The twelfth Station of the Cross also takes place when Jesus is on the cross. From this position of humiliation and pain, Jesus’ last act is to make sure that his beloved mother is cared for. The Message reads:
While the soldiers were looking after themselves, Jesus’ mother, his aunt, Mary the wife of Clopas, and Mary Magdalene stood at the foot of the cross.Jesus saw his mother and the disciple he loved standing near her. He said to his mother, “Woman, here is your son.” Then to the disciple, “Here is your mother.” From that moment the disciple accepted her as his own mother.
And the New Revised Standard Version says:
Meanwhile, standing near the cross of Jesus were his mother, and his mother’s sister, Mary the wife of Clopas, and Mary Magdalene. When 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.
Widows (and orphans) were particularly vulnerable in the time of Jesus. In this time, women had little or no status for themselves; a woman’s status came from her husband and sons. When a woman’s husband died before she did, it was the responsibility of her sons — in particular, of her eldest son — to take her into their home and make sure she was cared for. If she had no sons, then she had no way to make a living. This act of Jesus gave Mary over into the care of the beloved disciple, who is generally considered to be John, so that she need not lose everything now that her husband and eldest son were both gone.
Of all of Jesus’ closest friends, only the beloved disciple and these women are mentioned in scripture as being present at the crucifixion. Of the men who followed Jesus, who ate with him when Jesus instituted the first Eucharist, only John appears at the cross. It is more than reasonable to assume that the others had gone to ground, to hide, because it was well known that when the Romans executed a troublesome prophet, they tended to hunt out all of his followers and put them to death as well. The others probably did not know how the trial before Pilate had gone, that it was only to pacify the bloodthirsty mob that Pilate condemned Jesus. Pilate did not send out his troops to root out the followers of Jesus because there was no reason for him to; the Jewish spiritual authorities were not calling for their blood. So they abandoned their friend, their rabbi, their teacher, their Messiah. Even Peter, who confessed that Jesus was the prophecied Messiah, he denied three times — with increasing vehemence — that he even knew Jesus. Only John remained by Jesus, giving the gift of his presence during one of the hardest moments Jesus had to endure. So it was to John that Jesus bestowed the only gift he had left in this world to give: his blessed and honored mother.
On Monday night, at my parish, we walked the (traditional) Stations of the Cross. When we came to the thirteenth station, where the dead body of Jesus was removed from the cross and placed in his mother’s arms, I felt tears in my eyes. I thought of my own son and daughter, imagining them suffering the humiliations and insults and pain that were inflicted on Jesus during his last day here. The image of one of my precious children, lying broken and dead in my arms, brought me physical pain. No parent should ever have to suffer the death of a child, and yet, the one parent in the history of our world who had perhaps the toughest job (okay, maybe the second toughest, because I imagine it might have been harder for Joseph) is one who had to suffer this. I’m sure she was numb when Jesus gave her into John’s care, probably unable to even think about any part her life after this awful moment. But the beloved disciple took this charge seriously, accepting Mary as his own mother, taking her into his home.
John was the youngest disciple, a single man. He and his brother James were given the nickname Boanerges by Jesus, meaning Sons of Thunder, because of their impetuousness and temper. Tradition holds that John is the only one of the apostles who was not martyred. And it was to this man that Jesus gave his mother. Not to Peter, the rock of the church, nor to Matthew, who could presumably still make a good living collecting taxes. Jesus may have chosen purely by expediency, because John was present at the last moments, or he may have chosen for different reasons. We don’t know — we won’t know, in this world. But this is one more example of God’s topsy-turvy kingdom in action: being the youngest and single and lacking a trade, John was the least of the disciples. And this one act of Jesus made him the first.