The complex relationship of Mary and JesusBy John W. de Gruchy
Jesus’ relationship to his mother was complex. On several occasions he treated her with an abruptness that seems completely out of character. Troubling as these might be to some, they resonate with our own experience of parenting, if we have been blessed with children.
There comes that moment when little Johnny is little no more, but has imperceptibly or more abruptly grown up and moved beyond our sphere of control. Our children may develop in ways that we find puzzling or unacceptable. Or they may become involved in good and noble causes that bring hardship and even suffering. Maybe they decide to become missionaries in some far off land, or follow some other vocation that has no promise of financial enrichment or social status.
If we bring up children in a way that encourages their independence, then we should not be surprised when they become independent. If we bring up children to stand for what is right and just in society, then we should not be surprised if they become involved in the struggle for justice and peace in the world, and suffer the consequences. This does not mean that our children have turned their backs on us, but rather that they have taken us seriously and been nurtured in a certain way.
I recently remembered the second anniversary of my son Steve’s tragic death. Though he seemed to have an independent streak from birth, the day came when Steve left home to “do his own thing.” This brought us joy and pride, but also some anxious moments. There were two occasions when he ended up in jail because of his involvement in anti-apartheid activities. Then there was the traumatic sadness of his divorce after only a few months of marriage to his childhood sweetheart. And then when he finally settled down, was happily remarried, began to have children and became the minister of a large congregation in Cape Town, we were delighted that we lived so close to him and Marian.
But then they felt called to leave Cape Town and go to Kuruman, where Steve became director of the Moffat Mission. We were sad to see them go so far away, but we admired what they were doing, just as we have felt deeply the fact that both Jeanelle and Anton have moved so far away in search of their dream. This is the experience of many parents. It is part of parenting, a learning to let go. But it is also part of learning to be human. We cannot keep our children, spouses, students, those we employ or even friends in a state of dependency; they need freedom to become who they truly are. In the process the bonds are not broken; they are deepened, but they are different.
Imagine Mary — Joseph seems to be out of the picture once Jesus had grown up — as the truth gradually dawns on her that her son is destined to become a wandering preacher with no home to call his own, no wife and family to bring her joy, and that he is set on a collision course with the religious and political authorities of the day. Occasions inevitably arose, as he set his face towards Jerusalem, when he had to resist the temptation to go back to the security of home. Mary must have wept many tears as the tension grew greater and her longings increased. She had known such tears from the days of his birth, but it only dawned on her that memorable day when 12-year-old Jesus stayed behind in the temple in Jerusalem without telling his parents. Frantically she and Joseph searched until they found him in the temple and heard his somewhat imperious words: “Do you not know that I am about my father’s business?” It is difficult to let go.
But then the scene changes. Mary has come to accept the fate of her son. He has been handed over to the authorities, and the crowds have bayed for his death on a cross. She, with a few other woman friends of Jesus (the male disciples having all fled to watch from a distance), are standing near the cross, watching the awful unfolding agony of her son being put to death. But near Mary there is one male disciple, John, the one Jesus loved in a special kind of way. Amid the gruesome agony of the crucifixion scene comes the most tender moment in the gospel story.
Looking down from the cross, Jesus recognizes his mother and his beloved disciple, John, standing there. The emotions are beyond description. Jesus was finally taking leave of his mother, who had nurtured him from birth and was now standing by him in his final hour of need. In that moment he utters these profound and tender words: “Woman, here is your son.” Then he said to the disciple, “Here is your mother” (John 19:25b-27). Mary and John were now bound together in a way that was not true before, and in a relationship that lasted until her own death.
There is one scene that completes the picture of what happened on that awesome day, a moment in time made immortal in marble by Michelangelo many centuries later. When I first saw the Pieta in St. Peter’s Basilica in Rome, it was not encased in a glass security box like it is today. You could go right up to it, touch it and almost feel Mary’s devotion as she receives Jesus body from the cross and cradles it as she had his infant body in Bethlehem. Mary, who had learnt the painful lesson of letting Jesus go, had now received him back into her arms.
John W. de Gruchy is emeritus professor of Christian Studies at the University of Cape Town and Extraordinary Professor at the University of Stellenbosch. This blog post is provided thanks to our partnership with the Anabaptist Network in South Africa.
Comment on the blog post The complex relationship of Mary and Jesus
Please keep comments civil. MWR editors reserve the right to remove any comment. When posting a comment, you agree to the MWR Comments Policy. Name and comment will be posted; commenters are strongly encouraged to give their full name. Email address is for follow-up only and will not be made public.