Friday, April 22, 2011

Three Marys at the Cross - a Trinitarian Reflection

The Crucifixion by Vladimir Borovikovsky - an 18th Century Ukrainian artist.

It struck me as a little unusual to have the writer of John's Gospel single out three women with the same name at the foot of the cross - three Marys. The synoptic Gospels (Matthew, Mark & Luke) indicate a more general "women who had followed him from Galilee" (Luke 23:49), or "many women were also there" (Matthew 27:55), or "there were also women looking on from a distance" (Mark 15:40). Mark and Matthew name Mary Magdalene and another Mary the mother of James and Joseph (Joses in Mark?). Only John mentions three Marys. This led me to ask "Why identify by name these three and no one else?" While pondering this an idea struck me - was possible that the writer intended a symbolic reflection of the three parts of the Trinity present at the crucifixion?
When I checked this idea with my friend, Harry Maier, a theological professor and academic scholar, he said this was probably not anything the writer of the Gospel of John intended. As Harry wrote "it is a stretch to see a notion of the Trinity in John without the mindset that is looking for it." He then went on to explain why this was unlikely and what was more likely the author's intention by naming these women at the cross. I appreciated Harry's comments and thought about dropping this contemplation about the three Marys, but then, inspired by something I once learned from Madeline L'Engle at a writer's workshop I thought I could still do a little midrashic musing. Midrash, according to Monica Osborne of Purdue University, "is not something that exists outside of the text; rather, it expands the original text, deepening it, filling it out, adding complexity and comprehension." So what follows are my reflections about the three Marys.
Could the three Marys be pointing to the full presence of God in that death scene on Golgotha? The Gospel of John certainly has the three parts of the Trinity fully present with each other throughout - Jesus refers to abiding in the Father, and the Father in him; John the Baptist testifies at the very beginning "I saw the Spirit descending from heaven like a dove, and it remained on him (Jesus)." The Trinity, while not named as such, and probably not even thought of in the manner Christianity has come to understand it, is certainly present throughout John's Gospel, Jesus' unity with God the Father and his relationship with the Spirit of God emphasized over and over.
If the three Marys reflect the three persons of the Trinity, how might they do this?
  1. Mary the mother of Jesus could certainly reflect God the father, the first person of the Trinity.
  2. Mary the wife of Clopas could reflect God the son. (The literal text does not say "wife of"- Clopas could either be her father, son or husband). The reflection of God the son is a little less clear here, but it is the name Clopas that provides a possibility. Clopas is likely a shortened form of the Greek name Cleopas which is itself an abbreviated form of Cleopatros, a common Hellenistic name meaning "son of a renowned father". Jesus, the second person of the trinity, is certainly a son of a renowned father.
  3. Mary Magdalene could reflect the presence of the Spirit. Mary Magdalene was a person who was filled with seven evil spirits, these were cast out by Jesus which led Mary to become of disciple. Thus she is someone who has been transformed from one filled with evil spirits to one filled with God's spirit. (Luke 8:2). This is the weakest of the connections since only the Gospel of Luke mentions Mary of Magdalene filled with evil spirits, John says nothing of this. Perhaps more significant is John's portrayal of Mary being the first post-resurrection apostle (apostle meaning one who is sent, and Mary is sent by the resurrected Jesus to the disciples with the message "I am ascending to my Father and your Father, to my God and your God.") Mary is empowered to believe and proclaim, something the Gospel of John attributes to the Spirit of God. ("For the one whom God has sent speaks the words of God, for God gives the Spirit without limit." John 3:34. See also John 15:26-27)
Now admittedly this is highly speculative, and I certainly wouldn't make it a central tenant of my faith, however this idea has given me another layer to the crucifixion scene in the Gospel of John. This Gospel does not have Jesus cry out the words of Psalm 22 "My God, my God. Why have you forsaken me?" (found in Matthew's account). Instead John's Gospel allows for God to be fully present - even in the paradox of Jesus' death. To be fully present all three persons of the Trinity would need to be extant.
John's Gospel records Jesus' moment of death with these words "Then he bowed his head and gave up his spirit." (John 19:30) This is more than just "breathing his last" (as in the Gospels of Matthew and Mark) - there is a recognition that Jesus' spirit is part of him until the end - and will be again when he breathes on the disciples and gives them the Holy Spirit after his resurrection (John 20:22).
Praying just before his arrest and execution John's Gospel records Jesus saying "So now, Father, glorify me in your own presence with the glory that I had in your presence before the world existed." (John 17:5) Jesus knows he is heading to his death, but recognizes that through this death he would be glorified in the Father's presence. Unlike what it appears, God is fully present, rather than completely absent, at Jesus' death.
Women in the Gospel of John are important, they often are the messengers of God's surprising truth. The importance of the three Marys at the foot of the cross reflects the truth of God 'fully present' even in death. The three Marys are visuals reminders to us that there is nothing in all creation, not even death, that can separate us from the full presence, and love of God. The image of the three Marys at the foot of the cross now expands beyond a picture of grieving women to a sign of hope for all who face the death of a loved one. God does not abandon us in death, God is with us in more ways than we can perceive or comprehend. In that hope there is comfort.
This musing has led me to more questions: How can we, in this place and time, reflect the full presence of God in our context? How can we witness to the fullness of God's love, a love that not even death can stop from being fully present?


  1. Hi, I was reading in John tonight and as I came across the mention of three Mary's, I too was intrigued as to why. I feel strongly that ALL scripture is intentional and that there must be a reason for mentioning all three of the women and thier common names! I googled it and read your interpretation... Definitely food for thought! Thank you for sharing.

    1. Thank you Christine, I'm glad you found my post thought-provoking.

  2. This is awesome! It has to be right! I do not think God was absent; I think Jesus had started reciting Psalm 22 for comfort when He died. Thank you for your thoughts!

  3. The Three Marys don't include the Virgin Mary, the other Mary is Mary Salome, who is the wife of Zebedee and the mother of the apostles James the Greater and John.

    1. Hello Bjorn. Thanks for your comment, I had to go back and check. The crucifixion account from the Gospel of John does have Mary, mother of Jesus, in attendance at the execution (see John 19:25). I was not referring to the "Three Marys" of Roman Catholic tradition but specifically I was considering the possible meaning of the women who were named in the Gospel of John's account of the crucifixion. I can see how my use of that phrase in the title could be confusing for those familiar with the Roman Catholic tradition of the "Three Marys".

  4. Hi! Thank you for the sharing your thoughts on the mysteries of the Marys. I started a blog recently and I did a write-up on: The Mysteries of the three Marys. My blog address is: Please visit my blog if you can. I'll like to know your thoughts on this write-up. This is a humble requests.
    Thank you.

    1. Hello Emmanuel. I have looked at your blog and found it both interesting at times, and difficult to understand at times. You are using words and concepts in ways that are unfamiliar to me, so I will need to read through your blog entry on the Three Marys again to understand more clearly what you mean. It does seem to be a bit of a Gnostic approach, but that could just be my own limited understanding.