WE SHALL soon hear today’s Gospel again, when Holy Week unfolds the Passion for us once more. Jesus’s active ministry — three years, in which he was accompanied by many disciples, both male and female — is over. Usually, the men were at the forefront: arguing with Jesus, and being taught, sent, or rebuked by him.
The only male follower who is mentioned as being there at the foot of the cross is the beloved disciple. Some scholars question this, given that none of the Synoptic Gospels records any male disciple as having been present. It is possible, though, that the fourth Gospel comes from a community that preserved the disciple John’s recollection of the Passion: naturally, he saw events from his own particular angle.
In all four Gospels, a number of women keep watch close by Jesus in his final hours. But John the Evangelist draws our gaze to Mary his mother, who not only sees her son suffering terribly, but also knows that it could have been different, if he had chosen autonomy in place of obedience.
The situation of both is pitiable. While enduring suffering is painful, it is not so painful as watching the suffering of someone you love while being unable to help them — like Mary. The situation of Jesus is yet more pitiable; for he has to look on Mary’s suffering, knowing that he could have chosen to stop it, and that by refusing to avoid his calling he was compounding her grief.
Quite a lot of human relationships end up in tangles of unanswered need, even if the consequences are purely personal rather than world-changing. One thing that helps people to form close relationships is a sense of mutual understanding and appreciation. But, for most of us, that sense is only partial. When the relationship is tested, our unspoken longings may escape the notice of our beloved. That can lead to disillusionment.
When Paul writes to the Corinthians: “just as the sufferings of Christ are abundant for us, so also our consolation is abundant through Christ,” he is describing his own ministry of endurance. The sufferings of Christ have become, in Paul, sufferings for Christ. This connection between the Christian and the Lord is direct, unmediated. Our sufferings are his, and our consolation is him.
Paul states this fact with a simplicity that leaves no doubt: this was his lived experience of Christ, not “merely” his intellectual interpretation of Christ. It is a reality that every Christian can receive likewise. In v.7, Paul reveals this chain of consolation binding Christians together, past, present, and future: “we know that as you share in our sufferings, so also you share in our consolation.”
That mystical conviction that we are not alone, abandoned, and forlorn in our sufferings may be something beyond the power of words to represent. Lived reality, though, is justifiably part of our evidence for the fact that Christ consoles those who suffer. This is neither delusion nor fantasy.
Exodus 2 prefigures the Gospel scene, but in a surprising way. It is not a Hebrew who offers divine compassion, but an Egyptian. But for the tender heart of that Egyptian princess, Moses might not have grown up to be a prophet and lawgiver to his people. His own sister played a key part, too — and, like the women in the Synoptic accounts of the Passion, she too “stood at a distance”.
“In Johannine thought the Beloved Disciple can symbolise the Christian.” So says the Bible commentator Raymond Brown. If we remember to be on the lookout for that idea in the fourth Gospel, this episode from the Passion can be interpreted afresh, becoming a direction for every Christian life. The dying Christ commands us to treat the vulnerable (in which category the widow and the orphan are biblical archetypes) as members of our own family.
At the same time, he commands the vulnerable (a category that embraces every honest Christian) to do likewise with those who reach out to them. Here is a lesson from the Passion to coax us away from fixating on the physical suffering of Christ, and the theological intricacies of atonement. Perhaps, if he had had breath and strength enough to emphasise the meaning of his command in vv. 26-27, he would have turned his eyes on us, and said, “Go, and do likewise.”