When referring to the earliest followers of Jesus, the Gospel writers often speak of two groups of disciples: the Twelve and the Women. The Twelve refer to the twelve Jewish men chosen by Jesus to be his closest companions and first apostles, symbolic of the twelve tribes of Israel. The Women refer to an unspecified number of female disciples who also followed Jesus, welcoming him into their homes, financing his ministry, and often teaching the Twelve through their acts of faithfulness and love. Just as Jesus predicted, most of the Twelve abandoned him at his death (John 16:32). But the women remained by his side—through his death, burial, and resurrection. This is the second installment of a four-part series about the women who surrounded Jesus during his passion. (See Part 1: The Woman at Bethany Anoints Jesus.) The final installment will run on Easter Sunday.
Then Simeon blessed them and said to Mary, his mother:
‘This child is destined to cause the falling and rising of many in Israel,
and to be a sign that will be spoken against,
so that the thoughts of many hearts will be revealed.
And a sword will pierce your own heart too.’’
– Luke 2:33-34
Tradition holds that Mary suffered seven sorrows: her flight to Egypt to escape the infanticide, Simeon’s prophecy that her heart would be pierced, those panicked days in Jerusalem when she thought she had lost Jesus in the crowd, walking with Jesus to Calvary, watching her son’s execution, holding his body in her arms, and placing him into the cold tomb.
But there would have been many more sorrows for Mary along the way: when her son left home to travel and teach, when he nearly killed himself fasting for forty days in the wilderness, when whatever happened to Joseph happened to Joseph, when Jesus responded to the announcement of his mother’s presence by saying to his disciples “Who are my mother and my brothers? Whoever does God’s will is my brother and sister and mother.” He was making a point, she must have known, but still, it had to pierce her heart a little.
And as every mother knows, Mary also experienced the quotidian sorrows of motherhood: the first bruised knee, the unkind words of other children, the frightening illnesses, the surprised eyes of a little boy the first time he witnesses injustice, cruelty, or the suffering of another, the gifts she wished she could give him, the memories she wished she could preserve forever, the disappointments she wished with all her heart she could stop.
Sometimes I imagine Mary breathlessly recounting Simeon’s strange prophecy to her friends while they nursed together under the shade of a tree, only to hear the mothers in the group laugh and say, “What kind of prophecy is that? You are a mother! Of course your heart will be pierced. It will be pierced every day.”
Fittingly, Mary watched her son’s crucifixion in the company of other mothers. The Gospel writers describe them as being both “at a distance” and close by. At one point, Jesus looks at his mother and says,“Woman, here is your son.”
The cross is a complicated, frightening thing. There, the God of the Universe experienced every imaginable suffering of his creation, right down to the sense of isolation and betrayal when the Divine seems far away. Because of the cross, God fellowships in our suffering, and we fellowship in his. Because of the cross, we can never say that God doesn’t understand.
In this moment, when Mary’s eyes locked with the eyes of the boy she once nursed, once tickled, once watched fall asleep, I imagine that Jesus understood the suffering of mothers, perhaps the most powerful suffering of all.
Mary was not the first, nor the last, mother to hold the broken body of her child in her arms. She was not the first, nor the last, to weep in the company of mothers as they stumbled their way to an open grave.
It happens every day—when famine claims another little life, when the sudden arrival of blood represents the end of a pregnancy, when cancer strikes yet again, when the phone rings and the news is bad.
It is a pain that pierces the heart.
And, because of today, because of the cross, it is a pain that God Herself understands.