Mary, Mother of Our Lord
Psalm 34:1-9 (3)
Ecce Homo, are the words that Pilate spoke when he presented Jesus to the crowd. Rendered “Behold the man,” in the King James Bible. (John 19:5)
From the early middle ages to today ecce homo has become something of motif in the arts. Ecce homo may portray the particular scene from the Gospel of John as here in this medieval painting by Hieronymus Bosch where we can see Pilate presenting Jesus to the religious leaders who are prepared to take matters into their own hand.
Or ecco homo may depict only the suffering of Jesus as the man of sorrows and object of the church’s devotion. The illustration of the suffering servant song from Isaiah 53,
he was wounded for our transgressions,
crushed for our iniquities;
upon him was the punishment that made us whole,
and by his bruises we are healed. (v.5)
The depicted image is from the Flemish School.
Another version of “behold the man” is Matthias Grünewald’s depiction of John the Baptist under the cross, John being the one whose life points to Jesus (John 1). It would not officially be considered part of the genre, but it is exactly what John is doing.
Pilate was an unintentional witness to Jesus, the centurion’s witness was still stumbling in the dark but was intentional when he said, Truly this man was God’s Son! (Matthew 27:54), and John the Baptist’s witness was what his whole life was about, even if at one point he sends his disciples to Jesus asking whether he is the one they have been waiting for or whether they shall wait for another. (Matthew 11:3)
And here we have an icon of Mary and her child Jesus. Mary’s hand points to Jesus. Her hand tells us to pay attention to him. And yet the eyes of Jesus focus on his mother. This is not an image, or a family portrait where all look at the camera, but this is an image about relationship. Mary refers to Jesus and Jesus’ eyes rest on Mary. Rowan Williams, the former archbishop of Canterbury, says that ‘Jesus is not portrayed as a solitary monarch but as someone whose being and loving is always engaged, already directed toward humanity.’1
Like John the Baptist in Grünewald’s depiction of the crucifixion, Mary points away from herself, this moment is not about her, in fact, her life is not about her. One of the things parenthood teaches us (though this is by no means the only way to learn it), is that my life is not about me, and that the needs of those in my care trump my own needs. It may be tiring at times, but if lived as a vocation that is not about spoiling children but genuinely caring for them, including leading them into adulthood, this is life-giving for caregivers. I learn that my life is not about me. I learn that my life is much bigger than I am. Life is about others, and in this way it engages us in relationship.
It is as the poet W. H. Auden once observed, “We are here on Earth to do good to others. What the others are here for, I don’t know.”
Rowan Williams says that ‘the way to Jesus and with Jesus is the way into his own self-forgetting engagement with the human world, not simply a contemplation of him as a divine individual.’2
When the angel appeared to Mary, she was afraid. It seems unlikely that she was only afraid of the angel. It is much more likely that she was afraid of the change God was bringing to her life. Becoming pregnant with God was upsetting her life in the way she had planned it, or hoped it, and saying yes to God’s plan meant to permit God to be in charge, with all the dangers, uncertainties, and grief this entailed. When Mary says yes to God, it is not a sign of weakness but of strength, for only those who are strong are able to surrender. In all this Mary is embodiment of hope, for her surrender is not meek, rather in her surrender to God she proclaims God’s reign, and she continues to do so, even under the cross, and by doing so, she gives us hope and invites us to hope with her.
In the icon we see Mary points to Jesus and Jesus’ eyes are turned to her, yet the scene is not closed in itself, for one because of Mary’s pointing at Jesus, but also because Mary’s eyes are directed toward us, inviting us in, to be part of the family of God.
What we see is not only a nuclear family, but it is the family of God and when Mary sings her song, she sings not a lullaby, sings not about her family, but she sings about the world God loves and the way God loves the world.
We see that ecce homo, behold the man, is something of a universal expression of those who point to Jesus. Ironically, Pilate’s words that named a genre of Christian art were no more than expression of political calculations.
Yet, those others we have talked about, the centurion at the crucifixion, John the Baptist, and Mary have a personal and existential relationship with Jesus. Their life is not only about Jesus but Jesus is their life.
‘We will become who we are in God’s eyes when we are able to say that sense will be made only in relation to the one I point to, not by my success and sanctity. And the sense that Christ makes is not in his masterly reorganization of the world, his provision of explanations and programmes, but in his comprehensive loving, forgiving attention to the world that has somehow brought him to birth.’3
May we follow Mary’s invitation and may we ourselves be God’s invitation.
1 Rowan Williams, Ponder These Things – Praying With Icons of the Virgin, page 7
2 ibid, page 8
3 ibid, page 16-17