Standing under the Cross

Ronald Rolheiser
Reproduced with Permission

As Jesus was dying, the Gospels say that Mary, his mother, stood under the cross. What was she doing while standing there?

On the surface, it seems she wasn’t doing anything at all: She wasn’t saying anything, wasn’t trying to stop the crucifixion, and she wasn’t even trying to protest its unfairness or plead Jesus’ innocence. She was silent, seemingly passive, overtly doing nothing. But, at a deeper level, she was doing all that can be done in this kind of situation, she was standing inside of it, in strength, refusing to give back in kind, resisting in an much deeper way.

What’s meant by that?

Sometimes well-intentioned artists have pictured Mary as lying prostrate under the cross, the wounded mother, helplessly distraught, paralysed in grief, an object for our sympathy. But that doesn’t honour what happened there nor teach us its lesson. Prostration, in this situation, is weakness, collapse, hysteria, resignation. In the Gospels, “standing” is the very 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 (sometimes darkness has its hour) but she could stop some of the hatred, bitterness, jealousy, heartlessness, and anger that caused it and which surround it. And she helped stop these by refusing to give back in kind, by transforming rather than transmitting them, by swallowing hard and (literally) eating them rather than give them back, as everyone else was doing.

Had Mary, in righteousness and outrage, begun to scream hysterically, shout angrily at those crucifying Jesus, or physically tried to attack someone as they were driving the nails into Jesus’ hands, she would have been caught up in the same energy as everyone else, replicating the same 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. Most 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 conduct 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.”

That’s a bitter pill to swallow, but sometimes it’s our only choice. 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 we can do 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.”

And that’s not passivity, resignation, or weakness, but genuine, rare strength. It’s “standing under the cross” so as to help take away some of its hatred, chaos, bitterness, and violence.

We see this illustrated in the reaction we see to capital punishment in our society. Whenever a convicted killer is executed, we see two basic reactions: One group, generally very sincere and good people, stand in strong approval of the execution, chanting for justice, convinced that it’s necessary to execute this man or woman for the overall good, that justice demands an eye for an eye, a life for a life.

A second group, strongly opposed to what is happening, has already tried every legitimate means possible to try to stop the execution and have failed. Now, rather than giving themselves over to the bitterness and anger that permeate the situation, they stand in silence, praying, candles in hand, knowing that they cannot stop this execution, but they can help stop some of the bitterness, anger, and darkness that surround it. Their gentleness, silence, and prayer literally breathe out compassion, love, understanding, and forgiveness to everyone on every side.

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.