“Woman, here is your son….Here is your mother.” John 19:26-27.
Jesus addressed his mother as “woman” twice in the Gospels. The first time was at the Wedding at Cana (John 2) when he said to Mary, “Woman, what is it to me?” after she asked him to help the wedding hosts who had run out of wine. The second time was on the cross.
It is interesting that the two of the very few times we have Jesus directly addressing his mother, he uses the not-so-familiar term woman. From what I have read on this subject, it was no more normal for sons to call their mothers woman in Jesus’ day than it is now.
It must have been a strange relationship. Mary was Jesus’ mother, but Jesus was also the Son of God. From the story of Jesus’ birth in Luke, we know that Mary was well aware that her child was not a normal boy. This is one of the practical values of the virgin birth: If Mary was a virgin when she conceived, she knew for a fact that her child was like no other. She knew her mother-son relationship would not be the usual mother-son relationship, and that this was something she would have to accept.
Jesus was both of Mary, and transcended Mary. In a sense, by calling his own mother woman, Jesus was emphasizing that Mary was human, which also meant that Jesus, as her true son, was also fully human. If this seems like an odd way for Jesus to recall his humble origins, remember, this wasn’t a normal relationship. Jesus may have communicated with his mother in ways that other sons would not, since they both knew his calling was not the usual calling.
Jesus said elsewhere in the Gospels that a student could never surpass his master, and so in calling his mother woman he may have been pointing out that he was at least in a physical sense no more than an ordinary man as well. Far from being a dismissive term, it may have been Jesus’ way of reminding us where he came from.
When Jesus gives his mother away to his beloved disciple (thought by many traditions to be St. John himself), he was, among other things, providing for her after his death. In the time of Christ, it was practically impossible for a woman to work outside the home, since all skilled jobs would have been given to men. A widowed mother, in this context, would have to depend on her children for support or risk starvation. The only other options would have been prostitution and begging, and as we know from the Gospels, there was no shortage of women in Jesus’ time who resorted to these. Thus, the gesture of giving his mother and his disciple to one another was an act of economic necessity. It indicates how cruel the blow of state-sponsored execution was to families back then. And it also indicates how much the members of the early Christian community must have needed one another for survival. Jesus was only the first of many Christians executed for his beliefs, and the families left behind must have desperately needed the support of their fellow believers.
But there is also a spiritual dimension to this. In giving his mother away, Jesus is symbolically giving his humanity away, leaving it in safe keeping with another man. He is putting his human life behind him, to move into his Father’s Kingdom.
This does not mean he is leaving humanity behind for good. When Jesus is resurrected, he brings his humanity back with him. He is resurrected body and spirit. Perhaps this is why, in John, Jesus first appears after the Resurrection to Mary Magdalen. In appearing to a woman first, he may be closing the circle. The last person he acknowledges his humanity to is a woman, his mother Mary; and the first person he acknowledges his divinity to is another woman, Mary Magdalen. Womanhood becomes a statement of humanity.
In the passage into death on Good Friday, Jesus must — indeed, we all must — leave our human selves behind, and then face a spiritual transformation.
In dying, Jesus passed into death the same way all of us have to. The other part of it, that we can emerge on the other side as he did, is a matter of faith.
For a complete list of links to the seven essays on this topic, please go here.