Today’s meditation reflects on the third of the Last Seven Words of Jesus. All seven passages are from the Gospels, and they often serve as the focus of the church’s prayers on Good Friday. Given the length of each mediation, I have chosen to offer one a day, ending on Good Friday. This is the second of eight meditations.
Among the crucial words from Jesus on the cross, why these? Are they a final gesture of filial affection or an effort to provide for Mary?
They are, in fact, neither one. With these words, Jesus entrusts his beloved disciple and his mother to one another’s care as the first members of his church. This is the beginning of the family God longs to create, drawing the two of them and all of us in love, to love and to be loved.
Today’s dominant religious narratives are misleading. To hear most of us, the Gospel is about one of two things: The salvation of individuals or the redemption of society. For our brothers and sisters of a more evangelical bent, each soul is made fit for heaven and sent on ahead, one by one. For our brothers and sisters of a more progressive bent, the gospel is a message that remakes the world, ordering society and promoting justice.
But both narratives capture only fragments of God’s redemptive effort and, as a consequence, they distort our understanding of what God is doing in the world. The Gospel is not about saving the individual who lives in splendid, spiritual isolation, nor is it about reordering the politics of our day. It is about the transformation of souls and lives who are saved to live in relationship with God and with others as members of the body of Christ.
It is that body-life that transforms us and our relationships. It is that body-life that witnesses to the transformation that is possible individually, as well as communally. As such, then, the church is not just the instrument of salvation, it is also our destiny and our home, as we journey into the life of God in Christ. Anything less than that empties the church of its profound calling.
It is not a book club or a gathering of like-minded people. It is not even a place for worship, mutual support or inspiration, though we may receive those gifts there. It is that place where we experience the deep intimacy and connection with God and with one another that can only become a reality at the hands of the one who says, “Behold your mother, behold your son.”
There are, of course, times when life in the church can be comfortable and comforting. We find soul friends. People whose loyalty to God’s calling on their lives and whose awareness of the Spirit’s prompting is a source of encouragement. I’ve had a handful of friends who fit that description, and they are one of life’s sweetest gifts. I am blessed to be married to one of those friends.
There are other times that what means the most to us are the encounters with God that we experience in worship. I often describe my spirituality as Eucharistically centered, by which I mean that my spirituality is fed by the sacrament of Christ’s body and blood. And both gifts undoubtedly strengthen and encourage us in our engagement with the needs of the world. But these are secondary and derivative gifts of the body-life that we share in Christ.
Is that body-life always what it should be? Is it always rich in the gifts that it imparts? Of course not. There are many times that our differences are disquieting, and the body-life of Christ eludes us.
C.S. Lewis understood this. In his Screwtape Letters, master tempter Screwtape advises his new intern, Wormwood to use our discomfort in order to drive us away from God and one another:
When he gets to his pew and looks round him he sees just that selection of his neighbours whom he has hitherto avoided. You want to lean pretty heavily on those neighbours. Make his mind flit to and fro between an expression like “the body of Christ” and the actual faces in the next pew. It matters very little, of course, what kind of people that next pew really contains. You may know one of them to be a great warrior on the Enemy’s side. No matter. Your patient, thanks to Our Father Below, is a fool. Provided that any of those neighbours sing out of tune, or have boots that squeak, or double chins, or odd clothes, the patient will quite easily believe that their religion must therefore be somehow ridiculous….Keep everything hazy in his mind now, and you will have all eternity wherein to amuse yourself by producing in him the peculiar kind of clarity which Hell affords.[i]
Sadly, this is not a temptation that the devil uses just from time to time. This is “The Age of Screwtape.” We have lost our capacity to witness to the power of the Gospel, to its universal embrace — to the community it is able to forge in unity as the body of Christ — to its power to transcend and heal human differences. In its place is a very different kind of witness: a witness to the power of tribalism and division — a witness to diverse versions of the Gospel and churches to go along with it.
We have also set a precedent for the future: Because if we are prepared to walk away from unity in the body of Christ, there is no argument to be made for unity anywhere else — in the world, in our respective nations, and communities, or in our own homes. Where the priesthood of all believers has run amok, every individual is a church.
Until, of course, we realize that in commending his mother to his disciple and his disciple to his mother, Jesus puts an end to that kind of enmity. Then we realize that the very fabric of existence has changed, and what we are promised is not just private healing, but healing that embraces our relationships.
The question, then, is this: Are we prepared to participate in that healing? Are we willing to set aside petty differences, the secret satisfaction that comes with self-righteous indignation, the defining moments we find in conflict with others, and the comradery that we nurture with those in our tribe.
It isn’t clear that we are either willing or prepared. But what choice do we have confronted with the words of Jesus that establish a new way of being?
“Woman, behold your son.
Son, behold your mother.”
With those words
You mend our broken relationships,
Inviting us to embrace a world
Forever changed by your sacrifice.
[i] C.S. Lewis, The Screwtape Letters (New York: Harper Collins, 1996): 6f.