This Meditation was given by my mom, Joyce Carlson, at St. James, Newport Beach on Good Friday. I asked her, of course, if I could post it, and then both of us forgot. So here, finally, it is, in Easter Season, but none too late. Enjoy!
“Woman, behold thy son.
Behold thy mother.”
The Word of Remembrance John 19:25-27
Near the cross of Jesus stood his mother, his mother’s sister, Mary the wife of Cleopas, and Mary Magdalene. When Jesus saw his mother there, and the disciple whom he loved standing nearby, he said to his mother, “Dear Woman, here is your son.” And to the disciple, “Here is your mother.” From that time on, this disciple took her into his home. John 19:25-27.
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Bob and I are members of Wycliffe Bible Translators. We have worked for more than 20 years as part of a translation team for the Supyire people of southeastern Mali, with the goal of sharing God’s Word with them in their own language. When you live among people like the Supyire, trying to understand what they are saying, and thinking, and doing, you discover that the only way to get at their assumptions about the way the world is put together is to listen carefully for a long time, and observe, and record and analyze data, and think about it. And if you do this long enough, it becomes almost second nature to run nearly everything that happens through the particular grid of their thought. So I would like to take a look at this passage from the point of view of the Supyire people.
One thing we have learned about the Supyire is that genealogies are important. Who is your father? Who is your mother? What village did your mother come from and who is her father? Who are your older brothers and sisters and younger siblings?
Like the Jews of Jesus’ day, the Supyire are patrilineal. They look to their fathers for their clan affiliation, their family name, their inheritance, and their place in society. This goes for women too. A woman does not change her name, even after marriage. When she marries, she leaves her father’s village, and joins her husband in the village of his father, and brothers, and ancestors. But she will never give up her own patrilinage. Her children, when they are born, will take the name of their father and become part of his clan. But this woman, though she lives, and dies, and is buried in her husband’s village, she will always belong to the place where her own father comes from.
This creates an interesting situation for Supyire children in the villages where their mothers have come from.
In a mother’s home village, her children are given the name – the status – of narafoo a word which means to lean away, just as the branch of a tree leans away from the trunk. A narafoo is a “leaning away person”. A narafoo is someone with a foot in both worlds. One foot in his father’s world where he gets his identity. Another foot in the world of his mother, where he has an important role to play when there is trouble. The narafoo is a person who can solve problems for his mother’s people. He has the right say what he likes, even if it is insulting. He is free to take what he likes for his own use without asking. And when something goes seriously wrong between one person and another in the family of his mother, the narafoo is called to bring about reconciliation. He has the right to bring the warring parties together and perform the rituals that no one in his mother’s family would dare to do, and to make sacrifices for his mother’s people when all else fails. He is, in other words, a mediator. (Let me point out that in Supyire society, everyone is a narafoo to someone, because everyone has a mother. But the Supyire are choosy about who to call when there is trouble. You don’t call on just anyone from the village where you’ve sent a girl to be married. You call someone who has a proven character of worthiness. Someone that you know can be trusted not to steal, or lie, or spread false rumors. Someone with wisdom and skill and discernment.)
Why is this, that a mother’s son can repair what is broken in a mother’s home village, which he cannot do in his own village? The Supyire have a proverb which says, “No matter how old you are in the village of your father, you will always be a child – a grandchild actually – in the village of your mother.” This is the child who, with almost cosmic indifference to the consequences, can get away with anything. The fact is, if a son is cursed by his own father, the curse will take effect. But no curse from anyone on his mother’s side will be of lasting effect. So this son – this child – who can get away with anything in his mother’s village, will be able to do what the children of the household cannot.
“Woman, behold your son,” Jesus said to his mother.
I think Mary could very easily have thought, for a moment, that he was speaking of himself. She had, after all, been beholding him – looking in his direction – for over thirty years. And with good reason. Looking out for him when he was a child, and then looking to him when he grew to be a man. How could she not look to Jesus first – who is called the Son of Man, but beyond and above that, the Son of his Father in Heaven.
When Jesus spoke his final words from the Cross, he too was speaking to people who were part of a patrilineal society. At the time, the Jews (like the Supyire) looked back to their fathers for their place in society, for their inheritance, and for their names. Mary was most likely the daughter of Heli, who was the son of Matthat, the son of Levi, the son of Melki, and so on, all the way back to King David. John was the son of Zebedee in Galilee. This much we know. But even further back, they (as we), traced their ancestry to Adam – a patrilineage in trouble. A family estranged from the God who created all things.
The fact is, Mary’s family (which includes us), is a mess. Every time we open the newspaper, or check the news online, or go to work, or come home from work, or sit down next to our nearest and dearest, something is going wrong. There is no part of this world that has not been spoiled – desperately spoiled – by our disobedience to the one who made us. How can we not weep with despair and frustration at our continual loss of Paradise?
Last October, while waiting in New York for the arrival of a new granddaughter, I occasionally drove my 5-year-old granddaughter Emma to and from kindergarten. One day after school, Emma settled into her car-seat, opened up the remains of her lunch and bit comfortably into an apple. Then she launched into a speech.
“Nonni,” she said. (I’m Nonni). “Nonni, I need you to pay attention.”
“We’re all gonna’ die. An’ we really, really don’t wanna die, but we hafta die, because … because … because our mommies and our daddies are all sinners.” Then she laughed and said, “I’m jus’ being a speacher.”
And I laughed too, but I thought, “How right you are, dearest Emma.” “We don’t want to die, but we have to die, because (not just our mommies and our daddies, but we) are all sinners.”
We, like Mary and John, are from the village of Adam. We are sons and daughters of Adam, with sin born and bred into us. All of us are broken.
But then we turn to look at Jesus. This son of God, from a different patrilineage altogether, who can come to us in the world – into the towns and villages and cities of Adam’s descendents, to bring salvation from sin, healing from brokenness, and joy out of sorrow. “Look to me … turn to me … and be saved, all the ends of the earth. For I am God, and there is no other,” wrote the prophet Isaiah, hearing the word of the Lord. (Isa. 45: 22)
Jesus is the son of his Father in Heaven, from whom all his authority and power comes, with a name that is above every name. He is without sin, because his Father is sinless. He has a different name and different inheritance. But I think it is interesting that his own Father did lay a curse upon him. The curse of our sin. And Jesus did not evade the punishment. This was his danger, because a curse from father to son takes effect.
But now we can be restored, because he has his other foot in our world. He can come into the broken places in our lives, and heal us, and repair what has been ruined. He is in the line of David through his mother, but he is not like us the sons and daughters of Adam. So from a Supyire point of view, Jesus is the perfect narafoo (the perfect mediator) for us.
From the Cross, he spoke to his mother:
“Woman, behold thy son.”
And in so say, he turns his mother’s face to the beloved disciple whom he could trust to take care of her, and who stands now before her like a son.
“Behold your mother,” Jesus said to his disciple.
I take it as a way to show me, myself, how we all stand in relation to the lost world around us. We who take Jesus as our Saviour – he who was our brother in the world of the flesh – now takes us as his brothers and sisters in the world of the Spirit. We are adopted into God’s family, and our patrilineage changes. So we stand in the place where we too can begin to show the way to the Father. We will never be perfect mediators like Jesus. But we can learn from him, and take up our own crosses, and follow where he leads.
In this giving of mother to son and son to mother, for care and protection, Jesus brought John into a new relationship not only to Mary, but to the whole world of Mary’s people. And it recalls for me that other moment when Jesus, after his resurrection, said to Peter, “Feed my sheep.”
You be one of the ones to take care of those who are lost, and abandoned, and broken. Don’t let even one of these little ones that I love fall to the ground.
Thus, John and all the disciples (and we who now follow in their footsteps), are brought into God’s family. We are brought out of death and woe, and the despair of Adam’s sin, and into the righteousness of God. We are adopted as sons and daughters of the Father, and brothers and sisters with Jesus. And in his strength, we reach forth our hands in love to those who do not yet know him.
Jesus is the perfect mediator – the perfect narafoo with a foot in both worlds, who from the cross, in suffering and death, has the strength to save and restore the whole world. All is known to him who loves us. And he brings us into a new relationship with God who is now our loving Father.