When the soldiers had crucified Jesus, they took his garments and divided them into four parts, one part for each soldier; also his tunic. But the tunic was seamless, woven in one piece from top to bottom, so they said to one another, “Let us not tear it, but cast lots for it to see whose it shall be.” This was to fulfill the Scripture which says,
“They divided my garments among them,
and for my clothing they cast lots.”
So the soldiers did these things, but 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 19:23-26
Woman, Behold, Your Son!
The crowd gathered and looked up at Jesus and the words inscribed above him: “Jesus of Nazareth, the King of the Jews.” But no throne was in sight, just the rugged, wooden cross. Scarlet did not represent royalty, but death. Blood alone adorned his body. He writhed, life draining out of him.
Mary was reeling. In horror, she had watched her son disfigured on the cross and his words jarred her. It was not the first time she received news of an unasked for son. Her mind flashed back to an event that had shaped her more than any other. When she was a young girl an angel had appeared to her and said:
“behold, you will conceive in your womb and bear a son, and you shall call his name Jesus. He will be great and will be called the Son of the Most High. And the Lord God will give to him the throne of his father David, and he will reign over the house of Jacob forever, and of his kingdom there will be no end.” – Luke 1:31-33
Mary had treasured this news and it was now at the forefront of her mind. She looked at John, the new son she did not ask for. Then back at Jesus, naked now, as he was when he entered the world in that dirty stable some thirty years prior. His cries of agony reminded her of his cries as a child. She remembered those protective feelings so new to her as a young mother. She would’ve done anything to prevent him from experiencing pain. She wept, helpless to save him from his current agony.
She looked back at John. She was now unexpectedly asked to mother once again. This son too, she accepted, despite the host of questions swirling in her mind. While Jesus was going through his final hours alone, Mary was comforted by her new son despite the sword-like pain piercing her soul (Lk. 2:35) as she witnessed her firstborn’s final moments.
John was bewildered and overwhelmed as he heard Jesus’ words. Maybe John thought: What does he mean? How can I stand in the place of him? Perhaps He has become delusional from the loss of blood. Does he not remember the bold request of my own mother? She had asked “[Can] these two sons of mine … sit, one at your right hand and one at your left, in your kingdom” (Lk. 20:21).
Surely Jesus did remember. His response to John’s mother now made sense, “You do not know what you are asking. Are you able to drink the cup that I am to drink” (Lk. 20:22)?
John dropped his head in shame, remembering how he naively thought he could drink that cup. How foolish. He had no idea what he had been asking.
He looked to Jesus, then to the criminals on the left and the right. If Jesus had granted his mother’s request, would he and James, his brother, be in the position of those criminals?
Jesus had done nothing to merit this brutality. John wept. He could not shake the thought that he and his brother did deserve to be in Jesus’ place.
Instead Jesus had just tasked him with the care of Mary. He was unworthy and no substitute for Jesus. How could God allow the perfect one to die, while he allowed John, blemished by sin, to take his place as the caregiver for Mary?
Then he thought that it was even more shocking that God could allow Jesus to die this death, the death that John and his brother deserved. He wished he had never arrogantly assumed he could drink the cup that Jesus was now drinking.
Uniting Through Death
While Jesus was alone and abandoned by most of his closest disciples, he would not leave John or Mary aloneAnd Mary at John. While they were pained from watching Jesus die, they didn’t feel it the way he did—isolated—because they had each other. Mary had a new son. John a new mother. But Jesus was separated and being tormented, not only from them but also from the Father. Scripture reads, “Cursed is anyone who hangs on a tree” (Deut. 21:23; Gal. 3:13;). Jesus would finish his mission alone. Most of His disciples had deserted him, but he would establish through his death a new family. He unites others in a community of life and love, even while being subject to death and hatred.
Many onlookers in the crowd continued to scoff and ridicule, but some noticed, “Who is this man Jesus, Who even while facing a cruel and unjust death treats others with such selfless love and compassion?” His disciples would suffer for their trust in him, but never alone.
He had given his body up for them, but they now would become his body, the Church. He would call his people to join together. They would bear one another’s burdens in response to Jesus bearing their burdens on the cross.
The purpose and depth of that community would not be fully comprehended at that moment, but Jesus’ words, “Woman, behold your son!” harkened back to God’s words to Adam in the Garden, “It is not good for man to be alone.”
Christ’s body had been given to establish a new, interdependent body. A family united not through the blood of shared ancestry, but through the blood of Christ. As a family they would rely on one another in times of rejoicing as well as suffering.
Alone he builds community; empty handed he gives gifts.
Woman, behold, your son.
Sean Nolan (B.S. and M.A., Summit University) is the Family Life Pastor at Christ Fellowship Church in Fallston, MD. Prior to that he served at a church plant in Troy, NY for seven years and taught Hermeneutics to ninth and tenth graders. He is married to Hannah and is father to Knox and Hazel. He blogs at Hardcore Grace and the recently started Family Life Pastor.