One of the temptations when discussing Good Friday is to become a theological robot, repeating the cerebral maxims and platitudes that muffle the visceral brutality of crucifixion. We’d rather quote statistics about poverty than tell the stories of the impoverished. We’d rather examine suffering at thirty-two thousand feet than zoom in on its particularity. This impulse to impersonalize Jesus’ suffering, however, is not present in a text composed by an anonymous Irish monk between the eighth and thirteenth centuries.
"At the cry of the first bird," writes the monk, "they began to crucify Thee, 0 Swan!" And never shall lament cease because of it. Never shall lament cease in the wake of the crucifixion of Christ the Swan, that elegant fowl. In crucifixion, its wings are cut and every hope that glided with it in migration is crushed. Crushed by the Roman Empire, crushed by a Temple Industrial Complex bent on the suppression and oppression dissenting voices and identities. But instead of elevating empires and other systems of domination, the medieval Irish monk focuses in on Mary:
Crucifixion - for this monk at least - is the severing of a tender relationship: that of parent and Child. It is Mary, witnessing the unjust execution of her Son while he witnesses her grief, which becomes for him, a source of greater grief than his slow, brutal death; a mutuality of grief all too common in our own day.
A parent seeing their child for the last time before she serves her prison sentence for drug possession; a daughter heartbroken because of her parents’ tortured final gaze. A first responder who arrives at a scene only to witness the victim’s last breath; the victim’s final gasp of hope and then the realization that this is it. A black mother watching her black child be lost to the guns of police and vigilantes; a black child thinking of her mother just before breathing her last on a modern-day Calvary.
At the cross, I doubt Mary articulates a theology of salvation or a dogma of atonement. If anything, as she watches her Son suffer and die, she quickly develops the skill of questioning God. “For what am I losing my Son? How am I supposed to make sense of senseless brutality?” And with Mary, baptized people throughout the ages wrestle and have wrestled with similar questions about loss, suffering, and the myriad ways our hearts are punctured by trauma.
If Mary is the mother of God, as the Church's early councils entitled her, she is also the mother of risk. Because God, in Christ, is the cosmic risk-taker, the swan who traverses our well-worn migration patterns for the sake of humanity's flourishing. While I am usually inclined to attribute Jesus' proclivity towards risk to his divine nature, I must wonder why I have never attributed this to the rearing of his risk-taking mother. The Mother who takes the risk of unwed motherhood, of non-traditional parenting, of unconventional, ambiguous paternity?
This proclivity towards risk is what brings Mary to the cross with Jesus; much like parents in oppressed demographics who still birth children, knowing that their first breath as an oppressed person will be one of struggle. And yet, through Holy Spirit-inspired grit, Mary not only brings Jesus into the world, but is a witness to his final moments.
Mother Swan. Mother Risk. Mother of Risk, we thank you.
Grace-St. Luke’s Church
“The Crucifixion” from Hermit Songs