Exploration into God is exploration into darkness, into the heart of darkness. Yes, to be sure, God is light. He is the light by which all light is light. In the words of the Psalm, “In your light we see light.” Yet great mystics of the Christian tradition speak of the darkness in which the light is known, a darkness inextricably connected to the cross. At the heart of darkness the hope of the world is dying on a cross, and the longest stride of soul is to see in this a strange glory. In John’s Gospel, the cross is the bridge from the first Passover on the way out of Egypt to the new Passover into glory. In his first chapter he writes, “We have beheld his glory, glory as of the only Son from the Father.” The cross is not the eclipse of that glory but its shining forth, its epiphany. In John’s account, the death of Jesus is placed on the afternoon of the fourteenth day of the month of Nisan, precisely the time when the Passover lambs were offered up in the temple in Jerusalem.
Lest anyone miss the point, John draws the parallel unmistakably. The legs of Jesus are not broken, the soldier pierces his side and John writes, “For these things took place that the scripture might be fulfilled, ‘Not a bone of him shall be broken.’ And again another scripture says, ‘They shall look on him whom they have pierced.’” In the book of Exodus, God commands that no bone of the paschal lamb is to be broken. Then there is this magnificent passage from the prophet Zechariah: “And I will pour out on the house of David and the inhabitants of Jerusalem a spirit of compassion and supplication, so that, when they look on him whom they have pierced, they shall mourn for him, as one mourns for an only child, and weep bitterly over him, as one weeps over a firstborn.”
Here on Calvary’s hill, all is fulfilled. It is the glory of Jesus’ cry, “it is finished.” The cross is the moment of Passover from the old covenant to the new. Weeping at the cross, Mary is both the mother of sorrows and the mother of hope. The resurrection glory is discerned in the way that Christ dies. Now the reason for the whole drama becomes clear in the Son’s unqualified obedience to the Father, even to death, and the Father’s promise to glorify the Son. John says nothing about the risen Christ appearing to his mother. The other disciples discovered the resurrection glory at the dawn of the third day. Mary had already discovered the glory in the cross. There she took “the longest stride of soul.”
“In the Cross of Christ I Glory,” declared the nineteenth-century hymn writer John Bowring. It seems a strange, even bizarre, glory. “We have beheld his glory,” St. John wrote, meaning that he was there, with Mary, beholding the final and perfect sacrifice. In the churches of Asia Minor that were founded by John, Easter was celebrated not on Sunday, as with the other churches, but on 14 Nisan, the anniversary of Christ’s death. This was his “hour” of glory. The resurrection ratified and reinforced what was already displayed on the cross. When John, therefore, places Mary at the cross, he is placing her at the very center of salvation. She was there, with him, beholding a glory different from, even the opposite of, everything ordinarily meant by glory. It was God’s glory, which is love.
This is the light in which we are to understand those exultant passages in I John. “That which was from the beginning, which we have heard, which we have seen with our eyes, which we have looked upon and touched with our hands, concerning the word of life—the life was made manifest, and we saw it, and testify to it, and proclaim to you the eternal life which was with the Father and was made manifest to us.” (Mary and I, we saw it!) John continues: “By this we know love, that he laid down his life for us; and we ought to lay down our lives for the brethren.” “So we know and believe the love God has for us. God is love, and he who abides in love abides in God, and God abides in him.”
In the cross we see that of which humanity is capable: self-transcendence in surrender to the Other. All the evidence to the contrary, we are capable of love. The sign of shame and death becomes the sign of cosmic possibility. Here is the axis mundi, the moment upon which all reality turns. A third century paschal homily captures the full reach of the truth:
This tree of heavenly dimensions rose up from earth to heaven, the foundation of all things, support of the universe, holder of the whole world, cosmic bond keeping unstable human nature united and securing it with the invisible nails of the Spirit so that, firmly gripped to the divinity, it can no longer break away. With its top branches touching the sky and its roots firmly set in the earth, it holds in its infinite embrace the many and intermediate spirits of the air.
It is the cross that binds John to Mary, and binds all disciples to one another in a mutual gift of self. Christ is the gift, and Christ enables us to give the gift, which is finally the gift of Christ. That is what St. Paul is getting at when he declares, “it is no longer I who live, but Christ who lives in me.” In his third-century commentary on the Fourth Gospel, Origen reflects on our scene of Mary and John at the cross:
Whoever is to become a perfect disciple like John must become such, to be chosen, as it were, like the John who is Jesus. There is no other son of Mary besides Jesus and yet Jesus said to his mother, “Behold your son.” He did not say, “Behold, this too is your son.” What does this mean except that he is saying, “This is Jesus whom you brought forth.” In fact, the one who is perfect no longer lives but Christ lives in him. Since Christ lives in John, when he speaks of him to Mary he says, “Behold your son”— meaning, behold Christ.
“The John who is Jesus.” What a curious expression that is. Yet Jesus might say the same to Mary about all his disciples. They are all her sons and daughters for he, her son, lives in them. Mary, then, did not lose her son on the cross; she gains sons and daughters beyond number, in all of whom the glory of Christ abides. But this one disciple, this John, was given an extraordinary privilege. We read, “From that hour the disciple took her to his own home.” We are invited to believe that Mary spent her last years with John. Perhaps, to use an old-fashioned expression, she kept house for him. We do not know. But we are invited to reflect that John, when he wrote about the Word become flesh, lived under the same roof with the one through whom it happened.
In their life together, in their eating and talking together, Mary knew each day that she had not lost her son. In the Spirit-seared gathering with the disciples at Pentecost, perhaps she heard again the voice from the cross, “Behold, your sons. Behold, your daughters. In them, I am with you.” Then, as though for the first time, she really understood what Jesus meant on that long ago day when she had tried to see him and he responded to those who announced that she was there, “Who are my mother and my brothers?” There was no denying that that had hurt. Jesus added, “Whoever does the will of God is my brother, and sister, and mother.” But of course, by doing the will of God she first became his mother, and thus did she become the Mother of the Church, the mother of all who do the will of God. Of course her last word had to be and will always be, “Do whatever he tells you.” Wherever or however Mary appears, her message can finally be none other than that: “Do whatever he tells you.” Her motherhood increases through all who obey her son.
Of strangest strangeness is the glory. It is the wild glory of abandonment. “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” She was watching him and he was watching her and they both knew the words of the psalm: “Yet thou art he who took me from the womb; thou didst keep me safe upon my mother’s breasts. Upon thee was I cast from my birth, and since my mother bore me thou hast been my God. Be not far from me, for trouble is near and there is none to help.”
From our birth, from our mother, we are cast upon God. What was true for us was true for Jesus. There is no danger of accenting too much his humanity. Christians are always getting themselves into a muddle about what it means to say that Jesus is both divine and human, God and man. Some appear to think he was 50 percent one and 50 percent the other, or end up with two persons, one divine and one human. Theologians speak in technical terms about the “communication of attributes” between the Divine and human in the one person. But for the moment I suggest we set aside the conceptual fretting and vain search for precision about what surpasses understanding. Rather, we fix our attention on this mother and this son. We cannot delve too deeply into the human, for it is the fullness of the human that is here redeemed. How is it that from our birth, from our mother, we are cast upon God?
We are cast upon God when we wonder. In wonder is wisdom born. The most elementary and at the same time the most profound of questions is, “Why is there anything at all and not nothing?” Why am I? We must never be embarrassed about asking something so basic, so apparently naive. In our supposed sophistication we may suppress the question, we may become practiced at forgetting it, but we never really get beyond it. The fact that I find myself in a boundless world of innumerable existent beings is astonishing beyond measure. It cannot be explained by any cause derived from the world itself. The expression “I find myself” reflects a measure of self-consciousness, but how did I come to be before I was conscious of my being. Was I “I” then?
At some point, in what appears to be by chance, what I would later call “I” came to be in a fertilized egg inside my mother. It has always struck me as puzzling that some people say that an embryo or a fetus does not look like a human being. That is exactly what a human being looks like when it is two weeks or two months old. It is what you looked like and what I looked like. It is what Jesus looked like inside his mother. Of course he was conceived by the Holy Spirit, and we have no medical data on that. But what he would later call “I” developed in the womb, just as you and I did. As with us, a new being came into being. Reflecting upon itself, it could not interpret itself merely as a product of chance. It could not do that because, from the time it began thinking about such things, it had the capacity to view the world as a whole. Finding ourselves in a world of innumerable existent beings like ourselves, we cannot say that we are the product of chance without saying that everything is the product of chance, which is really not to say much of anything. The word “chance” has no meaning unless there are other things that are by necessity.
“Upon thee was I cast from my birth, and since my mother bore me thou hast been my God.” Jesus could have imagined, as we can imagine, that an infinite number of other beings could have taken “our place” in the universe. Why it should have been me, or you or Jesus, we do not know. But so it was. We can add, in the certainty of retrospect, so it was to be. The expression “so it was to be” is uncomfortably, or maybe comfortably, close to “so it had to be.” Our recoil from the hint of determinism is mixed with our attraction to the possibility of purpose.
Long before I came to self-consciousness and called myself “I,” my mother called me “you.” Jesus first heard “you” from Mary. Long before he could understand, I expect she whispered to him what the archangel Gabriel had told her, but she put it in the second person singular: “You will be great and will be called the Son of the Most High; and the Lord God will give you the throne of your father David, and you will reign over the house of Jacob forever; and of your kingdom there will be no end.” Mary did not know what it all meant, and the baby only smiled at the sound of the voice of the woman for whom he was the infinitely treasured “you.”
Of course the child does not come into the world asking questions such as, Why is there something rather than nothing? Or, Why am I rather than someone else where I am? Balthasar writes: “And yet the child is aware, in the first opening of its mind’s eyes. Its ‘I’ awakens in the experience of a ‘Thou’: in its mother’s smile through which it learns that it is contained, affirmed, and loved in a relationship which is incomprehensibly encompassing, already actual, sheltering and nourishing.” As Martin Buber classically explained, the I-you relationship between persons carries within it the hint of the I-Thou relationship to the mysterious, to the Divine, to the strange glory. Every child who is blessed with a loving mother first discerns in the mother’s smile the presence of a Thou by which the child is encompassed and by which his or her being is secured. “Everything is all right,” says the mother to the child crying in the night, and in that “Everything is all right” the child intuits a grand metaphysical statement about the nature of reality. In trusting the mother’s assurance, the child trusts that the universe is home, that he or she belongs here.
Jesus encountered the Thou in Mary’s smile. But here it is different. Mary, pondering in her heart all that happened and whispering to him the words of the archangel, encountered in her baby, however little she understood it, the Thou by which her existence, the world and the stars beyond number are secured. She looked not up but down into the face of her Creator. She is Thou to him and he is both “you” and Thou to her; he is both her baby and the Son of the Most High. As time went by, and as happens with children, she would become “you” to him. As doesn’t happen with other children, he Would become ever more Thou to her. It would break Mary’s heart to lose the one whom she first called “You,” as she was led to surrender ever more to the Thou who is the glory of God whom she once held in her arms and who holds all things in being. The mother would come to understand that, from the beginning, she was held by the One whom she held.
Such was the curious bond between Jesus and Mary, in the cradle and on the cross. As a baby he first awoke to the Absolute—to “God”—in the loving presence of a mother who was for him the reassuring field of reality. She was the secure field of all being in which he received unqualified permission to be. The alternative to her was not to be, and that alternative was unimagined and unimaginable because she was. Only later, and with difficulty, does the child learn to distinguish between the love of God and the primordial love of the parent. For most of us the distinction is never absolute, and perhaps is not meant to be.
“Truly, I say to You, unless you turn and become like children, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven,” Jesus would later say. That turning is conversion, and it is in part a turning back. It is a retrieval of that first awakening to a world when all was miracle and all was play, when all was well in the security of a mother’s love. (In the deep background, hauntingly, is the return from east of Eden, and the angel has, at least for a time, dropped his fiery sword.) Yet conversion is not regression. For adults, too much has intervened to ever permit return to the home of the mother’s breast. Early on, children learn that the mother is not the entirety of the world and that their will and the will of the world are not always at one. Especially in puberty, they discover with alarm the tugs and pulls, both within and outside of themselves, that force them to make a decision about their own identity. Who “I” am is no longer an uncomplicated given but a matter of deciding, and deciding again and again.
For adults to turn and become children, to live again in a world of miracle and play, requires a larger horizon than that provided by the mother. The mother as Thou was but to prepare the way for an encounter with a greater Thou who is able to comprehend the contradictions of one’s ever more complex existence. To be a child again, one must be the child of another parent. As an adult, one can only surrender in the way that a child surrenders, if one surrenders to a love that comprehends all. In short, such a surrender means becoming a child of God.
And after three days of looking for the twelve-year-old boy, they found him in the temple. His mother said, “Son, why have you treated us so?” And Jesus said, “How is it that You sought me? Did you not know that I must be in my Father’s house?” No, Mary and Joseph did not know. “They did not understand the saying which he spoke to them.” Something very fundamental had changed between them. They went back to Nazareth, “and his mother kept all these things in her heart.”
Her heart could not keep so much. Her heart would break before she fully understood, with a shudder of fear and wonder, what it was that she had been telling him when she whispered to the baby, “You will be great, and will be called the Son of the Most High. And of your kingdom there will be no end.” Perhaps, she was at times tempted to think, it was a mistake to tell him. But she finally had no choice except to follow, step by step, the way of the strange glory to which she had said yes. She was the instrument, she was the mediator, of the secret into which he would grow. And now his “hour” had come, and it had come to this, here at Golgotha.
“Come follow me,” Jesus says. The invitation resounds through all the time there is and ever will be, and all who respond in faith—all who exchange their “I” for the “I” of the Christ who lives within them—make their way, one way or another, to the foot of the cross. There they find themselves with John and Mary and a host of bedraggled saints and sinners whose hour has come. And to each of the brothers and sisters in whom he forever lives, to each of us, Jesus says, “Behold, your mother.” And to Mary, “Behold, your children. Behold me.”
—Excerpt from Death on a Friday Afternoon: Meditations on the Last Words of Jesus from the Cross by Richard John Neuhaus