Meanwhile, standing near 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 beside her, he said to his mother, "Woman, here is your son." Then he said to the disciple, "Here is your mother." And from that hour the disciple took her into his own home. John 19:25b-27
Growing up, I didn’t think much about Jesus’ mother, Mary.
Oh, I thought of her at Christmas time when she became the most coveted role in the Christmas pageant. But the truth is that, for most of the year, I didn’t think much about her. And when I did, most of my ideas about Mary were shaped by Hallmark Christmas cards and . . . The Beatles.
After all, I was 8 years old when “Let It Be” was released. I grew up hearing Paul McCartney sing: “When I find myself in times of trouble, Mother Mary comes to me speaking words of wisdom ‘Let it Be.’”
As I grew into adulthood, I began to hear more about Mary—especially Mary as a role model for faith. Mary was portrayed as the model for passive obedience to God. Whatever happened, she didn’t doubt, didn’t argue, just sighed and said, “Let it Be” and so it was.
And despite the fact that she was lifted up as such a wonderful role model for women, I didn’t want to be Mary. Pregnant at 14. Widowed at a young age. Her son running all over the country putting himself in danger. Publically humiliated when she and his brothers tried to get him to come home for a much needed rest. And worst of all, watching her son die a painful, violent death on the cross. All the while saying “Let it Be,” or to borrow from another song of my childhood, “Que Sera, Sera, whatever will be will be.”
But then I actually read what the Bible had to say about Mary!
Mary was anything but a passive fatalist. She was a smart, strong woman who knew what she believed and acted on that belief. While others whispered about the baby she carried, she stood strong. And when her son hung on a cross, she stood with head held high and watched.
The gospels tell us very little about Mary’s presence at the cross, just the two verses I read earlier. And those verses are really more about Jesus and the beloved disciple then about her. But what strikes me about that short description was one simple fact: she was standing.
As a mother, I can’t stand to see my children in pain. When they hurt, I hurt. What’s more, you can inflict much more pain on me by hurting one of my children than you ever could by hurting me directly.
That is why I find it so amazing that Mary was standing near the cross! In the same situation, I would have been doubled over crying, kneeling in prayer, prostrate on the ground, or collapsed in a heap. The pain, the fear, and the grief would have been more than I could have stood. Standing is the last thing I would have had the strength to do.
Yet Mary stood.
The earth is quaking. The sun is darkening. The world is laughing and mocking him. Her son is crying out, “My God, My God, why have you forsaken me!” Her son is dying. The world is falling apart around her. The center no longer seems to hold.
Yet Mary stands.
This is not the posture of fatalist. This is not the posture of a passive woman. Standing is the posture of someone who is strong, in control, and, if not unafraid, then someone who is brave enough to stand and watch.
And Mary stands.
Not that we should be surprised by her courage and her strength! Despite the fact that she is only mentioned in a few passages, Mary has a lot to say.
And that in itself is surprising because the truth is that women are rarely named in the Bible, and it is even rarer for them to speak for themselves. But Mary has something to say just about every time she shows up, and what she has to say is powerful.
When the angel shows up with his unexpected news about the baby, her first response is, “How can this be?” She’s not stupid. She knows where babies come from! What’s more she knows what could happen to her if she is pregnant—stoning, divorce, shame. Yet, when the angel tells her that the baby is an act of God, she responds not simply, “Let it Be.” Rather she responds, “Here I am, the servant of the Lord, let it be with me according to your word.”
“Let it be with me according to your word.”
Mary may not have been highly educated, but she knew her Bible. She may not have been a biblical scholar, but she knew the stories of God and how God interacted with his people. A few months later, when she met up with her cousin, Elizabeth, her response to that meeting was to break forth in a song. We call it the Magnificat because of its opening line: “My soul magnifies the Lord.” But anyone who knows their Hebrew Scriptures would recognize it immediately as a variation on the words of Hannah after she dropped her much wanted and anticipated son, Samuel, off at the temple. I believe Mary knew the stories well. She knew them so well that in a time of great joy, her words were a variation on the words of Scripture.
So when Mary said, “Let it Be with me according to your word,” she was not saying, “Que Sera, whatever will be will be.” Rather Mary was placing her future in hands of one who had proven himself faithful again and again and again. She was standing on the promises of a God she knew something about. A God whom she would declare “has done great things for me.” A God who is just and strong. A God who fills the hungry ones with good things. A God who keeps promises.
Often people speak of trusting God as if trusting God was putting our future into the hands of some sort of unknown entity—akin to believing what Sister Sarah says when she reads your palm or the tarot cards. But we don’t worship an unknown God; we worship a God who chooses to reveal himself to us.
God revealed himself in the life, teaching, death and resurrection of Jesus. God reveals himself in the sacraments of baptism and Holy Communion. And God reveals himself in the words and stories of our Bible.
We don’t trust an unknown God. We trust a God who the Bible reveals to us makes and keeps promises (even when it does seem impossible to us).
And Mary knew God. So when Mary stood and said, “Let it Be” she wasn’t saying, “Whatever . . .” She placing her trust in the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob; a God who keeps his promises. She wasn’t signing up for journey into an unknown future; rather she was signing up to serve a known God.
Therefore, when Mary asked, “How can it be?” and the angel replied, “Nothing is impossible for God,” Mary knew she wasn’t standing on shaky ground; she was standing on the promises of a promise-keeping God.
So Mary stood.
When Jesus was a baby, Mary and Joseph took him to the temple to be presented. While at the temple, they met an old man named Simeon. The old man had taken Jesus in his arms and declared that he could now die in peace because he had seen the promise of God fulfilled. And as Simeon handed Jesus back to Mary, he had told her that Jesus’ ministry would be opposed and that a sword would pierce Mary’s soul also.
Can you imagine the fear that must have caused in the heart of that young mother?
Yet Mary stood.
Standing at the cross, I am sure that Mary felt as if a sword was piercing her soul. Jesus’ pain was her pain. And when Jesus cried out, “My God! My God! Why have you forsaken me!” I’m sure she cried out also. But she stood firm because, despite all evidence to the contrary, she believed in a God who kept promises.
So Mary stood.
Because she knew the stories, knew the scriptures, and knew her psalms, Mary must have been very aware that Jesus was quoting scripture as he cried out “My God! My God! Why have you forsaken me.” That is the first line of Psalm 22, a very painful psalm where the psalmist is calling out for deliverance from suffering. The psalmist speaks of betrayal, of abandonment, of physical pain, and of torture, but the psalm ends with words of great hope and promise:
“Posterity will serve the Lord, and proclaim his deliverance to a people yet unborn, saying that he has done it.” Psalm 22:30-31.
He has done it! It is finished! What looks to the world is the very end turns out to be just the beginning of something wonderful.
Mary didn’t yet know that, but she stood for what she believed. And what she believed was that nothing is impossible for God and that God keeps promises therefore this could not be the end.
So today when I find myself in times of trouble, Mother Mary does come to me, and she does speak words of wisdom to me. She tells me that even when my world is quaking, when everything I believed was true appears to be a lie, when I feel abandoned by God, when I am betrayed by friends, when the world seems to be falling apart and the center doesn’t appear to hold that I can stand on the promises of life-giving, promise-fulfilling God.
She reminds me again and again that nothing—NOTHING—is impossible for a God who brings creation from nothing, forgiveness from guilt, and life from death. I can stand on the grace of God.
She reminds me that I trust not in an unknown God but a God who has proven time and time again that he can be trusted. She reminds me that when things are darkest, the story is not yet over. I can stand on my faith in a God who brings life from death.
In the face of the very worst that life can offer, the violent, painful death of her son, Mary stands for what—no, for whom—she believes. And because we too are servants of that same Lord, in the face of the worst life can throw our way, we too can stand on the promises of the God who loved us enough to give up his glory, to meet us where we are, and who threw open his arms in love and allowed himself to be nailed on a cross.
So on this holy week, as we are tempted to rush from the glory of Palm Sunday to the glory of Easter, as we are tempted to fall to the ground and to avert our eyes from the pain of the cross, we too can stand for the one we believe in.
And when we find ourselves in times of trouble, Mother Mary comes to us whispering words of wisdom, “Let it be with me according to thy word.” And we, like her, can stand.
Thanks be to God.