We know there were soldiers and the Centurion in charge, and two thieves, as well as the Chief Priests and members of the Sanhedrin. Some, like the "good" thief and the Centurion, were changed by what they witnessed. Others, in their arrogance, continued to mock and ridicule and reject Jesus to the very end. Some, like Peter, had run away to hide in fear.
But there were a few who stood by Jesus to the end. A number of women are mentioned, some by name, along with John whose presence is implied by his gospel. These are those to whom my mind is drawn this year.
Why are they here? What are they thinking? What did it cost them to be here? What am I to learn from them?
The answer to why is simple. They stayed out of love and loyalty. They would not abandon their friend and son, no matter what the cost. But how could they? By loving another more than their own comfort, by loving until it hurt. By dying to self so another would not suffer alone.
Mary, the mother of Jesus, had spent most of her life being prepared for this moment. She had conceived him under the suffering of shame and reproach. She had been warned by Simeon, at an event that was solemn and celebratory, that a sword would pierce her heart. Later she had fled to Egypt with her husband and son to protect his life, leaving behind all that was familiar to live in a culture very different from her own. Suffering was no stranger to the mother of Jesus, but I don't think anything could have prepared her mother's heart to hear her son cry out, "My God, My God, why have you forsaken me?"
Another Mary, the mother of James and John is also named as being present at the crucifixion. Just a few days before she had asked Jesus to give her sons a privileged position in his kingdom. All he had promised was that they would drink from the same cup from which he would drink. As she stood watching Jesus die in agony, was she horrified as she came to the realization of what she had really requested her sons would receive--suffering and death because of the kingdom?
And Mary Magdalene, who had been saved from demons herself, looked on as the work of these same demons claimed the life of the one who had freed her. Surely he could free himself if he wanted to. Did she wonder why he didn't do something? Did she feel guilt knowing that her sin and her salvation had brought him to this point?
Lastly we look at John. Why was he, among the twelve, the only one who stood by Jesus until the end? Did he feel anger and betrayal by the others? Did he feel abandoned by his brethren? All we know is that he was there, until the end. Among those there this day, he was the only one given a role to play by Jesus, the responsibility of caring for his mother. Did his presence there bring Jesus comfort and peace?
I think what all of these had in common was the experience of helplessness in the face of unbearable suffering. The willingness to forsake their own comfort to be present to another. Surrendering their self-protection to assure another knows they are not alone.
While my flesh wants to sarcastically respond something like, "Yes, I'm so lucky I don't feel anything!" in my heart I hurt for those who say this. Somehow they are trying to protect themselves from the pain of leaning into the pain of others. They lull themselves into believing that if they don't see it, they won't feel it. And it's true. They won't. A starving child will be no more to them than a picture on the television. The abandoned and forgotten will not even register on their radar. And their heart, rather than being protected, will become calloused by their self-protection.
It is only when I am willing to embrace the helplessness of being present to one who suffers that my heart will grow to learn what true compassion is. Only when I stand with those who are enduring the unspeakable will I learn to speak words of comfort, often in silence. Only when I identify with those who suffer at the hands of another will I begin to overcome my own numbness to the evil which is all around me.
Like Peter, I can run and hide and deny that this suffering has anything to do with me. And I will become less human. Jesus tells me what I do, or do not do, for the least of these, I do or do not do for him. So, when I refuse to stand with those who suffer, I am refusing to stand at the cross with Jesus. I deny him in ignoring the suffering of my brothers and sisters every bit as much as Peter denied him that Thursday night.
So, where do I want to be as my Lord suffers in his people? Am I willing to follow the example of my Savior as he embraced helplessness to suffer and die for me? (Remember, he could have done something to save him self, but he chose not to.) Am I willing to stand with those courageous women to share in the suffering of Jesus as he continues to suffer in his people?
I pray I will find myself with the women at the foot of the cross, helpless but present. Facing suffering head on, and by my presence creating a space where hope and life and resurrection can begin. I invite you to join me