One of the most popular images in all of scripture (an icon that’s been endlessly painted, sung, put into litanies, written up into poetry, and used to triggered every kind of pious feeling) is the image of Mary, the mother of Jesus, standing silently under the cross as her son dies.
As Jesus was dying, the Gospels tell us that Mary, his mother, stood under the cross. What’s in that image? What’s in this picture that invites us to more than simple admiration, piety, or sympathy?
This is a mystical image and it is anything but pious. In the Gospels, after Jesus, Mary is the most important person to watch. She’s the model of discipleship, the only one who gets it right. And she gets it very right under the cross. What’s she doing while standing there?
On the surface, it seems she isn’t doing anything at all: She doesn’t speak, doesn’t try to stop the crucifixion, and she doesn’t even protest its unfairness or plead Jesus’ innocence. She is mute, seemingly passive, overtly doing nothing. But at a deeper level, she is doing all that can be done when one is standing under the weight of the cross, she’s holding the tension, standing in strength, refusing to give back in kind, and resisting in a deeper way.
What’s meant by this?
Sometimes well-intentioned artists have painted Mary as lying prostrate under the cross, the wounded mother, helplessly distraught, paralysed in grief, an object for sympathy. But that doesn’t honour what happened there nor teach its lesson. Prostration, in this situation, is weakness, collapse, hysteria, resignation. In the Gospels, “standing” is the opposite, a position of strength. Mary “stood” under the cross.
Still, why the silence and why her seeming unwillingness to act or protest?
In essence, what Mary was doing under the cross was this: She couldn’t stop the crucifixion (there are times when darkness has its hour) but she could stop some of the hatred, bitterness, jealousy, heartlessness, and anger that caused it and surrounded it. And she helped stop bitterness by refusing to give it back in kind, by transforming rather than transmitting it, by swallowing hard and (literally) eating bitterness rather than giving it back, as everyone else was doing.
Had Mary, in moral outrage, begun to scream hysterically, shout angrily at those crucifying Jesus, or physically tried to attack someone as he was driving the nails into Jesus’ hands, she would have been caught up in the same kind of energy as everyone else, replicating the very anger and bitterness that caused the crucifixion to begin with. What Mary was doing under the cross, her silence and seeming unwillingness to protest notwithstanding, was radiating all that is antithetical to the crucifixion: gentleness, understanding, forgiveness, peace, light.
And that’s not easy to do. Everything inside us demands justice, screams for it, and refuses to remain silent in the presence of injustice. That’s a healthy instinct and sometimes acting on it is good. We need, at times, to protest, to shout, to literally throw ourselves into the face of injustice and do everything in our power to stop the crucifixion.
But there are times too when things have gone so far that shouts and protests are no longer helpful, darkness is going to have its hour come what may and all we can do is to stand under the cross and help eat its bitterness by refusing to participate in its energy. In those situations, like Mary, we have to say: “I can’t stop this crucifixion, but I can stop some of the hatred, bitterness, jealousy, brute-heartlessness, and darkness that surround it. I can’t stop this, but I will not conduct its hatred.”
And that’s not the same thing as despair. Our muted helplessness is not a passive resignation but the opposite. It’s a movement towards the only rays of light, love, and faith that still exist in that darkness and hatred. And, at that moment, it’s the only thing that faith and love can do.
As the Book of Lamentations says, there are times when the best we can do is “put our mouths to the dust and wait!” Sometimes too, as Rainer Marie Rilke says, the only helpful thing is to absorb the heaviness: “Do not be afraid to suffer, give the heaviness back to the weight of the earth; mountains are heavy, seas are heavy.”
That’s not passivity, resignation, or weakness; it’s genuine, rare strength. It’s “standing under the cross” so as to help take away some of its hatred, chaos, bitterness, and violence.
So this is the image: Sometimes darkness has its hour and there is nothing we can do to stop it. Sometimes the blind, wounded forces of jealousy, bitterness, violence, and sin cannot, for that moment, be stopped. But, like Mary under the cross, we are asked to “stand” under them, not in passivity and weakness, but in strength, knowing that we can’t stop the crucifixion but we can help stop some of the hatred, anger, and bitterness that surrounds it.