I am surprised that he is not heavier. Strong, but slight of build, he was not at all like me. I’m a big woman, heavy in bone and flesh, toughened by years of hard work in house and field. I’m 50 now, but still strong enough to carry him. How many years has it been since his body lay in my lap? How long since I cradled his head in my arms? I think the last time was when he had that fever that almost took him. He was 16. Or was he 17 by then? But look at him now!
His is a body, I should know as well as my own. Perhaps better, it’s flesh of my flesh. But all I see is lifeless, bruised, and battered flesh, sprawled across my knees. This is not my son! It can’t be! This ugly twisted face is not his! This body is stretched, bloated and contorted, sculpted by violence and pain. Twisted and tortured legs and arms describe the instrument of its dying. And God! His wrists, and feet and side! Vicious with the fatal rust of dried blood and the deathly white of violated bone. This body reeks of death; death’s sweat, death’s blood, death’s waste. Oh, God!
Can this be your child?· Can this be my son?
But it’s his hair that brings tears to my eyes. Silly, isn’t it? To hold the lifeless body of your son, and weep because his hair is filthy. See how it’s matted with sweat, blood, and yes, spittle. Can any one count the times a mother washes the hair of her child, combs it, brushes it, smoothes it away form the face, caresses it to comfort some passing hurt? His was so beautiful. Black and straight, thick and lustrous with reflected lights like those in hard coal newly prised from the mountain-side. Soft as silk, sweet as the smell of morning after rain.
I must strangle the urge to cry out: “This is not my son!” Yet it is! It is him! My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?
They come to take him from me now. Should I try to remember what I see: Eyes without light, laughter, surprise, compassion, love. A mouth so bruised that it tells nothing of the strength and grace of his voice or the gentle understanding in his smile. I used to love to watch him run as a child and see how his every step mimicked the purposeful tread of his father. These legs are a cruel travesty of his. And I refuse to look at the hands. His were strong, beautiful, skilled, and his touchwas tender.
What is real? What I remember or what I see? The boy and man I knew? Or this defiled remnant of a man? Maybe I never really knew him. Maybe memory and love betray the reality of the present. I begged Joseph to believe that I had not sinned, that somehow God had given me this child. I don’t know that he ever really believed me. But God, how he loved us! Me and his son. Conceived in distrust, born amid the confusion of omens pointing to both grief and glory, what a son he was!
Yes, he was into all the innocent mischief that a village provides a lively boy. But how loving, sweet, and filled with life and joy he was for me and his father. With each passing day he grew in grace, and strength and wisdom before God and us all. The day I most feared finally arrived. He must leave, he said.
“God has called me and given me a work to do,” he said. “I must be about it.”
Terror, like a sword, pierced me. I knew the end was beginning. We in this land do not welcome bearers of God’s word. Our rulers are even more hostile. I pleaded with my son. I cried out to God. My son left as God said he must. I tried again and again to bring him home. Neither he nor God heard me.
Now I suppose I have him back; God’s answer to my prayer. Shall I curse the God who gave him to me then and gives him to me now? I want to. Perhaps, I should. But it’s too late. I received God’s first gift filled with joy. I cannot now refuse God’s second gift, no matter how filled with suffering. I have trusted in God since childhood. I cannot do otherwise now. God is the bedrock of who I am and my last link to the son I loved.
Now strangers lift this burden from my lap. I stand and watch as they carry it away. Who will lift the heavier burden of memory’s grief that bows my body and soul? I can but pray.
Oh God, you shape the whole of who I am. Have mercy on me. Help me to find blessing in being the woman who mothered him. I am brought down to the depths, raise me up with your mighty arm. I am totally empty, fill me with your presence. Make me strong in my trust in you. Above all, God, my God, know that I am your servant to do with as you will.
Offered by Fr. John Linnan, a former professor, pastor and president of Catholic Theological Union in Chicago, who retired after serving as pastor of Maternity of the Blessed Virgin Mary Parish in Boubonnais. His parishioners there used this meditation as part of their Good Friday services during his last year there, in 2004.