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March 23, 2015

The appearance of Mary, Jesus' mother, and the beloved disciple at the foot of the cross presents a scene perplexing to Scripture scholars. How did they get there?

The three synoptic Gospels – Matthew, Mark and Luke – make no mention of Mary in Jerusalem, let alone at the cross. The synoptics do say women were present at the crucifixion, but only at a distance and only after Jesus' death.

As for the beloved disciple, the other Gospel accounts say the disciples had fled Jerusalem prior to the crucifixion.

Yet, this story of Jesus' mother and the beloved disciple at the foot of the cross, even if not historically accurate, is fitting. It points us to truth, perhaps not historical truth, but surely spiritual truth.

"When Jesus saw his mother and the disciple whom he loved standing beside her, he said to his mother, 'Woman, here is your son.' Then he said to the disciple, 'Here is your mother.' And from that hour the disciple took her into his own home" (John 19.26-27).

The crucifixion, for St. John, is the moment of the origin of the Church. After Jesus' death, water and blood – Baptism and Eucharist – poured from his side. With Mary and the beloved disciple at the foot of the cross, the natural family is overwritten by a new spiritual family.

The Church is, for John, not so much an institution as a spiritual communion, a family. It is held together by bonds of faith and love.

Every family needs a mother and father. At the cross, we witness Jesus making his mother the mother of the Church. As well, the beloved disciple – perhaps deliberately not named because he represents all of us – receives a mother, a mother whom he takes into his home and cares for.

Mary's presence at the foot of the cross is the culmination of her life of faith. In the annunciation account in St. Luke's Gospel she pledges to the angel, "Here am I, the servant of the Lord; let it be with me according to your word" (1.38). She is ready to live in perfect harmony with God's will.

It is not that Mary understood God's will. When Mary and Joseph searched for Jesus for three days and found him in the Temple, he says, "Why were you searching for me? Did you not know that I must be in my Father's house?" Luke writes, "They did not understand what he said to them" (2.49-50).


At Cana, when Mary tells her son the wedding banquet has exhausted its supply of wine, Jesus rebukes her: "Woman, what concern is that to you and to me?" Mary, however, is not offended, but simply says to the servants, "Do whatever he tells you" (John 2.4-5).

Mary is firm in her faith, and becomes the spiritual mother of the Church. But who is the father?

The Church's spiritual father is also the father of Israel: the patriarch Abraham. The Catechism of the Catholic Church says that while Mary is the perfect embodiment of free submission in faith to God's word, Abraham is the model for such obedience. "Because he was 'strong in the faith,' Abraham became 'the father of all who believe'" (144, 146).

Two parallels between Abraham and Mary are instructive. Both are promised a child in miraculous circumstances. To Abraham, God asks, "Is anything too wonderful for the Lord?" (Genesis 18.14). To Mary, the angel Gabriel says, "Nothing will be impossible with God" (Luke 1.37).

Both Abraham and Mary accept the sacrifice of their miracle son. There the parallels end. For the angel holds back Abraham from killing Isaac, but no angel comes to take Jesus down from the cross. Simeon's prophecy to Mary is fulfilled: "A sword will pierce your own soul" (Luke 2.35).


Nothing could prepare Mary for the crucifixion of her son. She accepts it in faith.

Cardinal Carlo Maria Martini wrote of this moment: "Precisely because she has placed her whole being in God's hands and has abandoned to him all that is most precious to her – her own son – she receives from God what God has that is most precious – the body of that Son who will live in the Church that is born in the passion, death and resurrection of Jesus" (The Gospel Way of Mary, 63).

Because Mary followed Jesus to the cross and accepted his death, she became mother of the Church, mother of the new humanity. Mary is the woman of faith and love – two supernatural virtues that are the lifeblood of the spiritual communion we call the Church.