“There were … women looking on from afar, among whom were Mary Magdalene, and Mary the mother of James the younger and of Joses, and Salome; who, when [Jesus] was in Galilee, followed him, and ministered to him; and also many other women who came up with him to Jerusalem.” (Mark 15:40-41)
There is a phenomenon in nursing training, I am told, called the discipline of staying. The doctors may come and go, fleeing if need be from what they cannot control or alleviate; but the nurses stay. They are taught this business of “staying” to look on that which others cannot bear: the suppurating wound; the face horribly disfigured by burns; the gangrenous limb which awaits amputation; the agony of death itself.
The synoptic gospels – Matthew, Mark and Luke – all agree that only the women stayed when Jesus was dying. Standing at a distance, to be sure, possibly pushed a distance away from the spectacle of torture and death by the Roman centurions. Crucifixion was politically necessary, for it reminded everyone that the pax Romana came at a price.
We note that the male followers of Jesus were not at Golgotha, or if they were they cowered so far the distance that they are not mentioned in the gospels. Instead it is a few women who stayed, women who were last at the cross and first at the tomb. To watch helplessly as someone suffers and dies is beyond the heart to bear. Yet they stayed,– being present with all the love and devotion they could muster.
In my mother’s last hours she was in hospice care at the Woodmark in Sun City. We visited her every day. There was very little to do or to say. She mostly slept, the sleep that comes from blessed morphine that makes the last hours more bearable.
I wanted to be with her when she died. She wasn’t a perfect mom, but she did all she could to be a good mother, and I hoped that she knew that I was there, sitting quietly by her bedside.
On the last day of her life I sat with her all afternoon. I think I was there four hours in all. She was breathing peacefully; she didn’t have “death rattles” which is a sign that the end is near.
So I went home, had dinner with our family, and went to bed. The phone call from the hospice nurse came at 9:30 p.m.
My wife, my daughter (here from Holland), and I drove up to Sun City to see her with our final goodbyes.
I am to this day sorry that I didn’t stay on a few more hours.
I know a woman from Lake Forest who stayed around the clock for three weeks in the care center where her husband lived out his last days. I know a man from Sun City who visited his wife, an Alzheimer’s patient, every day, all day, for years. I know many couples who stay together for the sake of their children. (So many experts say this isn’t a good idea, but looking back I am thankful that my parents stayed together despite a rocky relationship.)
The first and pressing question on Good Friday, then, is whether we are willing and able to “stay” – to stay in awful situations when our love and devotion is summoned forth. To stay with the horror of Jesus’ death— like the women followers of Jesus, like the nurses who train themselves not to look away – and accompany him through the darkness of his three final hours of suffering.
We stay with him not only as a sign of our love and devotion. We stay with him also to reflect on our complicity in his death. Isaac Watts asks, “Was it for sins I have done, he suffered on the tree.” (“Alas and Did My Saviour Bleed”) I Peter declares, “He himself bore our sins in his body on the cross that we might die to sin and live to righteousness.”
The women stayed. The nurses stay. Looking upon that which others cannot bear–the awful evil of the world, the evil that infects even our own hearts.