our friends’ children. We are simply there.
Maybe this is why Mary chooses to watch Her Savior die on a cross—it wasn’t supposed to be this way, but she is being there anyway, for a man who has become like a son to her.
Or does Mary bear witness for another reason? Is it because she, like the other women with her, has followed Jesus and can’t imagine not following him now? Is it because she has served and provided for her son, James, and his miracle-making friend Jesus all along the way? How many times, I wonder, did Mary, like any doting Jewish mother, lay out a full spread of food for Jesus and these hungry young men after a long day of their treading all over God-knows-where? In between deliveries of trays of bread, figs and olives, and standing over steaming pots of matzah ball soup, I can imagine she peeked in or lingered at the door just long enough to catch the excitement in these men’s voices and the laughter and swagger as they traded stories of the day’s adventures or argued over who would sit at Jesus’ right hand.
Did Mary wish she could be among them then? At Jesus’ right hand…or maybe just at his feet, listening, like the other Mary we know from Scripture whose sister is Martha. Maybe Mary the mother of James and Joses also entertained Jesus over a meal or more, listening to this other-worldly, down-to-earth, rabbi-carpenter talk about His coming Kingdom as he ravenously downed bowls of olives and threw back his head in laughter.
Was Mary there when Jesus fed a crowd with only a couple loaves and a few fishes? Was she there when Jesus healed the sick? Was she there when Jesus cast out the demons of her friend Mary Magdalene?
If she was there in these moments, she is also remembering these things now as she bears witness to Jesus’ death. And she is struggling to find meaning in the dissonance of these pictures: a Jesus who can calm storms and walk on water and bring people back to life seems a far cry from this now taunted and forsaken Jesus on a cross. It’s possible that Mary is at the cross because she is still expecting Jesus to take his executioners up on their offer: to come down from the cross in one final victorious display of force. Like the Saturday Night Live spoof of a Quentin Tarantino-inspired “Djesus Unchained.” (Maybe you’ve seen it.)
Maybe Mary is waiting to hear Jesus say once and for all, “No more Mr. Nice Jesus.” Maybe with the same dead-pan masculinity of the actor Christoph Waltz—or not.
Maybe Mary, like the other disciples who could not stand to watch from afar, is waiting for a Messiah to put all of his enemies to shame. To show them once and for all who really is in charge.
And maybe this kind of Messiah is what we want, too, because if we’re honest with ourselves, a Messiah like this is easier to stomach. We want Jesus to make it easy for us to love Him in the eyes of the world. We want our lives to be pain-free and prosperous and full of feel-good miracles. We want to shield ourselves from God-forsakenness. We can’t bear to witness all the places in this world that are full of pain, heartbreak and forsakenness, whether they’re across the globe or in the darkest nooks and crannies of our own souls. We can’t bear to look real despair in the eyes and simply be there and pay witness. It’s too much for us, so we shield ourselves from the worst, most heart-wrenching pain this world has to offer.
A few years ago the haunting picture of a child in the Sudan dying from starvation while en route to a feeding center caught my eye. The picture shows an emaciated child huddling in despair and at death’s door. A vulture lurks several feet away.
The photographer who took that Pulitzer Prize-winning picture killed himself not long after. Bearing witness—being there—was too much for him: it broke him.
I wonder if Mary in her witness feels like breaking, too, so she seeks safety in distance. After all, she is there for Jesus’ crucifixion when even God the Father seems absent. Can we say the same about ourselves? Can we be there and bear witness to the pain and affliction that are all around us? Can we be present to those for whom God seems absent? Can we show up in the God-forsaken places? Or, are we too afraid? And if so, what are we afraid of?
My guess is that even with all her experience as a mother, Mary cannot possibly grasp or even imagine right now the real birth taking place before her eyes. My guess is that she cannot even begin to understand what this birth demands in the way of a Savior’s labor pains on a cross—and, that the power of God’s love lies precisely where we would not think to look—not in the back-slapping swagger of a Quentin Tarantino Messiah who wins with violence and worldly power, but in the gentle, non-coercive love of a God who lets Himself be crucified.
I suspect that Mary the mother of James and Joses has not even the faintest appreciation as she watches this Jesus in his final hours that this breaking open of Love Itself is what has to happen and is what this world so desperately needs. That there can be no other way for God to show Himself fully as Love incarnate…for her…for you…for me…for the world outside these doors.
Mary unknowingly bears witness to this Love breaking open and remaking the world. She does this by being present at the cross. By bearing witness and simply being there in the midst of tragedy.
And what she cannot yet know, she will soon discover in a short while—that in bearing witness and being present to Christ’s suffering, she will be among the first to experience Christ’s resurrection.
And the same is true for us: when we bear witness and are present to the God-forsaken people and places of this world, we, too, are positioning ourselves to be the first in line for the new life God promises, new life that is right around the corner. We’ll be the first in line to see the empty tomb. The first in line to hear the news that our Savior is not dead but alive. The first in line to catch the first faint rays of Easter morning light dispel the darkness.