The Woman at the Foot of the Cross (John 19:25-27)

0
331

The essay that is presented here is an exegetical study of St. John’s Mariology based on John 19:25-27. Much of this has already appeared in my book Faith and Life in St. John.[1] I am indebted to Fr. I. De la Potterie[2] for his insights that I have used in this essay.

Introduction

It is a commonly held scholarly view that the passion narrative in the gospel of John (Jn 18-19) is a theological and literary masterpiece of the evangelist. A number of theological themes mentioned in the pre-passion account of Jesus’ ministry are carried through to and highlighted in the passion narrative.  The theme for example of the hour of Jesus (Jn 2:4;7:30; 8:20 etc.) or that of the exaltation/lifting up of the Son of Man (3:14; 8:28; 12:32), the theme of the glorification of the Son of Man (12:23; 13:31-32; 17:1-5) or the themes of Judgement and the Kingship of Christ etc. are emphatically presented in the passion narrative. These themes theologically interpret the passion of Jesus in John’s gospel. As we shall see, the episode in Jn 19:25-27 contains deep theological views of the evangelist. The Christological, Mariological and Ecclesiological aspects of John’s theology are found intertwined here. In attempting to interpret this passage, we shall not try to discover the historical realities behind this unit (it may be impossible to find out what exactly happened historically) but, rather, we shall seek to understand the theological perspectives of the evangelist and the message that he wants to convey through this passage.

Composition of the Episode

This episode consists of a narrative introduction (19:25) and a narrative conclusion (19:27b) and a twofold declaration of Jesus (19:26-27a). The presence of women at the crucifixion of Jesus is mentioned in all four gospels (Mt 27:55-56; Mk 15:40-41; Lk 23:49; Jn 19:25). While the women stand at a distance, according to the Synoptic gospels, in John they are at the foot of the cross, by the cross of Jesus. There is some confusion about the number of women in Jn 19:25. For the evangelist, however, what is important is not the number of women but the fact that the mother of Jesus was there. The fourth evangelist does not use the name Mary but speaks of the “mother of Jesus”. For him more important than her individuality as a person with a name, seems to be her function as the mother of Jesus. The word “mother” occurs five times in these three verses indicating that the theme stressed in this passage is the theme of motherhood. It is also to be noted that the word “mother” forms an inclusion to the episode; the mother of Jesus (19:25) becoming the mother of Jesus’ disciple (19:26b-27).

Interpretation

Jn 19:25: The women were standing by (Greek para) the cross of Jesus. The designation “the cross of Jesus” could mean both the material cross and the mystery of the cross, namely, what is being accomplished on the cross. These women were not simply standing by the material cross, but were somehow participating in the mystery of the cross. There are three reasons for this interpretation:

1) The addition “of Jesus” (the cross of Jesus) is found only here in the gospels and this addition is not really required for clarity. In Jn 19:19, there was a possibility of some confusion as there were three crosses, but the addition was not made there. Of course, it was the material cross that was meant in 19:19.

2) The Greek preposition para with dative of things, if material cross is meant, is found only here in the whole of the NT. This preposition is always used with persons elsewhere in the NT, and it cannot be an exception in 19:25. It seems that here the attention is directed to the person of Jesus crucified rather than to the material cross itself.

3) The “cross of (Jesus) Christ” is a Christian formula, very frequent in Paul, to designate the work of redemption accomplished on the cross. Hence, here too, the “cross of Jesus” is the mystery of the cross. Therefore, the women who were standing near the crucified Jesus were sharing in the mystery of the cross; in some way they were sharing in the work of redemption accomplished by Jesus on the cross.

Jn 19:26-27a (Jesus’ Declaration): The two declarations of Jesus, which are parallel to each other, show that the words of Jesus are about a mutual relationship between the mother of Jesus and the beloved disciple to begin from now on. The mother of Jesus is addressed first and so she is given the main function; moreover, it is her future, not that of the beloved disciple, that is considered in verse 27. What Jesus declares in verses 26-27a is a revelation. According to de Goedt, we have here John’s formula or literary scheme of revelation.[3] The formula consists of three elements: i) the verb of seeing, ii) the verb of saying and iii) the particle “behold”. This way of speaking introduces someone in a new perspective which was hidden up to now but is revealed by the one who sees and manifests it in this form. There are four examples of this revelation in the fourth gospel, two on the lips of John the Baptist and two by Jesus himself.

1:29: John the Baptist sees Jesus coming to him and says: “behold, the lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world”.

1:36: John the Baptist saw Jesus walking along, and said, “behold ,the lamb of God….”

1:47: Jesus saw Nathaniel …coming to him and said of him “behold, a true Israelite in whom there is no guile”.

19:26-27a:  When Jesus saw …his mother and the disciple whom he loved standing near saidbehold , your son,” and said to the disciple, “behold, your mother”.

The meaning of this formula of revelation is clear. John the Baptist seeing Jesus, reveals him to the people of Israel as the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world. In Jn 1:47, Jesus (using the same formula) reveals to the bystanders that Nathaniel is a true Israelite without guile unlike the original Israel (Jacob) who was full of guile and deceit. In Jn 19:26-27a, we have exactly the same formula. Jesus, seeing his mother and the disciple, reveals something about them. As Brown observes, “In this formula the one who speaks is revealing the mystery of the salvific mission that the one referred to will undertake; thus, the Sonship and Motherhood proclaimed from the cross are of value for God’s plan and are related to what is being accomplished in the elevation of Jesus on the cross”.[4]

Many commentators are of the view that both the beloved disciple and the mother of Jesus at the foot of the cross have representative roles and that they represent larger groups; the beloved disciple symbolizes the believer, and represents the believers and the mother of Jesus is the figure of the Church. The expression “beloved disciple” evokes the theme of discipleship and the theme of Jesus’ love. This expression is found for the first time in 13:23 and then in 19:26; 20:2; 21:7, 20. The person, thus designated, remains anonymous and possibly therefore it is not so much an indication of Jesus’ special love for this disciple as situating a disciple within the sphere of Jesus’ love. The disciple whom Jesus loved is probably a personification of Jesus’ disciples and so represents all the disciples as such who are loved by Jesus.

Similarly, Mary at the foot of the cross has also a representative role. If the beloved disciple is a symbolic figure of the Christian, Mary as the mother of the beloved disciple is symbolically the mother of the Church, mother of all Christians; naturally her motherhood here is on a spiritual level.[5]  The revelatory words of Jesus from the cross to his mother and the beloved disciple are then constitutive of the Church, the new Messianic Community.

The seamless, undivided tunic in 19:24 symbolically points to the unity of the Church.[6] What was implied in a negative and symbolic description, namely, the unity of the Church in 19:24, is now positively presented in 19:26-27.

The passage in 19:28-30 is a continuation of 19:25-27. The expression “after this” in 19:28, establishes an explicit connection with the previous unit as if what follows in 19:28-30 is the conclusion and illustration of the preceding event (19:25-27). The fulfilment of scripture mentioned in 19:28-30 is not about the fulfilment of any particular text but about the completion of the work of the Messiah. In other words, when the messianic work is brought to an end, then the scripture is fulfilled. The messianic work is brought to an end and the scripture is fulfilled through the constitution of the messianic community (19:25-27) to which the Spirit is now given (19:30). As Brown observes, “The action of Jesus in relation to his mother and the beloved disciple completes the work that the Father has given Jesus to do and fulfils the Scripture”.[7]

Because of the connection with the previous episode (19:23-24) about the unity of the Church and with the following unit (19:28-30) about the fulfilment of Scripture and about the giving of the Spirit, the central passage in 19:25-27 is also certainly dealing with the Church. Therefore the sayings of Jesus from the cross in 25b-27 cannot be considered as a personal gesture of a dying son prompted by some filial care and concern for his mother. Such a non-theological interpretation would make 19:25-27 a misfit among the highly symbolic and theological episodes that surround the crucifixion narrative in the gospel of John.

Mariology of John

In the fourth gospel, the name “Mary” in reference to the mother of Jesus is not used, instead she is mentioned only as the mother of Jesus. More than her name and her individuality what is important for John is her duty, her function as the mother of Jesus. There are only two places in John’s gospel where the mother of Jesus is mentioned (2:1-11 and 19:25-27). The principal passage about Mary is the scene described at the foot of cross of Jesus (19:25-27).

“Woman”: The words “woman” and “motherare found in 19:25-27. These evidently link our passage with several episodes in the Bible. First of all we note its linkage with the episode in Cana of Galilee Jn 2:1-11. The Cana episode mentions “the mother of Jesus”, “woman” and the “hour” as in 19:25-27. Just as in 2:1-11, in 19:25-27 too Jesus calls his mother “woman”. In 2:4 we read, “Woman, what is it to you and to me? My hour has not yet come” and in 19:26-27, “woman, behold your son,…and from that hour…” It is strange for a son to call his mother “woman”. Jesus calls his mother “woman” at Cana perhaps to indicate that personal and blood relationships are not very important from now on, and that they are to be transcended. The mention of the hour of Jesus in Cana, which had not come then, together with the form of address “woman” (2:4) seem to have their meaning in relation to 19:25-27.  In other words, the “woman” as having some shares in the messianic work which Jesus will perform in his hour. Thus John the evangelist presents Mary the mother of Jesus at the beginning (2:1-11) and at the completion (19:25-27) of the messianic work of Jesus; in the former as the mother of Jesus the Messiah and in the latter as the mother of the messianic community constituted by Jesus in his hour.

The book of Genesis speaks about the motherhood of Eve in relation to all the living. “And the man called his wife’s (woman’s) name Eve because she was the mother of all the living” (Gen 3:20). In Jn 19:26 and 2:4, Mary is called “woman” by her son and here there is an allusion to Gen 3:20. Just as the woman Eve was made “mother of all the living”, so Mary the “woman” of the messianic times is the new Eve and she begins to be the mother of all the believers in Jesus. Other texts like Gen 3:15, “I will put enmity between you and the woman…” and Rev 12:1-6 mention woman and her child (son). In this latter text there is clear allusion to Gen 3:15. Although Rev 12:1-6 is not directly referring to the mother of Jesus, but to the persecuted Church, the mother of the Messiah (child) is called “woman”. Just as in Gen 3:15 and Rev 12:1-6 in Jn 19:25-27 too, the woman and her son are mentioned.

Again, the metaphor of child birth in Jn 16:21 is anticipation, as it were, of the scene at the foot of the cross in 19:25-27. In many ways, Jn 16:21 is parallel to Jn 19:25-27. “When a woman is in travail she has sorrow, because her hour has come; but when she is delivered of the child she no longer remembers the anguish, for  joy that a child is born to the world” (16:21). This text is found in the farewell discourse of Jesus and here he speaks about his passion and death with the metaphor of child birth. Between this text and 19:25-27, there are several points of contact, principally, woman, motherhood and hour. In the metaphor of child birth in 16:21, there is mention also of sorrow, anguish, pain, birth of a child etc. which are also applicable to the scene at the foot of the cross. It is possible then that in writing 16:21, the evangelist is anticipating the hour of Jesus and of the woman who is to be declared mother in 19:25-27. Therefore, Mary at the foot of the cross is to be understood as the mother of the messianic people or better as giving birth to the messianic community the Church.

The mother of Jesus and the beloved disciple are both representative figures; they both represent the Church. The disciple of Jesus represents the disciples or believers as such and the mother of Jesus represents the Church herself in her maternal function. She is thus the type or the figure of the Church and the mother of all the faithful. From all this, it becomes clear that the Mariological doctrine of this passage is integrated into the ecclesiology of John.[8]

Jn 19:27b: The Johannine thematic word “hour” occurs in verse 27b for the last time. If the preceding verse and the immediate contexts have a profoundly theological significance for John, then the concluding verse (v.27b) cannot be understood merely in the historical sense. The “hour” here must have something to do with the hour of Jesus. The expression “from that hour” in verse 27b is not a chronological indication, but refers to the theological hour, namely, the decisive hour of Jesus’ glorifying and Spirit-giving death (cf. 19:30); besides, it also refers to the hour of Jesus’ revelatory words from the cross to his mother and to the beloved disciple. It is in this hour of the glorification of Jesus and of the giving of the Spirit that the mother of Jesus becomes the mother of Jesus’ disciple and the disciple of Jesus becomes the son of Jesus’ mother. In other words, the hour of Jesus’ death and glorification coincides with the spiritual motherhood of Mary, the inauguration of the time of the Church. It is the hour of Jesus, the hour of Mary and the hour of the Church – all contained in the last mention of the hour in the fourth gospel.[9]

 The verse does not describe any external fact of the beloved disciple giving hospitality or shelter to the mother of Jesus in his house. It is about accepting Mary in faith and fulfilling the duties of his new relationship. Thus for the evangelist, a new community, the messianic community the Church is born at the foot of the cross, a community endowed with the Spirit. With the birth of this new community the messianic work of Jesus has been brought to an end and the Scriptures have been fulfilled (19:30).[10]

 Conclusion

The above brief exegetical study of John 19:25-27 reveals that the Johannine Mariology is closely related to his view of Christology and Ecclesiology. The mother of Jesus is a partner in the salvific mission of her son and in this episode she is made the mother of all the believers in Jesus.

Fr. Michael Naickanparampil, C.Ss.R.

Liguori Province, nmichaelcssr@yahoo.com

———————

Bibliography: 

[1] See M. Naickanparampil, Faith and Life in St. John: The Spiritual Orientation of the Fourth Gospel (Bangalore, ATC. : 2011), 134-142.

[2] See I. de la Potterie, “De narratione  passionis et mortis Christi: John 18-19, Lecture Notes (PBI, Rome: 1971).

[3] See M. de Goedt, “Un scheme de revelation dans le quatrième Évangile,” NTS 8 (1961-62), 142-150, esp.145-147; R. E. Brown, Gospel, II, 923 calls it a “revelatory formula”.

[4] See R. E. Brown, Gospel, II, 923.

[5] Ibid., 923-927, has a fairly detailed discussion of the representative roles of the beloved disciples and the mother of Jesus in 19:26-27. He refers to the Patristic view (St. Ephrem and St. Ambrose) of Mary as the type of the Church and cites several modern scholars who emphasize the symbolic or representative roles of the beloved disciple and the mother of Jesus. Brown himself is in agreement with the interpretation of Mary as the mother of Christians but he does not accept the concept of the spiritual motherhood of Mary for all the believers. How else does Mary become the mother of the Christian? Brown does not explain this. According to him this is a later “theologizing tendency that goes beyond any provable intentions of the evangelist.” P. 925).

[6] See I. De la Potterie, “De narratione passionis et mortis Christi: Joh. 18-19”, Lecture Notes (Roma, Pontificium Institutum Biblicum:1971), 155-158, who cites the Fathers of the Church such as Cyprian, Jerome, Athanasius, Augustine, Venerable Bede and modern scholars like Hoskyns, Lightfoot, Barrett, Brown and others in support of this interpretation. See also R.E.Brown, The Gospel according to John, II, 920-922 and the authors cited there.

[7] Ibid., 923;  See also his The Death of the Messiah, I, 34, where he says, “Jesus does not die alone, gathered near the cross are followers, his mother, the beloved disciple and others. He relates them to one another in family bonds and thus leaves behind a community of believers. Then knowing that he has completed the scriptures and all that the Father has given him to do, Jesus says, ‘it is finished,’ and gives over his Spirit to these believers, thus laying down his life of his own accord as he said he would”.

[8] I. de la Potterie, “De narratione,” 173.

[9] See G. Mlakuzhiyil, The Christocentric Literary Structure of the Fourth Gospel (Roma, Editrice Pontificio Istituto Biblico: 1987), 164 and the authors quoted in notes 142, 143 and 144.

[10] So I. de la Potterie, De narratione, 174-180, especially 179; R. E. Brown, The Death of the Messiah, I, 34.

Print Friendly, PDF & Email