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Part 19: Mary at the Foot of the Cross
By Dr. Robert Stackpole, STD (Nov 10, 2015)
The following is the nineteenth part of our Mary 101 series.
Our Evangelical Protestant brothers and sisters often object to the way Catholics read the story in St. John's gospel of Mary at the foot of the Cross. They say something along the lines of:
Surely, you are just reading into this Bible passage a meaning that the author never intended it to convey. The Apostle John was not trying to tell us that Mary was explicitly commissioned by Jesus from the Cross to be the Spiritual Mother of all Christians. Rather, John was simply showing us how Jesus lovingly made provision for the support of His mother, so someone would take care of her after He had gone.
Needless to say, Catholics are convinced that there is a lot more going on in this passage than that!
First of all, notice that neither Mary nor John is referred to by a proper name. Mary is called "Woman" (recalling the way Jesus spoke to her at the Wedding Feast at Cana, when she interceded for the wedding couple in Jn 2:1-4, and the "Woman" of Gen 3:15-16, who, as mother of the Messiah, was prophesied to be at "enmity" with Satan, along with her son). St. John is called simply "the disciple whom Jesus loved." The fact that Mary and John are referred to in these symbolic ways implies that there is more going on here than just a touching story about how Jesus looked after the need of His Mother for a proper roof over her head.
Second, it is doubtful that there was any need for Jesus to find someone to take care of Mary after His death. He must have left Mary in the care of relatives many years before, when he first left home to begin His ministry in Galilee. St. John Paul II pointed this out in his Wednesday Audience address of April 23, 1997:
In departing from Nazareth to start his public life, Jesus had already left his mother alone. Moreover, the presence at the cross of her relative, Mary of Clopas, allows us to suppose that the Blessed Virgin was on good terms with her family and relatives, who could have welcomed her after her son's death.
Third, this passage regarding Mary at the foot of the cross seems to be as much about the beloved disciple being entrusted to Mary's care as the other way around: "Behold your mother!"(Jn 19: 27). The gospel says that from that very hour, John "took her to his own home," which is the same Greek phrase used in another place in John's gospel. Catholic apologist Dr. Kenneth Howell explains:
The phrase in Greek, eis ta idia [to his own] can indicate a more personalized reception, so that John's action is much deeper than physical care. It is exactly the same phrase used by John in 1:11 where he says that Jesus "came unto his own" (eis ta idia) but his own did not receive him." 1:11 does not mean that Jesus came to his own house, but that Jesus came to his very own people, i.e., the Jews. So what does the phrase mean in 19:27? It means that John received Mary as his very own mother, just as Jesus commanded him. He took her not only in a physical sense; he received her into his heart. We are asked to do the same. As beloved disciples of the Lord, we should also receive Mary as our very own mother. (Howell, Mary of Nazareth. Santa Barbara, CA: Queenship Press, 1998, p. 31)
Fourth, Jesus must have been referring to Mary's spiritual Motherhood in this passage because he spoke to St. John about it when the apostle's own natural mother was standing right next to him at the foot of the Cross (Mt 27:55-56). Clearly, John did not need a natural mother to care for, or to care for him: he already had one! Mary's new relationship with him as his "Mother," therefore, had to be something quite different.
Finally, St. John's gospel tells us that Jesus' act of entrusting the beloved disciple and Mary to each other was the very last thing that He needed to accomplish before His death. St. John Paul II explained that immediately after Jesus' words to them both, "the evangelist added a significant clause: 'Jesus, knowing that all was now finished' (Jn 19:28), as if he wished to stress that he had brought his sacrifice to completion by entrusting His Mother to John, and in him, to all men, whose Mother she became in the work of salvation" (Theotokos, p. 189). In other words, this important, symbolic act of entrusting all the beloved disciples of Christ into the care of Mary, making her the Spiritual Mother of the faithful, brought Christ's ministry on earth to an end just prior to the completion of His sacrifice on the cross. It was evidently the last thing He needed to accomplish before His saving work on earth was done.
Saint John Paul II summed up his reflections on Mary at the foot of the Cross with these words:
Jesus' words, "Behold your son" effect what they express, making Mary the mother of John, and of all the disciples destined to receive the gift of divine grace. On the cross, Jesus did not proclaim Mary's universal motherhood formally, but established a concrete maternal relationship between her and the beloved disciple. In the Lord's choice we can see his concern that this mother should not be interpreted in a vague way, but should point to Mary's intense, personal relationship with individual Christians. May each one of us, precisely through the concrete reality of Mary's universal motherhood, fully acknowledge her as our own Mother, and trustingly commend ourselves to her maternal care. (Theotokos, p.190)
In other words, what the Holy Father was telling us was that the motherhood of Mary in the order of grace is not just a doctrine to be defended: it is an invitation to a personal relationship with our real Mother in heaven! God has no motherless orphans in His world. As His own Son needed an earthly Mother, so from the Cross Jesus shared His own Mother with us, who always need to be guided and nurtured with a mother's love. Mark Miravalle said it best in Meet Your Mother:
Jesus, being fully human, also needed his mom. I believe he needed his mom as he suffered in agony on the Cross. I believe she was for him a precious drop of consolation in the midst of an ocean of bitterness. And I further believe that he wants us to have no less a consolation than he himself had, that he wants us to have his mother as our spiritual mother. (Miravalle, Meet Your Mother. Stockbridge; Marian Press, 2014, p. 8)
O sweetest and holy virgin, look down with the eyes of thy mercy on all the afflictions and all the afflicted that fill the earth. Behold the many poor people, the many widows and orphans, the sick troubled with so many diseases, the captives and the prisoners, the thousands who are cursed and persecuted by the malice of men, the defenseless persons oppressed by the strong and the mighty, the seafarers and pilgrims struggling against perils on sea and land, the missionaries exposed to countless dangers in their task of saving endangered souls. Look down upon the number of afflicted minds, of anguished hearts, of souls tormented by manifold temptations, and of souls suffering...[in] Purgatory. But above all, have pity on the countless souls that are in the state of sin and ... groaning under the tyranny and bondage of [the Devil]. ...
Mother of Mercy, take pity on such great misery. Thou seest, alas, that the earth is crowded with miserable hearts enslaved by Satan, hearts that do not feel the extreme misfortune in which they are plunged! Mother of Grace, I offer thee all of these ... by thy most compassionate heart, I beg thee to take pity on them. Break their chains asunder; implore thy beloved son, Who came into the world to enlighten all men, that He deign to give sight to the blind, and to remove from sinners their hearts of stone, replacing them with hearts obedient to the inspirations of the Holy Spirit.
Mother of Fair Love, I also offer thee the hearts of those of thy children who are faithful, who love and honor thee as their cherished Mother. Preserve and increase the precious treasure which is theirs, that they may love thee more and more, and become more worthy to be the true children of thy heart. (St. John Eudes)
Questions for Discussion Parts 18 and 19
1. Describe the relationship that St. Faustina had with the Blessed Virgin Mary. How can we have a similar relationship with Mary as our Spiritual Mother today?
2. Some people have had very unhappy, broken relationships with their own earthly mothers. How can Mary help bring healing into the lives of such people?
3. How do we know what St. John intended to communicate to his readers by including in his gospel the story of Jesus' words to Mary and John from the cross? What clues do we have about what this Bible passage really means?
Suggestions for Further Reading
• Father Donald Calloway's Under the Mantle, the section entitled "Mary Christmas," pp. 48-57, about Mary's motherhood of Jesus — and of all her spiritual children.
Follow the entire Mary 101 series.
Robert Stackpole, STD, is director of the John Paul II Institute of Divine Mercy, an apostolate of the Marian Fathers of the Immaculate Conception.