Tomorrow is Good Friday on the western Christian calendar, the day when western Christians remember Jesus’ death on the cross. The day is often memorialized in ways that recall Jesus’ last moments, from his final steps to his final words, with great specificity. For as many traditions to observe the day, there are theologies to interpret just what, if anything, the cross “means.” In the past few years, I have found myself moving further and further away from identifying this day as one that saves. If I am honest, it has been, and continues to be, an exercise and practice in theological freedom. For me it started with the moment in my first year of theology class when my professor spoke about Anselm and Abelard, of transactions, of debt satisfaction. Something about seeing this formula within its feudal context – of seeing it for the first time as a deeply contextual rather than eternal or primordial or absolute theology – struck a chord and disrupted some sediments I considered unshakeable.
This fissure and subsequent reimagining has continued as over the years I’ve engaged the work of womanist and feminist theologians. There was sister FAR contributor Xochitl Alvizo’s post last year disrupting the spectacle of Good Friday, of re-imaging new rituals that do not dwell on death. There is the work of JoAnne Terrell, the books Proverbs of Ashes and Saving Paradise by feminists Rebecca Parker and Rita Nakashima Brock, and my professor Shelly Rambo’s work on spirit and trauma. I suppose if I am anywhere on the topic, I am just no longer sure that Jesus paid a debt he did not owe because I owe a debt I cannot pay. I am unconvinced that suffering redeems, that blood atones, that the death of a son – of anyone’s daughter or son – brings satisfaction. Certainly feminists and womanists hold diverse beliefs, but here is where I can stand, for now.
So while I have put some space between myself and Good Friday over the years, this year I agreed to preach at a Good Friday service that will reflect on Jesus’ final words. I have thus spent the last few weeks reflecting on and studying John 19.26 and 27 which read, “And Jesus saw his mother and the disciple whom he loved standing beside her, he said to his mother, ‘Woman, here is your son.’ Then he said to the disciple, ‘Here is your mother.’ And from that hour the disciple took her into his own home.” What follows here is where my sermon has started. It is influenced by the questions and work of feminist theologians and by my coursework this semester on body, gender, and sexuality, and on theopoetics, too. It is offered in remembrance and reclamation that there is goodness in our flesh and bones, bodies and breath.
Jesus dies betrayed, but he also dies beloved. The women were there, four of them – his mother, his mother’s sister, Mary the wife of Clopas, and Mary Magdalene. His beloved disciple was also there. There they were at the foot of the crosses, huddled together, holding each other, be-holding Jesus, be-holding the precious flesh and blood of this one who is and was their friend, teacher, nephew, child. Jesus sees and speaks to his mother:
“Woman, behold your son.”
“Woman, here is your son.”
With these words, we are reminded that the foot of the cross is a borderland, a liminal space. His mother is with him at this, the end, as she has been with him since the beginning. She is there when it all begins: the wedding at Cana, when he turns the water into wine, when he transforms scarcity and impossibility into abundance, extravagance, celebration. But she has been with him before that, too. He is flesh of her flesh, after all. There was a time when her breath was his breath, when her body nourished and sustained his own. How many sleepless nights and endless days did she hold, rock, feed, sing to, pray over, and bless this one, this child, her son? And the other women, too: they are his family and his friends. No doubt that over the years, some of them rocked a crying Jesus to sleep, or when he was older, lingered over just one more glass of wine, to parse out stories of coins and sheep, of things lost and found, of vines and branches, bread and fish. Do they remember while they stand there? Is there only static? Silence?
To behold is to view, to regard, to acknowledge, and it involves not just our minds, but our bodies, too. “Behold” also means to keep hold of, to belong to – it is an invitation to consider the flesh and blood of another, not to possess or define, but to cherish, to honor, to hold, to love.
In these last few, fleeting, ragged moments, Jesus sees these beloved, these bewildered, these shocked, and mourning ones and his words are an invitation not just to behold him, but to behold each other. After speaking to his mother, he turns to the beloved disciple and says to him: “Behold, your mother.” “Here is your mother.”
His words are brief, but the relationship they imply is one of possibility for the most crucial question of all: Who is my neighbor? Whom must I love like my own flesh and blood? Whom must I behold?
We follow one whose last will and testament involves a radical invitation to behold one another. To be beloved by one another. To be here to one another. To love each other, broken as we all are, scared as we all are, bewildered as we all, as they must have been as they beheld their friend, as she beheld her son.
Is there flesh and blood we do not see, do not behold as we could?
I think so. There are mothers who rock their babies, who hold and behold their babies just as gently as Mary rocked her own – while drones drop around them, while their homes and neighborhoods and schools shatter. There are mothers who rock their babies, who hold and behold their babies just as gently as Mary rocked her own – in detention centers, at border-crossings. There are mothers who rock their babies, who hold and behold their babies just as gently as Mary rocked her own – in refugee tents along the Syrian border. And there are women who love their friends, who stay up late to parse out stories of coins and sheep, of things lost and found, of vines and branches, bread and fish – and who are attacked, who are mercilessly brutalized when they take the bus home. And there are women who love their friends, who stay up late to parse out stories of coins and sheep, of things lost and found, of vines and branches, bread and fish – who cannot visit their partners in the ICU or adopt a baby or get married if they so choose.
There is other flesh and blood we do not love, will not see. Prefix people. People fixed by what they are not, human beings defined in the very first syllable. Un. In. Non. Il. It is breathtaking to realize how many ways we have to say that someone is not like us, not quite right, not deserving. Undocumented. Incarcerated. Uninsured. Un-American. Illegal.
Unbind what seems fixed. In the end, we are asked to hold one another as beloved – to behold one another. Here is a radical invitation to consider what it means to be kin to, what it means to care for, honor and love one another. Here is an invitation to abide with each other, to not be limited by the names and titles and ways of relating you once thought were the only ones available.
Jesus sees the ones he loves. He asks them to behold him and to behold each other. What would it mean to behold each other’s beings, whatever those beings might be? What would it mean to love each other, broken as we all are, scared as we all are, bewildered as we all, as they must have been as they beheld their friend, as she beheld her son?
 I am indebted to Sophia Park, S.N.J.M. for this imagery. Sophia Park, “The Galilean Jesus: Creating a Borderland at the Foot of the Cross (Jn 19.23-30),” Theological Studies 70, 2009, 419-436.
Kathryn House is a North Carolina native who has made her home in Jamaica Plain, MA since 2005. She is currently a doctoral student in Practical Theology at Boston University School of Theology. Her academic interests include the constructions of gender and sexuality in evangelical Christian traditions and ecclesiologies. She is in the process of ordination in the American Baptist Churches, USA and a member of The First Baptist Church in Jamaica Plain, MA. She is also the co-founder of Bridesmaid Trade, an online bridesmaid dress consignment business. Kathryn can be found online at @kharthouse.