'Woman, behold your Son.'
When my first child was born, the first thing the midwife exclaimed was ‘he has a full head of hair’. Despite the fact that I had no reason at all to question my wife’s fidelity, I thought to myself ‘He’s no son of mine’. Being from a line of bald yet fleetingly ginger men, the sound of a full head of hair on my firstborn indicated a break in the line. (It didn’t take long for the anxiety about genes to dissipate!). Years later, thinking back on that moment, I realised that my instinctive reaction was really about me wanting a son in the ‘line’ I belonged to. Understandable in the light of my father’s recent battle with cancer. Whilst my reaction was quite specific, I know it's part of the human condition.
Deep in our bones is a need to find and keep our place within a family. Yet for many divorce, death and, for nearly 70 million people around the world, displacement dislocate us from the family in which we seek to find a home.
In divorce, death and displacement the natural response is to look for substitutes, replacements for what has been lost. At first glance, as He hangs on the cross, Jesus seems to be offering His mother and friend to each other as substitutes in His own impending death. ‘Woman behold your Son, Son behold your mother’.
Through the ages, Christians have always understood Jesus as saying something more than this. We understand Him to be saying something about Himself, the crucified Christ as the person in whom a new humanity begins, where human relating is reframed and renewed.
Which is odd because here hangs a bastard (a boy born out of wedlock), a bereaved son, a brother rejected by his siblings and a bachelor. Jesus seemingly had a poor track record in family relationships. Who is He to think that He can see Himself as the one in whom a new family begins?
Yet there is a paradox. The one with the poor track record is also the eternal Son, who has lived in perfect harmony with the Father and the Spirit. This is Jesus, who brings that perfect love into creation in Himself so that humanity’s imperfect love can be redeemed. This is Jesus, who describes Himself as the perfect bridegroom waiting with eager anticipation for the arrival of His bride, the church, at the end of time.
It is precisely because He is broken and yet perfect that He can be the one in whom a new family, a new humanity begins. When we come to the cross with our own brokenness, we find there one like us, who identifies with us in the pain of our broken relationships and yet we also find one there who relates perfectly and shows us another way. To Him we take our brokenness, our longings for a family and discover one like us. From Him we emerge, in His love, with a new family and a new way of relating - Loving one another as He has loved us. How?
At the cross we see that Jesus was willing to take the sins of the world onto himself and suffer the consequences. In exchange we have been allowed to walk free with His love in us. This is a love that satisfies the deep longing in our bones for family. And no just us, it satisfies others through us. Mary and John, became friends and were the foundations of communities in which that love met the deep longings of others. That story continues through the church today.
'Woman behold your son, son behold your mother'. Mary and John were never substitutes of Jesus to each other. Rather Jesus was a substitute for them and for everyone.