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"Behold Your Mother!"

General Audience — November 23, 1988

The message of the cross includes some sublime words of love, which Jesus addressed to his mother and to the beloved disciple John, present on Calvary during his agony.

St. John recounts in his Gospel that "standing by the cross of Jesus was his Mother" (Jn 19:25). There was the presence of a woman—already widowed for years, as everything suggests—who was about to lose her son also. Every fiber of her being was shaken by what she had seen during the final days of the passion, by what she felt and offered now, beside the cross of execution. How could one prevent her from suffering and weeping? Christian tradition has perceived the dramatic experience of that woman full of dignity and decorum, but with a broken heart, and has paused to contemplate her while participating intimately in her sorrow:

"Stabat Mater dolorosa

iuxta crucem lacrimosa

dum pendebat filius."

It is not merely a question of flesh and blood, nor of an affection undoubtedly most noble, but simply human. Mary's presence beside the cross indicates her commitment of total sharing in her Son's redemptive sacrifice. Mary had willed to participate to the very depth in the sufferings of Jesus because she did not reject the sword foretold to her by Simeon (cf. Lk 2:35). Instead, she accepted with Christ the mysterious plan of the Father. She was the first to partake in that sacrifice, and she would forever remain the perfect model of all those who would agree to associate themselves unreservedly with the redemptive offering.

The maternal compassion expressed by her presence helped to make the drama of the death on the cross more intense and profound. Mary is so close to the drama of so many families, of so many mothers and children, reunited by death after long periods of separation for reasons of work, illness or violence at the hands of individuals or groups.

On seeing his mother beside the cross, Jesus recalled the memories of Nazareth, Cana and Jerusalem. Perhaps he reviewed in memory the moments of Joseph's death, and then of his own separation from her, and of the solitude in which she lived during the last years, a solitude which will now be increased. For her part, Mary considered all the things which for years and years "she had kept in her heart" (cf. Lk 2:19, 51). Then more than ever she understood them in connection with the cross. Sorrow and faith were united in her heart. And then, at a certain point, she became aware that Jesus was looking at her and speaking to her from the cross.

"When Jesus saw his mother, and the disciple whom he loved standing near, he said to his mother, 'Woman, behold, your son!'" (Jn 19:26). It was an act of tenderness and filial love. Jesus did not want his mother to remain alone. In place of himself he left to her as a son the disciple whom Mary knew as the beloved one. Thus Jesus entrusted to Mary a new motherhood, asking her to treat John as her son. But the solemnity of that act of entrustment ("Woman, behold, your son!"), its situation at the heart of the drama of the cross, the sobriety and pithiness of the words which could be described as proper to an almost sacramental formula, suggest that over and above family relationships, the fact should be considered in the perspective of the work of salvation. The woman Mary was engaged with the Son of Man in the mission of redemption. At the conclusion of this work, Jesus asked Mary to accept definitively the offering which he made of himself as the victim of expiation, by now considering John as her son. It is at the price of her maternal sacrifice that she received that new motherhood.

However, that filial gesture, full of messianic meaning, went far beyond the person of the beloved disciple, designated as the son of Mary. Jesus wished to give Mary the mission of accepting all his followers of every age as her own sons and daughters. Jesus' gesture has a symbolic value.

It is not merely a gesture of a family nature, as of a son making provision for his mother. But it is a gesture of the world's Redeemer who assigns to Mary, as "woman," a role of new motherhood in relation to all those who are called to membership of the Church. In that moment, Mary was constituted—one might almost say consecrated—Mother of the Church by her Son on the cross.

In this gift made to John and, through him, to Christ's followers and to all humanity, there is a completion of the gift which Jesus made of himself to humanity by his death on the cross. Mary is "all one" with him, not only because they are mother and son "according to the flesh," but because in God's eternal plan they were contemplated, predestined and situated together at the center of the history of salvation. Thus Jesus thought that he should involve his mother not only in his own oblation to the Father, but also in the gift of himself to humanity. Mary, on her part, was in perfect harmony with her Son in this act of oblation and of giving, as a prolongation of her fiat at the annunciation.

On the other hand Jesus was despoiled of everything in his passion. On Calvary his mother was still with him. With a gesture of supreme detachment he gave her also to the entire world, before ending his mission with the sacrifice of his life. Jesus was aware that the final moment had arrived, for the evangelist says, "After this Jesus, knowing that all was now finished..." (Jn 19:28). He wished to include also among the things accomplished this gift of his mother to the Church and to the world.

It is certainly a case of spiritual motherhood, which is realized, according to Christian tradition and the Church's teaching, in the order of grace. "Mother in the order of grace," the Second Vatican Council calls her (LG 61). It is therefore an essentially supernatural motherhood in the sphere of grace which generates divine life in man. It is an object of faith, as is also grace itself to which it is related. It does not exclude but rather implies a whole flowering of thoughts, of tender and delicate affections, and of intense sentiments of hope, trust and love, which form part of Christ's gift.

Jesus had experienced and appreciated Mary's maternal love in his own life. He wished that his disciples also in their turn should enjoy this maternal love as an element of their relationship with him in the development of their spiritual life. It is a question of regarding Mary as mother and of treating her as mother, allowing her to form us to true docility to God, to true union with Christ and to real charity in regard to our neighbor.

It can be said that this aspect also of the relationship with Mary is included in the message of the cross. Indeed the evangelist says that Jesus "then said to the disciple, 'Behold, your mother!'" (Jn 19:27). Jesus expressly asked the disciple to behave toward Mary as a son toward his mother. To Mary's maternal love there should correspond a filial love. Since the disciple takes the place of Jesus in regard to Mary, he is invited to love her truly as if she were his own mother. It is as if Jesus were to say to him, "Love her as I have loved her." Since Jesus saw in the disciple all human beings to whom he leaves that testament of love, the request to love Mary as one's own mother is valid for all. With these words Jesus laid the foundation of Marian devotion in the Church. Through John, he made known his will that Mary should receive a sincere filial love from every disciple whose mother she is by the decision of Jesus himself. The importance of Marian devotion, always desired by the Church, is deduced from Jesus' words at the hour of his death.

The evangelist concludes with the words that "from that hour the disciple took her to his own home" (Jn 19:27). This indicates that the disciple immediately responded to the will of Jesus. From that moment, by taking Mary into his own home, he showed her his filial affection. He surrounded her with every care and ensured that she could enjoy recollection and peace while waiting to be reunited with her Son, and carry out her role in the newborn Church both at Pentecost and in the subsequent years.

John's action was the execution of Jesus' testament in regard to Mary. But it had a symbolic value for each one of Christ's disciples, who are asked to make room for Mary in their lives, to take her into their own homes. By virtue of these words of the dying Christ, every Christian life must offer a space to Mary and provide for her presence.

We can then conclude this reflection on the message of the cross with an invitation which I address to each one, namely, to ask how one accepts Mary into one's home and into one's life. May everyone appreciate to an ever greater extent the gift which Christ crucified made to us by leaving us his own mother as our mother.