Lovely Tear from Lovely Eye: the Mothers of Jesus and Judas

Painting of the Mothers of Jesus and Judas by Nicholas Mynheer
The Mothers of Jesus and Judas by Nicholas Mynheer
Image copyright. All rights reserved. Used by permission

How often the poet and  painter see what we do not! Or perhaps it is simply that recent generations have seen too much blood, too many horrors, to think of the crucifixion in anything but the most brutal terms. Of course it was brutal, but the modern film-maker’s lingering on torn flesh and gaping wounds misses something an older age understood instinctively: how to enter imaginatively into the drama of the cross not as spectacle but as participant. From the Dream of the Rood to the Harley lyrics, the poet’s vision of the duel between good and evil is intensely personal. The cross is no mere gibbet but speaks of its hour of glory when it bore creation’s lord; Christ questions us, demanding to know how he has erred that we should treat him so; and the dropping of that ‘lovely tear from lovely eye’ is like a lance to the heart of the onlooker. With Julian, most poetic and most homely of theologians, we see the blood falling from his pierced head as raindrops fall from cottage eaves after a shower and feel the wind that blows over Calvary and dries his flesh. 

Our vision shifts and changes. We see the soldiers casting lots for Christ’s clothing, driving home the nails; taunting him, or maybe offering him some kind of sedative on a hyssop stick; we hear the thieves crucified with him and that gracious promise to the one popular tradition names Dismas to be with him in paradise; we watch the tender scene where he entrusts his mother to John and John to his mother; and finally, there is that last great cry, when Jesus gives up his spirit and the veil of the temple is torn in two as heaven and earth groan with one voice: the Son of God has died. What escapes us is the significance of what we see. It is too vast. Two thousand years of theological endeavour have not yet exhausted the meaning of what happened on Calvary, but I think Nicholas Mynheer’s painting captures one important element. 

The mothers of Jesus and Judas embrace. Both have lost a much-loved son; both know the grief of being outcasts. To take one’s own life is against the Law; to be crucified as a common criminal is beyond the pale. But there is more than that. These two women know that their sons are eternally linked, that the actions of the one led to the death of the other, but there is no room for accusations, no desire to perpetuate a hostility in which neither they nor their sons shared. They knew that Jesus and Judas were friends. They had probably fussed over them and the other disciples on their rare visits home, delighting in their companionship and banter. They knew the humanity of their sons, and were not afraid of their own. The cross stands as a symbol of forgiveness and reconciliation and we see in Mary and the mother of Judas that forgiveness and reconciliation at work. There is nothing but love between them, nothing but the desire to comfort, to lessen the agony each feels. 

The cross now stands empty, having done its work. Jesus descends into the underworld to seek and save the dead. Among them, surely, is his friend, Judas.

Audio Version


Pentecost Eve

Pentecost is the great feast of the Church, but how often do we prepare for it with the kind of purposefulness we associate with Lent? I don’t mean that we should fast (we don’t fast during the Easter season) or do penance, but even now, on Pentecost eve, we could think about prayer and reconciliation and their role in attaining the peace and unity the Holy Spirit bestows on the Church. So, if there is anyone to whom we need to say ‘sorry’, or anyone we need to forgive, today is a perfect day for doing so. If there is any disunity in our own lives or in the lives of our families or communities, this is a day for trying to set things right. Above all, this is a day for praying simply and earnestly that the Holy Spirit will come upon us and renew his gifts within us. Whether he comes as burning fire or cooling breeze is not for us to decide. Our prayer is short and pure, as St Benedict would have it: Veni, Sancte Spiritus — Come, Holy Spirit!Facebooktwitterredditpinterestlinkedintumblrmail

St Nicholas, Nelson Mandela and Us

The feast of St Nicholas of Myra is a day when we are encouraged to emulate his almsgiving (he allegedly provided dowries for poor girls unable otherwise to marry), pray for seafarers, eat toffee, and if we live in mainland Europe, give gifts to children. It is not advisable to emulate his punching heretics on the nose or any of the more aggressive virtues he seems to have practised. They were not what made him a saint. Indeed, his tendency to lash out at others was something he had to struggle with as un-Christlike, un-saintly; and it is a measure of his true holiness that eventually he managed to overcome such weaknesses.

I think it is much the same with Nelson Mandela. He was a truly great man, but I don’t think he was a secular saint as some are trying to make out.  I daresay there were actions that in his later years he regretted or came to view in a different light. I therefore pray for the repose of his soul as I pray for the souls of all the departed, especially during these days when his body is being prepared for burial and his family and friends are mourning the loss of someone they knew and loved in a way that outsiders never really can.

Where does that leave us on this Friday in Advent, when Isaiah assures us that the coming day of the Lord will mean that

the lowly will rejoice in the Lord even more
and the poorest exult in the Holy One of Israel;
for tyrants shall be no more, and scoffers vanish,
and all be destroyed who are disposed to do evil:
those who gossip to incriminate others,
those who try at the gate to trip the arbitrator
and get the upright man’s case dismissed for groundless reasons.

I think Isaiah’s words remind us that the Advent call to live with integrity, to pursue justice and peace, forgiveness and reconciliation isn’t an abstraction. St Nicholas tried to live a godly life and, by all accounts, succeeded. Mandela walked out of 27 years of prison saying that unless he left behind the hatred and bitterness he would be imprisoned still. His subsequent actions showed that he understood forgiveness much better than many of us who have not had that experience. Maybe our lives are more ordinary than those of St Nicholas or Nelson Mandela, but we can all of us try to avoid gossip, scoffing at others and those mean-spirited words and deeds that mark us out as unforgiving, unloving people. We can sweeten the lives of others, not by doling out toffee, but by being the kind of people it is good to know. The world is better for having had its saints like Nicholas and its great men like Mandela. Let us pray it may be better for having us, too.Facebooktwitterredditpinterestlinkedintumblrmail