PIETA by Michelangelo, 1498, St. Peter’s Basilica, Vatican City
From a 2011 Good Friday meditation.
Sometimes when reading the Bible, I am struck by the power and majesty of the Almighty God, so great and so far above us. Psalm 8 expresses this side of God when it says, “Oh Lord, how majestic is your name in all the earth… When I consider your heavens, the work of your fingers, the moon and the stars, which you have set in their place, what is a mere man that you are even mindful of him, and that you even care for him?” Why, asks the Psalmist, does this great God even pay any attention at all to a little man like himself, on this little planet earth, a mere speck of dust among all the galaxies and stars of God’s immense universe?
Then, astonishingly, this great and glorious God makes himself very small, and He becomes a little man, and visits this little world in the person of Jesus Christ. In the New Testament I can read stories about this Jesus, a person like me, someone with whom I can relate. For example, John 19:25 says, “Near the cross of Jesus stood his mother….” His mother. Well, I have a mother. And my mother cared for me when I was a baby, just like we hear in the Christmas story about Mary caring for the baby Jesus. Imagine that, this great God of the universe, as a baby in a mother’s arms. Then, at the foot of the cross, this mother is still caring about her son, only now her son is a young man and he is dying, and she is heart-broken. I have done many funerals at which the mother of the deceased is present, and these mothers often say the same thing. They say, “a mother should not have to bury her own child.” Jesus, Son of God, is right in the midst of one of life’s greatest human tragedies.
Jesus is concerned about what will happen to his mother now that his life is ending. “Dear woman,” he says to her, “behold your son;” and then to John he says, “Behold your mother.” John will now have to see to the care that Jesus had been, or would have been, providing. I also know how this goes. My mother will turn 80 this year. Several years ago she had a stroke and now needs some help. My Dad is healthy and is the primary care-giver, and my brothers and sister also help; but there are some things that only I do, and only I know how to take care of, such as seeing to the many doctor appointments and keeping the medications straight. If something were to happen to me, and I had the time to prepare, I would have to turn over that part of the care to someone else– just like Jesus is doing here.
One more thing. It is thought that Jesus died on the cross at the age of 33. My own son is now 33. That is really young. It is not all that long ago he was getting ready to go to the prom at this time of the year, and not long before that I was teaching him to play ball. Think of the memories going through Mary’s mind as she watched her son die. Imagine the scene. Mary looking up at her son, and Jesus looking down on his mother, in their last hours together. Many of you know what it is like to be spending those last painful hours with a dying loved one.
‘Jesus Christ, true God and true man,’ says the catechism. True God, big enough to create this world and everything in it; and also true man, just like us– with a mother he loved and who loved him, who cared for him, and who now needed him; and with cruel death, interrupting and ending the relationship, as it does all of our relationships. Jesus, God Almighty; but also our fellowman, our brother, and our friend. He’s been here, and he knows what this life is like, and he can understand all that we are going through. I find comfort and assurance in knowing that about Jesus.
Psalm 8:1, 3, 4 — O Lord, our Lord, how majestic is your name in all the earth! You have set your glory above the heavens… When I consider your heavens, the work of your fingers, the moon and the stars, which you have set in place, what is man that you are mindful of him, the son of man that you care for him?
John 19:27-29 — Near the cross of Jesus stood his mother, his mother’s sister, Mary the wife of Clopas, 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.
Hebrews 4:14-16 — Therefore, since we have a great high priest who has gone through the heavens, Jesus the Son of God, let us hold firmly to the faith we profess. For we do not have a high priest who is unable to sympathize with our weaknesses, but we have one who has been tempted in every way, just as we are– yet was without sin. Let us then approach the throne of grace with confidence, so that we may receive mercy and find grace to help us in our time of need.
A PRAYER FOR HOLY WEEK, by Samuel Johnson (edited from 1775 & 1777 prayers for Easter): Almighty God, heavenly Father, whose mercy is over all thy works, look with pity on my miseries and sins… Relieve, O Lord, as seemeth best unto Thee, the infirmities of my body and the afflictions of my mind. Fill my thoughts with love of thy Goodness, with just fear of thine Anger, and with humble confidence in thy Mercy… So help me by thy Holy Spirit, that my heart may be fixed where true joys are to be found, (so) that I may serve thee with pure affection and a cheerful mind. Have mercy upon me, O God, have mercy upon me! Years and infirmities oppress me, terror and anxiety beset me. Have mercy upon me, my Creator and my Judge. In all dangers protect me, in all perplexities relieve and free me, and so help me by thy Holy Spirit, that I may now so commemorate the death of thy Son our Savior Jesus Christ that when this short and painful life shall have an end, I may for his sake be received to everlasting happiness. Amen.