For our 7:00a weekday services during Lent, we most often draw our readings from the Episcopal calendar of saints entitled, Holy Women, Holy Men.[i] Organized in date order, this compendium includes not only traditional listings, but more contemporary remembrances: on February 25: John Roberts, missionary to the Arapahoe; on March 6: the Mayo brothers, founders of the Mayo Clinic; on March 13, James Theodore Holly, Bishop of Haiti; among many others. Their biographies inform our Lenten journey to Holy Week and to this Good Friday.
Among the traditional entries, the common marks March 25 for the Feast of the Annunciation, that occasion when we remember the angel Gabriel’s visit to Mary, as told in the Gospel of Luke: “‘Do not be afraid, Mary, for you have found favor with God. And now, you will conceive in your womb and bear a son, and you will name him Jesus’…Then Mary said, ‘Here am I, servant of the Lord; let it be with me according to your word.’”[ii]
While customarily dated exactly nine months before Christmas, the Annunciation this year fell on Palm Sunday. In this scenario, the calendar instructs us that our memorials of Holy Week and our celebrations of Easter Week take precedence and bump Annunciation to Monday, April 9. However, allowing the intersection of the Annunciation and Holy Week – the beginning and ending of Jesus’ mortal life – offers rich and challenging access to Mary’s very human experience of the Passion.
Not surprisingly, the fifth Evangelist – Bruce Frederick Joseph Springsteen – has a good word to offer these considerations. From the second side of his 2005 album Devils & Dust[iii] (if albums had sides anymore), Springsteen describes Good Friday, mingling images of the cross with images of motherhood. He sings:
Jesus was an only son
as he walked up Calvary Hill,
His mother Mary walking beside him
in the path where his blood spilled.
Jesus was an only son
in the hills of Nazareth,
as he lay reading the Psalms of David
at his mother’s feet.[iv]
In the same year of the album’s release, Springsteen appeared on the VH1 program, Storytellers,[v] during which he shared his intentions in the song. He explains, “On Devils and Dust I wrote several songs about mothers and sons…I had second thoughts about it today when I was behind a car with a bumper sticker that said ‘Drive carefully, my mommy is in this car’, and I was moved to hit the gas and rear end her as hard as I could.
“I was…interested in the relationship between parent and child[, and] I felt if I approached the song from the secular side, that the rest of it would come through…Of course, Jesus had earthly brothers and sisters, but not on this particular day. [See,] On this day, he was singular…
Mary walks beside Jesus, not only in the path where his blood spilled, but in the hills of Nazareth, as he lay reading the Psalms of David at his mother’s feet.[vi] Springsteen explains, “I wanted an image of parental love and nurturing…of life and of promise and of peace…before what was to come.”[vii]
The song continues:
A mother prays, “Sleep tight, my child, sleep well
for I’ll be at your side;
that no shadow, no darkness, no tolling bell,
shall pierce your dreams this night.”
In the garden at Gethsemane
he prayed for the life he’d never live,
he beseeched his Heavenly Father to remove
the cup of death from his lips[viii]
Again, Springsteen explains: “Well, every parent wants to keep their children from all harm. It’s such a primal thing[, and ]I was shocked when I first felt it so deep inside myself…[but] the world awaits us all, there’s not much that parents can do about it.”[ix]
Then, of Jesus’ perspective, Springsteen imagines, “Well, you’d have to be thinking: ‘There was that little bar in Galilee, pretty nice little place…Weather’s good down there too… I could manage the place, Mary Magdalene could tend bar…We could have some kids. And the preaching? I [wouldn’t have to give it up completely, I] could [still] do it on the weekends… You’d [just ] have to be thinking that.”[x]
The song concludes:
Now there’s a loss that can never be replaced,
a destination that can never be reached,
a light you’ll never find in another’s face,
a sea whose distance cannot be breached.
Well Jesus kissed his mother’s hands
whispered, “Mother, still your tears,
for remember the soul of the universe
willed a world and it appeared.”[xi]
According to Springsteen, the penultimate verse – Now there’s a loss that can never be replaced, a destination that can never be reached [xii] – voices “the finality of death. Regardless of what Jesus was going to mean [for the world], for Mary, she was just losing her boy and…we [still] lose one another, people don’t get replaced.”[xiii]
Finally, the boy who at the outset of the hymn leaned on his mother’s knee, now becomes the consoler: Jesus kissed his mother’s hands whispered, “Mother, still your tears, for remember the soul of the universe willed a world and it appeared.”[xiv] Springsteen proposes, “That’s transformation. Our children have their own destiny, they have their own destiny apart from us[, just as we once had our own destiny apart from our parents]. And I think my idea was… to try and reach into the idea of Jesus as son, as somebody’s boy… because I think that whatever divinity we can lay claim to is hidden in the core of our humanity… And when we let it go, when we let our compassion go, we let go of what little claim we have to the divine…”[xv]
Whether you find your connection to Mary’s experience through your own experience as a parent, or through your own experience as a child, the bittersweet truths of the story crack us open. Yet, as the Evangelist rightly observes, whatever “divinity we can lay claim to is hidden in the core of our humanity.” On Good Friday, preservation of that soul means risking a passage through impossible grief in order to discover our truer self, the one bound to a child unfairly hanged from a cross, the one bound to a mother’s broken heart, the one bound to the possibility that the very “soul of the universe” – the one who “willed a world and it appeared” – might have mercy on us, and turn death into life.