Standing by 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 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 to his own home. (John 19:25-27)
Most Christians I know are pretty intimidated by the communal approach to life displayed by the early church in Acts 2. We read of selling possessions and distributing the proceeds, and console ourselves with the idea that modern superannuation and social security make these verses irrelevant. John taking Mary into his home, his family tending to her in her old age? Gosh, thank goodness for nursing homes, am I right?
And so, the idea safely pushed away, we stay in our lanes at church, asking politely about each other over tea and coffee, praying for needs at Bible study, but rarely going far out of our way or making a significant sacrifice for another. We are terrified of being defrauded, of suffering wrong (1 Cor 6:7). We skim right over having “glad and generous hearts” (Acts 2:46).
Maybe we need to stop. Take a breath. Loosen our grip on our possessions and time and heart. Look around. Could it be that God wants to see more special relationships in our lives, in his church?
I wonder how the rest of John’s family reacted to the new addition. Was the sacrifice they were called to make only financial? Not at all. They had to give up not just physical space for Mary, but also emotional space. I doubt that Jesus meant for John to install her in a corner and give her the last of their food, the scraps of his attention. A mother deserves respect and honour, to be listened to and loved.
And did Mary have other children who ought to have cared for her? It seems to me from Matthew 12:46-50 that she probably did. But Jesus sends her elsewhere to serve and be served.
Mary had been in unconventional mother/child relationships before John. Apart from having a son who saw himself as having a wider family than blood (Matt 12:46-50; Luke 2:43-51), the person Mary was directed to by Gabriel when he proclaimed her pregnancy was her relative Elizabeth, who she stayed with for three-ish months (Luke 1:36-56). From Elizabeth’s spirit-filled reaction to seeing Mary, and the joy that Mary received from that, it seems quite likely that those months were a time of encouragement and reassurance. The older Elizabeth had waited her whole life to become a mother, and now as she finally grew a child she was simultaneously mentoring Mary in the life of a wife. Meanwhile, the younger Mary assisted Elizabeth in her daily work and helped her through what must have been an exhausting and physically challenging time. There was love and practical care, given gladly.
Christian author Rosaria Butterfield credits the gentle love and practical care of an older couple as being the way God revealed himself to her, and the prayer and counsel of women in her church as being how God helped lead her away from comfort with sin.1 I think it would be stretching John 19 to say we must go about bestowing ‘honorary mother’ titles everywhere—but that didn’t prevent these women from providing personal templates on how to be a Christian. I doubt the couple that shared their warmth with Butterfield started sacrificing their resources from pure affection for her, but rather because of the Jesus-inspired love that comes from the Holy Spirit and the biblical conviction that following God means loving others and discipling them. In other words, the life that Jesus had exemplified to John and Mary for years before he asked them to care specially for each other.
You don’t need to wait to be directly asked to share love and care with someone else. There is a woman in my church who is called ‘aunty’ by just about every child under three—and their parents too. She is the one who gives the parents of newborns a chance to hear the sermon by soothing their crying baby. She is the one with answers to questions about making animal-shaped birthday cakes, calming words amidst colic, and a Costco membership that she is happy to use for others. Is she the most experienced parent in the church? Probably not, but who needs to be the expert in order to love? She makes herself available in the good times and therefore she feels safe to turn to during the bad.2
When I look at my own heart, I find failures to properly enter into relationships. The extremely elderly and fragile woman who is assisted into church every Sunday, who lives in a nursing home a few blocks from my house, and who has even provided special assistance to my family… why haven’t I made more of an effort to go and visit her? I’ve thought about it. I know it’s a good idea. Where is my half of the relationship she started?
In some ways, my question for us at the beginning of the article about relationships is a bit ridiculous. We are the body of Christ, and a body is bound together even more tightly than family. We are already in special relationships with each other—we’re just not always good at acting like we are.
Let’s be spurred today by John and Mary to keep our eyes out for anyone in need of a disciple of Jesus—a cheerful giver—so that we may grow as one in grace-fuelled good works (2 Cor 9:7-8).
1. R Butterfield, The Secret Thoughts of an Unlikely Convert, Crown & Covenant, Pittsburgh, 2012, p. 23.↩
2. I speak from experience.↩