Last Sunday we pondered on the idea of Mary’s last years of life, how Jesus’ resurrection would have given her hope that she would see her son again one day. And having that hope, how she must have lived out God’s Great Commission…the mission that was given to all of us to be people of hope for the world. After all, Mary was the greatest witness to every step of Jesus’ life.
This week, we’re stepping back just a little bit further in time to the day of his crucifixion. I’m going to hit your emotions pretty hard today, because I think to truly understand the meaning of Christmas, we need to ponder like Mary’s heart did on Jesus’ birth and his death. We’re going to look at the day when Mary watched her son die. It’s the day we now call Good Friday, but let’s be real, to Mary there would have been nothing good about it as she stood at the foot of the cross.
After Jesus had the Passover meal with his friends, he went to the garden to pray where he was later arrested. Overnight he was tried and convicted of blasphemy by the religious leaders, and early the next morning, he was taken to the Roman governor and charged with leading a rebellion against Rome – a crime punishable by death, usually death by crucifixion.
The Gospels do not tell us where Mary was that night, but we know she was in Jerusalem. If Jesus were your son and you found out that he was arrested, where would you be? I imagine Mary would have gone to the court yard of the home of the high priest where Jesus was under trial, to at least stand and wait to see what was going to happen.
I picture her certainly present, when Jesus was tried before the Roman governor, Pontius Pilate, early the next morning. Maybe looking on from a distance, Pilate asking the crowd gathered outside his palace, “What would you have me do with this man?”
It must have taken Mary’s breath away when she heard the crowd shout. “Crucify him!”
The chief priest knew that accusing Jesus of being a traitor to Rome would ensure that the Romans would make a public example of him. So before sending Jesus to the cross, Pontius Pilate did so by commanding his attendants torture him.
As they did, they also mocked him with a purple robe and a crown of thorns, spit in his face, and struck him all in an effort to break him. And then returned him to Pilate.
Pilate presented him to the people once more and again the crowd shouted, “Crucify him! Crucify him!” Mary would have watched in horror as her son stood there bleeding, hurting, and humiliated. Pilate then ordered the guards to take Jesus outside the city walls to a hill called Golgotha where He would be nailed to a cross and left to die a slow and painful death.
Part of the power of Mel Gibbon’s film ‘The Passion of the Christ’ was in his portrayal of Mary on the day Jesus died. The actress he used was very good at capturing how I would imagine Mary on that day, demonstrating strength for her son, but showing intense sorrow in her eyes. Part of what made the film so captivating was seeing the suffering and death of Jesus through the eyes of His mother.
John tells us that Mary stood “near the cross of Jesus” (John 19:25), watching and weeping as they drove spikes into his hands and feet, and then hoisting him up in the air.
We often picture Jesus on a cross high above the crowds, but the Romans typically crucified their victims only 2-3 feet off the ground. This means Mary would have been able to reach Jesus. Their eyes could meet, and Jesus could speak right to her.
Among his final words spoke on the cross was the request for John to take care of Mary. Mary stood there for hours, watching helplessly. You can imagine the pain she was feeling, the sorrow and the overwhelming grief?
What was running through her mind during those long hours as she waited and prayed for her son to die so his suffering might end?
I wonder if in all her humanness and not understanding all that was happening, if she might have cried out to God asking why? Her son was beautiful, devout, holy, compassionate, Just and kind. How could such a horrible fate happen to Him?
As she tried to make sense of what was happening, I bet many thoughts and memories were running through her mind. Maybe she thought about the first Christmas and the magi who brought a gift of myrrh. What a strange gift to give a child. Myrrh was used to make the oil to anointed holy things dedicated to God, It was used, mixed with wine, to deaden the pain of those being crucified (which Jesus was offered); Myrrh was also used to embalm the dead.
Was this gift from the magi a sign from God of her son’s fate? Was His painful death somehow part of God’s plan?
Did she think about Joseph’s words? “Mary, I had a dream last night. It was so real. An angel of the Lord appeared to me and said, ‘Joseph, son of David, do not be afraid to take Mary as your wife, for the child conceived in her is from the Holy Spirit. She will bear a son, and you are to name his Jesus, for he will save his people from their sins.’” (Matthew 1:20-21)
Jesus’ name in Aramaic, Yeshua, means “God saves.” Mary and Joseph would have known this. How many times over the years did Mary ponder the meaning of that name?…“God saves.”
What did it mean? How would he actually save his people from their sins?
Did she think about the shepherds who came running to the stable to meet the baby king saying, “ We’ve come to see the child, for an angel appeared to us and said, ‘I am bringing you good news of great joy for all the people: to you is born this day in the city of David a Savior, who is the Messiah, the Lord.’ then a chorus of angels began to sing to us: ‘Glory to God in the highest heaven, and on earth peace among those whom he favors.’”
Scripture says, “at the time, Mary pondered these words.”
Now fast forward 33 years, how can this bloody cross possibly be good news? How could the death of her son bring peace?
Mary was probably also contemplating the words spoken by an old man named Simeon when she took her baby to the Temple for the first time. Simeon was a righteous and devout man of God. Scripture says the Holy Spirit told him that he would not die until he had seen the Lord’s Messiah.
So Mary and Joseph come to present baby Jesus to the Lord, Simeon who was there, immediately recognized the child without anyone saying anything, (a child a little over a months old by this time) took him into his arms and praised God. Mary and Joseph were stunned that he knew who Jesus was and stunned and maybe even set back by his last statement.
Now, as Jesus hung on the cross, his hands and feet pierced, Mary finally understood what Simeon meant when he said “a sword will pierce your very soul.” Her soul was being pierced by the sword of grief.
Mary must of remembered all these things during these horrific 6 hours. The reason I think so is because the small details surrounding Jesus’ birth could only have made their way into the Gospels if Mary told the Gospel writers those stories. And those Gospels were not written until years after the death and resurrection of her son.
In other words, the details of the first Christmas Day were put in those Gospels for the same reason Mary would have remembered them at the cross and pondered on them after He died – because they were vitally important. They tell of who Jesus is and why this was happening.
For Mary, the hideous cross only made sense in light of the events surrounding Christmas. When Simeon said Mary’s soul would be pierced, his words meant that somehow God had known Jesus would be crucified and He had a plan to use Jesus’ suffering. It explained Joseph’s dream and Jesus’ name meaning God saves.
Maybe Mary didn’t fully understand it in that moment at the cross, but I believe she pondered those memories. How could she not? The key to making sense of her son’s suffering and death (the beautiful Son of God) laid in the words spoken about him before and just after his birth.
Now I must admit. How Jesus’ death brings about our forgiveness remains a bit of a mystery to most of us today. But this idea of one person suffering for another was much clearer to the first-century people, who routinely offered animal sacrifices to God as a peace offering for their sin.
Those first-century Christ followers could look at the cross and understand that on it, God’s Son was the gift offered, a sacrifice made…And behind any sin offering made is the acknowledgement that we sinned…The cross also meant that Christ knowingly offered himself as a sacrifice on our behalf which tells us that God longs to forgive us, redeem us, and restore us.
The cross was like a sign, a dramatic act of God in which He was holding a mirror up to humanity as if to say, “There is something terribly wrong with you, and you need to be saved”…but it doesn’t end there, He says…“I want to save you, and my Son has endured your sin on the cross that you might be set free.”
And this mystery of Jesus’ death on the cross is not meant to just be something He did. It’s meant to lead us to ACCEPT a love and a mercy that we don’t deserve and cannot afford. It’s meant to lead us to an assurance that He has taken away our sins and saved us.
You may be asking today, what does Good Friday – Jesus’ death on the cross and his atonement – have to do with Advent and Christmas? Well let me tell you. The child born on Christmas, was the Savior of the World by what he did 33 years later.
When Mary stood at the cross, she would have heard things that may have helped her put all this together. First she heard Jesus talking to one of the criminals hanging beside him. That criminal sincerely cried out, “Jesus remember me when you come into your kingdom.”
Do you remember how Jesus answered him?
“Today you will be with me in Paradise.”
Then as some of the other people standing at the foot of the cross continued to insult Jesus, Jesus prayed, “Father, forgive them; for they know not what they are doing.”
Mary must have sensed that Jesus had chosen to suffer, when with his last breath he cried out, “It is finished.” Perhaps it was hearing all of this that Mary grasped what was happening…that it would be OK.
But as Mary watched and listened during those long six hours, helpless and unable to save her son, it’s possible she remembered the events of the first Christmas morning and began to understand that, though she could not save Him, His suffering would save her and all of mankind.
May the purpose of Jesus’ death, pierce our souls that we would have a better understanding, a reminder of who Jesus is and what He did for us. And therefore, during this season of Advent, may we not get caught up in the hustle and bustle, but instead slow down to appreciate what this birth really means.
Sin alienates us from You God, but on that cross You were trying to help us see the seriousness of our sin, the expense of our forgiveness, and the magnitude of Your love. It cost Jesus His life and it cost Mary her son. Our Advent journey, as we prepare to celebrate the birth of Jesus, takes us to the cross, and we pray that it would remind us that the child whose birth we celebrate, gave His life so that we might have ours. You are a God of second chances. And Jesus came to save us from our sins and from ourselves. What beautiful love that is. In Jesus Name we praise You, Amen.