The Shadow of the Cross | Lenten Devotional, 4/1/21

Lisa Bari   -  
Lenten Devotional Series: The Women Who First Followed Jesus
The Shadow of the Cross
Read and pray through John 19:26-27, Acts 1:13-14

Introduction | We are walking together through the Church season of Lent. Lent, which means “springtime or renewal,” began to be observed by the Body of Christ sometime during the 4th century. The period of Lent spans forty days (not counting Sundays) modeled after Jesus’ time fasting in the wilderness before beginning his earthly ministry. Lent is a sacred time of remembrance, renewal, and spiritual preparation in our journey of faith with Jesus.

Over these next few weeks of Lent, we invite you to take up the practice of reading and reflecting on the women who first followed Jesus. We all know that the four gospels specifically emphasize the twelve disciples whom Jesus called to “Come and see.” But there are several women who also follow Jesus as he teaches, heals, offers miraculous signs, and purposefully makes his way towards first, offering himself on a Cross, but ultimately rising to a life beyond death.

Each week we are going to look more closely at one of these women so we can better appreciate what they each saw in Jesus and how they learned to follow his lead with their lives. Each Tuesday, I’ll provide an overview and some brief reflection on the life of each of these women. Each Thursday, one of the female members of our staff will offer their own personal reflections as to the life and witness of each of these faithful women. Each Saturday a Lectio Divina prayer exercise will be provided to reflect more deeply in the Spirit in terms of each week’s devotional theme and focus.

Reflection | As we approach the end of Holy Week, we find ourselves face to face with the cross.  For those living in the Roman Empire during the first century, the cross was a place of torture and humiliation. Placed prominently on the edge of major thoroughfares, to be seen by all who entered a city, they were designed to control the people under the Roman rule. After all, what could be worse than hanging naked as you took your last breaths, your sins on display for all to see. Exposed both to those who love you and those who hate you as they gather at the foot of the cross to watch.

For Jesus, this has been a week where the tides have shifted quickly under his feet. The triumphant ride down the Mount of Olives, The Seder meal with his closest companions, the betrayal of a friend and finally the beleaguered walk back through the city yoked to the implement of his physical death. The crowd that rejoiced at his arrival is now demanding his life while his loved ones look on helplessly. It is in this crowd, in the moments before his death, that we find his mother Mary. Mary, the girl who selflessly submitted to the will of God in her youth, who raised Jesus and the children who came after him. This woman who knew and loved Jesus in a way that no one else could, stands where she has always been, in the shadow of the cross. Mary’s life has been a trajectory to this point since she was a teenager.

There is nothing ordinary about Mary’s story. When we first meet her, she is approached by an angel and asked to carry the son of God. Unlike other mothers of her day, Mary is called upon to share her child with the world from his earliest days. She does not receive the customary time alone with her infant, rather she is interrupted by shepherds (and presumably sheep). When she takes her son to the temple to be dedicated and circumcised two aged prophets show up to offer their praises to God that they have lived to see his birth.  Her time with her toddler is interrupted by strange, wealthy men who show up on her doorstep and bring expensive gifts and warn her of a plot to kill her young son. She then is forced to leave her family land and travel to Egypt with her family to protect her child, returning only after the death of the ruler and moving to a small town away from her family’s ancestral lands. There is a period of silence about her life then until she takes her annual trip to Jerusalem to celebrate Passover and discovers that her son has stayed behind to sit in the Temple courts in discussion with the elders. Jesus is twelve at this point, in the last year of his childhood by Jewish custom and is missing for three days. We learn from Luke 2:51 that Jesus returns to Nazareth with his parents but his mother treasured all these things in her heart. Again, there is little mention of Mary until the wedding at Cana, where Mary asks Jesus to help when the hosts run out of wine. Jesus’ response is unenthusiastic, but Mary tells the servants to do as he says, having full confidence that he will act. While all of these events are put into different categories in our minds, they have the element of foreshadowing, all leading to the cross.

Mary’s child, born in a stable and visited by shepherds is later called “the lamb of God” in John 1:35. The myrrh brought by the wise men makes an appearance again in Mark 15:23 when Jesus is offered wine mixed with myrrh while on the cross. Mary and Joseph run to Egypt to protect their child from death by a king who fears the birth of a Jewish king. Jesus is later crucified under the banner of the King of the Jews. Even when Jesus stays behind in the temple, he is missing three days and found in ‘his father’s house’- much like he will later die and be resurrected after three days and ascend to share his Father’s throne. In John chapter 2:4 at the wedding at Cana, Jesus tells his mother “my hour has not yet come”. Later, in John 13:1, John tells us that Jesus “knew that the hour had come for him to leave this world and go to the Father”. Even the act of changing the water into wine, being the first act of ministry, points to the pouring of the wine to the disciples as the last act of ministry before his crucifixion.

Whether she realized it or not, Mary has lived in the shadow of the cross since that first meeting with an angel marked her as the mother of Christ. She has done so faithfully in a posture of prayer and reflection, ‘pondering in her heart’. Mary was asked to raise God’s son and she has done so faithfully. Now, as she stands below Jesus on the cross, we are reminded that he is not only God’s son, he is also her son, as he finds her in the crowd. This moment shows a very human side of Jesus. He is Mary’s son. He is the child who made her a mother and who she has carried in her heart for more than three decades. As her first born son, he is the one who would have traditionally cared for her in her advanced age. Not only is he dying, but he is dying in shame, a shame that would have no doubt visited the rest of his family.  The short verses that we reflected on this week would have been, in her mind the last words she would hear from her son. When Jesus turns to Mary and says this is now your son and to John, this is your mother, he is asking John to care for as she ages, to be with her when he cannot and to protect her from harm. Her quiet acceptance is consistent with both a grief-stricken mother and the faithful woman who has hidden many things in her heart as she raised Jesus. When we fast forward past the burial of Jesus to the next day. In that time between Jesus’ death and resurrection we see that John has taken her into his home. In those first days when grief would have pressed down on her like waves, we find Mary in a posture of prayer. Even with the death of her son, of the Messiah, she is found in prayer.  As Pastor Chris reminded us at the beginning of this series, Mary does not have the gift of hindsight. She has been forced to watch the crucifixion of Christ without the hope of a guaranteed resurrection. This is where our journey with Mary ends this season, in what is essentially the space of Holy Saturday. All has been stripped away, the cross has done it’s worst and the weight of death has settled. In spite of this Mary has not lost her faith, rather she leans into it, going to God in continuous prayer.

Mary’s faith in her hour of darkness is immense but it was not born in the moment of despair. She practiced and cultivated that faith throughout her life and that allowed her to lean into it when she needed it the most. As we move through this week from the triumph of Palm Sunday to the tragedy of Good Friday finally waking to the emptiness of Holy Saturday let us follow in Mary’s footsteps. Instead of rushing through to the triumph of Easter Sunday, let us pause and reflect on the death of Christ and the silence of the tomb before the hope of resurrection and respond as Mary did, in a posture of prayer.

Consider & Discuss | Where can I practice living from a posture of prayer? What are some moments that I can hide in my heart as evidence of God moving in my life?

Prayer Focus | Father, may we, like Mary, turn to you in our hopelessness, may we feel you in the quiet spaces where all seems lost. May we daily walk with you and learn your ways. And as we look toward the hope of Easter Sunday, guide us to a faith that is grounded enough to withstand the wilderness of Holy Saturday.

Lead on, Lord Jesus, lead on!
Lisa Bari