Perhaps one of the most famous figures in Western art is the pietà—Mary holding the dead body of her son as she grieves his death.1 In the famous statue by Michelangelo, she seems to be a young woman deep in thought, whereas Giovanni Bellini paints her as an old woman which accords better with the gospel narrative. In many paintings she is clearly grieving. Sometimes we see her in tears—for example, as painted by Andrea Mantegna—and sometimes she seems to have fainted—as painted by Sandro Botticelli. Or, as painted by Enguerrand Quarton, we see her in prayer, often with the disciple John.2
All these works of art imagine the first Good Friday. They capture the range of emotions that Christians feel on this dark day, allowing us to place ourselves in the person of Mary who mourned her dead child. There is surely no grief more profound than the grief parents feel at the death of a child. It is unnatural for the younger to die before the older. The profound grief of the mother of Jesus models for believers a response to the unnatural death of this one whom they also love.
None of the Gospels, however, suggests that Mary carried the crucified body of Jesus. According to all four Gospels, Joseph of Arimathea is given permission by Pilate to bury Jesus, and he puts the body in a secure tomb (Matt. 27:57–60, Mark 15:42–47, Luke 23:50–55, John 19:38–42). To care for the dead was an important religious observance, as John’s Gospel tells us (John 19:31), and as archaeology and other Jewish literature of the period confirm.3 Joseph, a respected Jewish leader, a good and righteous man, undertakes this religious duty for the crucified Jesus (Mark 15:43 and Luke 23:50). There are, of course, paintings of Joseph, but he does not hold the place in our imaginations that Mary holds.
According to the first three Gospels, this Mary isn’t even present when Joseph takes Jesus down from the cross. Matthew tells us that Mary Magdalene and the other Mary, a woman without any particular pedigree, watched Joseph put Jesus in the tomb, sitting opposite it (Matt. 27:61). Mark gives us some information about the other Mary—she is the mother of Joses (Mark 15:47). Luke says that the women who watched Joseph were the ones who had followed Jesus from Galilee, and later he identifies these women as Mary Magdalene, Joanna, Mary the mother of James, and some unnamed others (Luke 23:55 and 24:10). And in John’s Gospel, it is Nicodemus who helps Joseph of Arimathea bury Jesus, not Mary, the mother of Jesus (John 19:39).
This image of a grieving mother that has so captured the Christian imagination does, however, have roots in the Gospel of John. In all four Gospels, there are women watching at the crucifixion (Matt. 27:55–56, Mark 15:40–41, Luke 23:49, and John 19:25), but only in John’s Gospel do we observe the mother of Jesus among those women. John tells us that just before Jesus dies, as his final action, he commends the care of his beloved disciple to his mother and the care of his mother to his beloved disciple (John 19:26–27). Tradition has identified the beloved disciple as John, but in the gospel account, neither John nor Mary are named. Rather, both are identified by their relation to Jesus: she is called his mother, and he is called the disciple whom Jesus loved. It is this story that gives rise to the images of a mother grieving for her son and to John’s presence with her at the cross.
In John’s Gospel, Mary’s identity is both less definite and more important than in the other Gospels. On the one hand, we never learn her name in this gospel. When we read of her presence among the vigilant women at the foot of the cross and when Jesus commends her to John, her particular identity is obscured, as if her identity has been absorbed into her role as mother of the crucified one. She is not made present in this crucifixion narrative as a particular Mary—whom we would need to distinguish from other women of that name—but as the woman who brought into the world the one who is now leaving the world.
We also do not meet Mary in this gospel as a woman with a baby. Instead, we first meet her as a woman enmeshed in family and community with a grown son. She is attending a wedding in the town of Cana in the region of Galilee (John 2:1–11). Jesus and the disciples whom he had gathered before the wedding are there with her. The caterer has run out of wine, so the mother of Jesus asks him to help. Jesus puts her off—it is not the right time for him to host a wedding banquet. But she insists, and eventually Jesus complies. He turns the water in six large jars—each holding twenty or thirty gallons—into good wine, and the wedding celebration continues in style. Throughout this account, Mary is called “the mother of Jesus” or less intimately, “Woman.” We do not learn her name.
The third explicit mention of her in the gospel is when Jesus’s opponents complain about Jesus’s claim that he is the bread from heaven (John 6:41–42). They argue that they know his parents, so, clearly, Jesus has not come from heaven. They dismiss him with the words: “Is not this Jesus, the son of Joseph, whose father and mother we know?” (NRSV). Even here, Joseph is named, but Mary is not. In whatever way Jesus’s mother matters for this gospel, her particular identity is obscured.
On the other hand, the miracle at the wedding of Cana is the first sign of Jesus’s glory. His mother’s insistence that he contribute wine for the feast leads to Jesus’s first act in his public ministry. And the commendation of John to Mary and vice versa is Jesus’s last act before his death. Jesus’s mother is clearly very important to John’s story. She bookends his public ministry, invoking its beginning with her expectation that he will act on behalf of the wedding party and entering into a new relationship with the unnamed disciple at its end.
This is a very different portrait from what we find in Luke’s writings, where Mary also has a significant role. When we encounter Mary in Luke’s Gospel, we meet a young woman whose life is being interrupted by an angel. The angel asks her to join God in God’s redemptive purposes for the world. And she gives her consent. This is a comfortable image, even if it is also benevolently patriarchal. God, the higher being, comes to Mary, the lesser being, to ask her to do what only a woman can do: bear the child who will save the world. And Mary, having been given the grace to participate in the purposes of God, assents to God’s plan. As a result, she has a singular vocation as the mother of God in the history of salvation. She is Mary, the one that all generations will call blessed (Luke 1:48).
Her singular identity, derived from her particular role, is softened somewhat later in Luke’s Gospel when a woman in the crowd following Jesus suggests that Mary is particularly blessed for having born and nursed him. Jesus responds that those are blessed who hear the word of God and obey it (Luke 11:27–28). In fact, Mary is both blessed by the woman from the crowd for her unique role and blessed by Jesus for the way this unique role models an obedient response to God. In Acts, which is also believed to be the work of Luke, we find Mary praying in the upper room, a disciple among disciples, waiting for the promised Holy Spirit who would empower them all for mission (Acts 1:14). But even here, she is named.
John’s Gospel starts in a different way. He announces that “in the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God and the Word was God” (John 1:1). The Word was active in the creation of all things and became human and joined our community, shining in our darkness. There is no thought here of a woman contributing to the grand purposes of God. There is a man sent from God to witness to the light, but that man is John the Baptist. God is active accomplishing God’s purposes in God’s own way, with no mention of Mary. Neither does the ending of John’s Gospel mention her. Mary Magdalene, Simon Peter, Thomas the Twin, Nathanael of Cana, the sons of Zebedee, two others of the disciples, and the disciple whom Jesus loved all see and converse with the resurrected Jesus, but Mary is not a part of his resurrection ministry.
So how is it that, despite the evidence of the Gospels, the image of the grieving mother has so captured our imaginations? Have I drawn an entirely faithful picture of her role in John’s Gospel?
Something else needs to be said. I believe that Mary captures our imaginations because we can believe she is like us. It was her catering problem that provided the impetus for Jesus’s public ministry. It was her loss of a son that Jesus responded to at the end of his earthly life. The pietà invites us to join her in her grief because we can believe that we grieve as she grieved. In these stories about Jesus’s mother in John’s Gospel, we are not invited to participate in God’s story—that is Luke’s invitation—instead, we see that God comes to participate in our story. When her friends need more wine, their need is met and there is an abundance of good wine. In her grief at the death of her child, she is given one who will care for her. It is easy to read our lives into the life of this unnamed one who is so like us, who calls on her son to create abundant life instead of scarcity and who was so cared for by him in her sorrow. We are grateful to know that our needs and our sorrows are sufficient invitation for God to come near.
In his Farewell Discourse, as he anticipated his death and separation from his disciples, Jesus comforted them with an image of a woman giving birth (John 16:20–22).4 He reminded them that in the hour of a woman’s labor, she has pain and anguish, just like the disciples are experiencing as they anticipate Jesus’s absence. But when the birth has been accomplished, the woman forgets the pain because of her joy in the new life of the person born. As Jesus leaves his earthly life, attending to the grief of his mother, he dies as one anticipating vindication, as a woman in labor who anticipates the joy of new life. His teaching is embodied by his mother.
And so his mother becomes not only the one with whom we identify in sorrow but also a model of hope for life and joy beyond sorrow. Mary becomes an archetype for all of us in our need and in our afflictions, and even more, as mother, in our hope for new life. If one must be born from above to enter the kingdom of God, as Jesus said to Nicodemus, the mother of Jesus guides us through that birthing process, standing at the foot of the cross (John 3:7). Grace and truth, and glory, become present like wine at Cana (John 1:14). The deep sadness of losing a child becomes the foundation for new relationships. At the point of great suffering, Jesus responds to her overwhelming loss.
To say it another way, in John’s Gospel, it is our need that evokes God’s action. And God’s action is for abundant life—even death on a cross. We grieve with his mother, and we are comforted because Jesus comforted her. By speaking of this woman as Jesus’s mother rather than identifying her as a particular woman, John calls us into an intimate relationship with God, into an affiliation that we also can inhabit because of our own need. This is in contrast to Luke, where Mary is presented as fulfilling a unique role in God’s plan of salvation, a role that does not need repetition. In this way, the mother of Jesus teaches us what to do with Holy Friday. She allows us to dwell in the grief of the world as God-bearers, watching as the light of the world is extinguished. As children of light we experience the scarcity of our existence and long for abundance. She teaches us to weep and to pray. And we know that our grief is enough because, in our tears and our prayers, we are as the woman who gave birth, the woman to whom God responded with wine and companionship. We too anticipate joy because we are confident that our tears and sorrow enjoin light and life to come to us.
- Timothy Verdon, Mary in Western Art, captions by Filippo Rossi (New York, NY: Hudson Hills, 2005), 140–64.
- Michelangelo Buonarroti, Pietà, c. 1498-1500, marble sculpture, http://www.italianrenaissance.org/michelangelos-pieta/; Giovanni Bellini, Pietà Martinengo, c. 1505, oil on panel,https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Martinengo_Pieta; Andrea Mantegna, Lamentation of Christ, c. 1480, tempera on canvas, https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Lamentation_of_Christ_(Mantegna); Sandro Botticelli, Lamentation over the Dead Christ with Saints, c. 1490–1495, tempera on panel, https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Lamentation_over_the_Dead_Christ_(Botticelli,_Milan); Enguerrand Quarton, Pietà of Villeneuve-lès-Avignon, c. 1460–1470, oil on wood, https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Piet%C3%A0_of_Villeneuve-l%C3%A8s-Avignon.
- See Byron R. McCane, “Burial Practices in First Century Palestine,” Bible Odyssey, https://www.bibleodyssey.org:443/en/people/related-articles/burial-practices-in-first-century-palestine.
- Judith Lieu helpfully brings this passage into the discussion of Mary in the Gospel of John in “The Mother of the Son in the Fourth Gospel,” Journal of Biblical Literature 117 (1998): 61–77, especially 70–74.