Reflections on Death on a Friday Afternoon, Chapter 3: A Strange Glory

Below are two reflections from Richard John Neuhaus’s book, Death on a Friday Afternoon: Meditations on the Last Words of Jesus from the Cross, Chapter 3: A Strange Glory.

To read my reflections from Chapters 1 and 2, please click here.

“But at Cana, Mary is also learning, as all mothers must learn, to let go, to let him go on the way he must go.”

I admit it, I hate this. I hate that we can’t own them and have total security that what God has given us will be ours forever. “Our children are on loan,” and no one demonstrates that trust better than our Blessed Mother who was entrusted with the greatest gift imaginable, who, as Richard John Neuhaus explains in the third reflection of Death on a Friday Afternoon.

“The Greek word for this self-emptying is kenosis, it is the surrender of all that we hold most dear, and for Mary, it was the surrender of her dearest. Long before they looked at one another on Golgatha’s place of strangest glory, they had been prepared by many little surrenders for this surrender by which all was restored.”

If things go the way they should, we will have plenty of practice. They will learn to walk, they will fall, they will go to events without me, they will own their own beliefs, choose their own mind. There will be choices that hurt, choices that distance us, geographically, emotionally, perhaps spiritually. If it goes the way it should, all this will happen and one day they will bury me. With a faraway look in his eye, as my college professor expounded on Augustine’s Confessions, when Augustine’s writes of the death of his son, my professor said, “A parent should never have to bury his child.”

But it doesn’t go the way we want it to or the way he should. Something has gone wrong, and that something has gone wrong echoes down into the deepest chambers of the woman’s heart when she sees her child die.

Mater Dolorosa, Châteaux de Fayrac et Castelnaud

 “Mary had nowhere to rest her heart.’ and now it had come to this, she pondered in her broken heart, in her heart that by its breaking was made whole. That is the way it is with discipleship. The way of the cross is the way of broken hearts.”

Mater Dolorosa. Workshop of Dieric Bouts the Younger, c. 1470–75.

Why does God do this to us? Why does he allow us to hurt and ache? Why does he allow those to hurt who can hurt and ache on the deepest level imaginable, deeper than can be imagined, a mother?

“In all this, Mary was following her son, step by inexorable step. Her kenosis mirrored his kenosis, her life’s song was entirely attuned to his, a letting go into the vastness of whatever will be, trusting that at the end will be glory. Now his hour had come, and his hour was completely hers.”

It makes motherhood a fearful thing.

“To say that Mary’s way is not our way is to say that Christ’s way is not our way, for Mary was in every respect the disciple of her son. In all our promotion of empowerment, fulfillment, self-esteem and self-actualization, we should know what we are doing. We are rejecting the very heart of what it means to be a Christian. ‘The disciple is not above the master.'”

The disciple is not above the master.

It was I who taught Ephraim to walk, taking them by the arms; but they did not realize it was I who healed them. (Hosea 11:3)

As one whom his mother comforts, so I will comfort you; you shall be comforted in Jerusalem. (Isaiah 66:13)

“Can a woman forget her sucking child, that she should have no compassion on the son of her womb? Even these may forget, yet I will not forget you. (Isaiah 49:15)

“O Jerusalem, Jerusalem, killing the prophets and stoning those who are sent to you! How often would I have gathered your children together as a hen gathers her brood under her wings, and you would not.” (Matthew 23:37)

Perhaps, because when a mother loves, she is most like God. Though Christ was male, though God is our Father, he loves with a perfect and complete love. So the love of a mother is as God loves. The love of a father is as God loves. They both are met in perfect unity with God.

And so in motherhood, I can learn the way God has laid for out for me to love him more perfectly by loving with a self-emptying love. By nursing as long as she needs to. By waking again and again and again.

Mary is the model of discipleship in her total availability to the will of God.

In her total availability to God, Mary is totally independent and totally dependent upon God’s providing. True availability to God overcomes the fear of being dependent on others, for God provides. It is our determination to be independent by being in control that makes us unavailable to God.

 It is indeed a strange glory, paved with broken hearts.