This song is a reflection on the life of Jesus through his mother’s eyes. This is a perspective we are not used to. We know Mary is the mother of Jesus. We know she is given this prominent role at the beginning of the Gospel. We also know that she appears at the cross. Mary is present at the beginning of Jesus’ earthly life and the end, but we often do not reflect on what it was like for her to experience these events. What was it like for Mary to nurture and raise Jesus and to later see him put to death? What was it like for her to cuddle Jesus as a baby and then see him beaten and spit upon? What was it like for Mary to play with Jesus as a child and then stand at the foot of the cross?
There is much that we do not know concerning the life of Jesus from his birth to the beginning of his ministry. What we do know is that Mary was his mother. She gave birth to him. She raised him, and even though we don’t have any of her prayers from this time period, we know what a mother prays for and hopes for. I like how the third stanza begins. It doesn’t just say Mary prayed. It says a mother prays. The sentiment expressed in this prayer could have been prayed by Mary, but it is also something that mothers have prayed for thousands of years.
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”
This is what all parents want for their children. We want to protect them from all the evil in the world. We want nothing bad to happen to them. We want to preserve their innocence. We look at these children and we admire them. They don’t see black or white, rich or poor. They see human beings. They love one another and we want to protect this. We don’t want them to know the world as we know it, and so we pray. We ask God to watch over our children knowing that one day their innocence will be lost and they will see the world for what it really is.
Parenting a child is full of highs and lows. When that child is born you experience love like you have never experienced it before. You are overwhelmed with love for this child you have just met. A bond is formed and it continues to grow and grow. Your heart is full but eventually your heart will break. It is inevitable. Your child will get hurt. They will get picked on or made fun of. They will feel pain. They will see evil and wonder why. All of these moments are worse as a parent than when we go through them ourselves. We work so hard to protect our children and then something happens. Tears fill their eyes and our hearts break.
There are some things that should not be. Last week violence broke out across our nation. People’s lives were taken from them. Let’s put the politics aside and remember the humanity involved in each of these situations. As I tuned into the news over the last few days, I heard a mother from Minnesota and a father from Dallas who both lost children. I heard the hurt and sadness in their voices. They had spent all this time raising and trying to protect their children and then they are taken from them. This is a parent’s worst nightmare. This is what all of us fear, and sadly this is the world we live in.
Some may say, “The world has not always been this way.” I would beg to differ. In the days of Noah, the world was full of violence and this upset God. The story of the gospel is the story of an innocent man being put to death by the people in authority. Mary’s firstborn son. The child that Mary loved and raised. The child she carried inside her for nine months. The child she tucked in bed at night becomes the victim of horrific violence. We like to talk about the benefits of the cross but we sometimes forget the human element. Mary’s child endured horrific pain and suffering while she stood nearby. What happened at the cross is an indictment against humanity. It shows what we are capable of, and not just Romans or pagans, but the very people of God helped to put Jesus on the cross. When we allow hate into our heart anything can happen. Jesus commands us not to hate because he says hate leads to murder. What we all must do in this volatile time in our country is examine our heart and make sure there is no hate in it.
This song is important is because it reminds us that there was a loss at the cross. This is the most famous story in the Bible and so we know what happens. We understand the horror of the cross but we also know the hope of resurrection. If we are not careful, we will want to rush past the tragedy of Friday so we can get to the hope of Sunday. It is important that we grasp what happened at the cross, and not just in theological terms, but in terms of what it meant for Mary and Jesus. In the next to last stanza of the song, Springsteen reflects on this.
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
Although Jesus willingly went to the cross, he was aware that this would forever alter the rest of his life on earth. In Gethsemane, he prays for another way. Jesus will be resurrected but he will also ascend to be with the Father. He will never grow old. He will never be able to care for his elderly mother when she needs help. He will leave behind friends and family. Jesus does an amazing thing for us but it comes at a high cost. The cost is not just the brutality of his death. It is also all that he will leave behind. Although Mary may comprehend the mission of her Son, this still doesn’t take away the pain of her loss. She will no longer have her son here on earth. We experience this type of loss when a Christian brother or sister dies. We have the comfort of knowing we will be reunited, but we still grieve they are no longer with us. There are some things that cannot be undone in this lifetime. If a person robs a bank, then the money can be returned, but if a person takes a life, then there is no way to give that back. There is a loss that can never be replaced and Mary felt that loss at Calvary.
Jesus also understood the significance of what was about to happen. Springsteen sings,
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
What was that prayer about in Gethsemane? We know that Jesus prayed for another way. We also know that he submitted himself to the will of the father. Why did Jesus want to find another way? Was it because he feared the pain he was about to endure? Maybe, but maybe it was because he wanted to spend more time with his disciples and with his family. We know that the people around Jesus were dear to him. He wept at the tomb of Lazarus. He enjoyed eating with people and helping others. Maybe his prayer was similar to Paul’s in Philippians who was torn between being with God and helping others. He wanted both but knew it wasn’t possible at that moment.
What is obvious is that Jesus understood he was making a sacrifice. He had competing emotions within him but he was willing to lay down his life for the masses. He went to the cross for you and for me. Sometimes when a poem or song is written we have to find the meaning ourselves. There are some songwriters who refuse to comment on what their songs mean. Bruce Springsteen is not one of them. While performing this song at concerts around the world Springsteen has commented on the meaning of this song. This is what he has said,
“The choices we make are given meaning by the things we sacrifice…The choices that we make are given their value by the things we give up for them.”
What he describes here is the Biblical definition of love. The cross is love because Jesus made the ultimate sacrifice for human beings. Jesus gives a similar definition of love in the parable of the good Samaritan. The story begins because a lawyer wants to know what it means to love his neighbor. It means that you sacrifice something for that person. You give up your time to care for them. You let them ride your donkey. You pay for their stay at the inn. You promise to check back in.
This song asks some deep questions about ourselves. What do our sacrifices say about us? What kinds of sacrifices are we making in our own lives? We talk a lot about love but we only love as much as we sacrifice. We all love God. We profess it every Sunday. Okay, then what have you done for God lately? How have you sacrificed for him? What about your neighbor? The second greatest commandment is to love your neighbor. What have you done for the people around you? The world becomes a better place, not because we talk about love, but because we actually love.
The song ends by reflecting on the final moments Jesus and Mary have together before his death.
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.”
This is a song about lament and sacrifice but it ends with a word of hope. In the Gospel of John, Jesus looks down from the cross and he speaks to his mother and he speaks to John. One of his last concerns before he died was that his mother would be taken care of. He commissions John to watch after her. Mary must have been heartbroken as she watched her son die, but Jesus must have been equally heartbroken as he saw his mother’s eyes fill with tears.
In the midst of tragedy and loss, it is important to grieve and lament. Paul commands that we mourn with those who are mourning. When something tragic happens, this should be our first response as Christians. Political pundits and talk show hosts will offer their commentary but the world has had enough commentary. We don’t need any more talking heads. What the world needs is compassion. They need people to recognize their hurts. They need people to listen. They need people to care. This is our job as Christians, but more than anything else we are to remind people of the hope that is alive in Jesus. In the song, Jesus reminds Mary who God is and what he has done. He created this world and he is still in control. We need to remember the power of God. We need to remember that Jesus conquered evil at the cross, conquered death in the resurrection, and one day he will return to right all wrongs. Although we may live in dark times, God will have the final word. We do not belong to darkness. We are children of light and it is our duty to shine this light wherever we go. May we never fear the darkness, but instead may we commit to shining brighter than ever in the darkest moments.
You can listen to the full sermon here.