But standing by the cross of Jesus were his mother, and his mother’s sister, Mary the wife of Clopas, and Mary Magdalene. When Jesus saw his mother, and the disciple whom he loved standing near, he said to his mother, “Woman, behold your son!” Then he said to the disciple, “Behold your mother!” And from that hour the disciple took her to his home.
John 19: 25-7
Today is the Feast of Our Lady of Sorrows. In the gospel we see the love that lies at the core of discipleship and of how the cross is at the heart of the new human community. We receive a revelation of the place of suffering in both the inner and the outer life.
From the first, Mary is seen as the one who receives and lives God’s word to her. At this moment of the crucifixion, she lives out that word by “standing near” and “standing by” the cross, by witnessing and sharing in the death of her Son. In Mary, as in Mary, Mary Magdalene and John, we see those whose love overcomes whatever fear they might have of “being near” the most intense of life’s sufferings.
We live in a culture that is built around the means of avoiding the truth of life as suffering And, to be honest, we realize that often we personally move away from the world’s and our own suffering. It is not easy to see ourselves as a Sister Helen Prejean, who stands by and moves near to those who are facing a society-inflicted death because of horrendous and violent crimes. In an even much more ordinary sense, it is not easy to be near another (or ourselves) who is suffering illness or death, or emotional pain or mental illness.
The first Noble Truth of the Buddha is that human life is suffering. He recognized that there can be no human awakening and therefore life, peace, and joy without reforming those dispositions we have developed to avoid experiencing the suffering in the world and ourselves that we fear we are unable to bear. To varying degrees most of us live moving away from, rather than “standing near” those aspects of reality which we fear we cannot live with. The psychiatrist Mark Epstein writes of an everyday experience of a patient of his who comes to discover something of what she has been missing by avoiding the suffering in her life.
One day, when her college-aged children were home for the holidays, she was driving home feeling how quickly her life was passing her by. One moment her children were little and the next they were adults. Somehow, she let herself feel sad–an uncomfortable feeling she would not usually allow with such ease–and she sat in her driveway crying unabashedly before entering her home. When she told me about it some days later, she remarked upon how much worse the avoidance of the feelings was than the actual experience of them. She was touched in particular by how much love there was in the sadness.
Mark Epstein, The Trauma of Everyday Life
While, obviously, of a very different order from the event at the center of today’s gospel, what is held in common in these events is that in “standing near” to the suffering we can come to discover the love the suffering and sadness may contain.
The gospel passage illustrates this truth by Jesus’ creation from the cross of his new Community. Jesus commands his mother and the beloved disciple to “behold” each other, to see each other in a new way in light of his passion and death. It is suggested that the Greek phrase translated ordinarily as “from that hour” could also be translated “because of that hour.” Jesus’ mother and beloved disciple enter a new relationship through Jesus’ laying down of his life. The “Christian” community is the community of those who become one through the love of God manifested in the presence of God at the heart of human suffering. In this way, we are a community whose very reason for being is to serve the suffering Jesus in the midst of the human experience. The Community is not a place that is removed from sin and suffering, but rather one that recognizes that the world’s suffering is the very place where Jesus is to be found and served.
In this light, our very existence as a Community is the mission to offer ourselves in service, in light of our own unique call and capacities, to the Jesus who continues to live the passion of the human experience. Perhaps it is possible to say that living out our mission is to live the question: “How is God asking us at this moment to be near and to serve the Jesus who continues to bear, in love, the cross of the human experience?”