A Meditation for Good Friday: The Agony of a Mother Watching Her Son Suffer and Die

“The Passion of the Christ”

Mary: Faithful Disciple of Her Son

Mary, the mother of Jesus, was a disciple of her son all of her life, even up to the moment of his crucifixion and death. In the words of John’s Gospel,

“But there were standing by the cross of Jesus His mother, and His mother’s sister, Mary the wife of Clopas, and Mary Magdalene. When Jesus therefore saw His mother, and the disciple whom He loved standing nearby, 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 into his own household” (John 19:25-27, NASB).

Mary follows Jesus, according to early Christian tradition, on the “Via Dolorosa,” his sorrowful journey to the cross, while most of his apostles desert him. She watches her son suffer and die. In that respect, Mary has much in common with loving parents that have had to watch their child, son or daughter, suffer and die. However, Mary is faithful to Jesus, standing at the foot of the cross, while he is hanging on it in agony, dying for the sins of the world.

Weeping at the Sight of Her Dying Son

Mary must have wept as she saw her son suffer and die on the cross. However, Scripture does not specifically say that she cried. But would not a loving mother, seeing her child dying, cry for him or her? Indeed, she would! Thus, Mary’s grief was expressed poignantly in the words of the Stabat Mater, a 13th century poem:

“At the cross her station keeping, stood the mournful Mother weeping, where he hung, the dying Lord.”

“Pierced” with Grief

On the eighth day after Jesus’ nativity, Joseph and Mary took their child to the temple in Jerusalem to be circumcised, receive the name “Jesus” and consecrated to God. There, the parents of Jesus met righteous Simeon, a devout Jew, and he, taking the child in his arms, praised God and blessed Joseph and Mary. However, Simeon warned her, saying, “a sword will pierce even you own soul” (Luke 2:35).

The Love between a Mother and Child

So, roughly 30 years later, Simeon’s words came to pass: She was “pierced” with sorrow – intense, emotional suffering – at the sight of her son dying on the cross. He was the one to whom she gave birth; whom she nursed at her breasts. She raised him, seeing him grow from a boy into an adolescent and, finally, into a young man. He was the one with whom she ate and laughed. She shared in his joys. But at the cross, she also shared in his sorrow.

Reversal of the Typical Order of Death

What can be worse for a mother than to see her child die? It is contrary to the typical order of nature, because children usually outlive their parents. Parents die first; then their children. Loving parents would not have it any other way than that. They would rather die than see their children die. But, as with many parents, the order is reversed, seeing their child or children die. That heavy emotional burden was also thrust upon Mary who saw her child, her son, suffer and die.

Sympathy and Compassion for Her Son

Because of the intimate connection a mother has with her child, her “heart” “goes out” to the child in sympathy. She is “touched,” an “emotional cord is struck” in her, at the child’s suffering. Similarly, Mary’s heart went out to her dying son, feeling deep sorrow for him. As the Stabat Mater says,

“Deep the woe of her affliction, when she saw the crucifixion of her ever-glorious Son.”

However, compassion, which is related to sympathy, moves beyond it, so that a mother not only “feels” for her child but she also, in a sense, suffers with him or her. Of course, Mary, the mother of Jesus, did not suffer and die for the sins of the world. However, in a very real, but different, sense, she suffered with Jesus. In other words, she intimately associated herself – spiritually, mentally and emotionally – with her son’s death on the cross.

The Relationship between Bodily Pain and Emotional Suffering

He was the Savior. However, he was also “flesh of” Mary’s “flesh” and “bone of her bone” (cf. Genesis 2:23). Thus, while her son suffered from the piercing of the nails, she suffered from the piercing of her soul. While a sword pierced her son’s side, her soul was, as it were, was pierced with a sword (cf. John 19:34; Luke 2:35). Although her suffering was different from his, it was, nevertheless, just as real, because emotional “pain” is just as real as bodily pain. Therefore, Mary did feel her son’s pain. She was afflicted by his afflictions. According to the Stabat Mater,

“For her soul, of joy bereaved, torn with anguish, deeply grieved, felt the sharp and piercing Sword.”

Jesus’ Dying Words to Mary and John

As Jesus hung on the cross, he said to John, with Mary next to him, “Behold, your mother” (John 19:27). Those words must have been extremely difficult, if not virtually impossible, for Mary to hear. For her, how could John or anyone replace her son? Because of her unique love for Jesus, no one could replace him.

From a moral perspective, it is noteworthy that Jesus, in his dying moments, while suffering intensely from the pain of crucifixion, was concerned about his mother; so he made arrangements for John to take care of her. Thus, he “took her into his own keeping” or “received her as his own” (John 19:27). Jesus is, in effect, telling John, “Treat Mary, my beloved mother, as your spiritually adopted mother.” Likewise, Jesus, in effect, is saying to Mary, “Treat John, my beloved apostle, as your spiritually adopted son.”

Holding the Corpse of Jesus

In Christian tradition, when Jesus’ corpse, his dead body, was taken down from the cross by the Roman soldiers, his mother was there to receive it. The emotionally “moving” scene inspired Michelangelo’s sculpture, “the Piet .” Like a loving mother whose child has died, she wants to kiss or hold his or her body. Mary, too, the loving mother that she was, undoubtedly, kissed and held her son’s lifeless body, with its blood rubbing against her face and clothes.

Under the Heart of a Mother

There is a profound relationship, an intimate connection, between a mother and her child, perhaps even more intimate than between a father and his or her child, because during her pregnancy, for nine months, a mother carries the child under her heart. Mary, too, carried Jesus under her heart and when she watched him dying and actually held his dead body, a “sword pierced her soul.”

Honoring Mary

Even as Jesus is suffering and dying on the cross, he honors his mother. Sacred Scripture instructs Christians to give honor to whom honor is due (cf. Romans 13:7). Scripture also says that Christians should imitate Jesus (cf. I Corinthians 11:1; Philippians 2:5). Therefore, because he honored Mary, his mother, Christians, following his example, should also honor her.

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