Today was a field trip from my studies.  My professors led the group on a visit to three nearby towns, remarkable for either their artistic treasures or general historical quaintness.  The first stop was Colmar to see this work of art by Mathias Grunewald – the Isenheim Altarpiece:


My profs consider this to be the single greatest depiction of the crucifixion of Jesus.  Ever.  And it is impressive, to be sure.  But what struck me in particular was the youthfulness of the disciple John.  He’s the young man to the left of the cross holding Jesus’ swooning mother, Mary.  Immediately what sprang to mind were Jesus’ words from the cross recorded by John himself in John 19:26-27.

Always before when I heard Jesus’ words to his mother and John, I presumed that John was going to be caring for Mary.  Frankly, verse 27 really leads one to suspect that this is the case.  But of course that creates a host of questions.  Why weren’t Jesus’ brothers taking care of Mary?  Where is Joseph, Jesus’ dad in all of this?  How is it that John can take Mary into his home?  Does he have a home?  Where?  What about his dad, Zebedee?  Lots o’ questions, but my assumption has always been that regardless of the questions, this must have been what happened.

Seeing the painting made me remember and realize again how young John must be at the crucifixion.  He lives almost to the end of the first century.  He might have been a young man indeed – perhaps even a boy on the threshold of manhood.  Maybe he was 13 or 14 when Jesus died.  Maybe this is why he is described as the beloved disciple – he was younger than the rest of the disciples and there was perhaps a paternal love from Jesus towards John.

And if all this were true, what if Jesus’ words to Mary and John were intended to have the opposite effect – that Mary was to look after John.  Of course, it makes the rest of verse 27 curious, but that’s no harder a question than the variety of questions raised by interpreting Jesus’ words the other way round.

I might be off completely in my musings, but it was amazing, that sudden realization that my assumptions about things had informed my interpretation of the text, and that other interpretations might be possible.  I’ll chalk that up to the power of art, and the usefulness of a random field trip now and then!


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