The Three Marys: A Good Friday Meditation

…But standing by the cross of Jesus were his mother and his mother’s sister, Mary of Clopas, and Mary Magdalene. (John 19:25)

Beginning in the late patristic and early medieval period, the eyes of the church were gradually drawn away from Christ as our only high priest and mediator to the blessed virgin Mary (Luke 1:42). The Stabat Mater [His Mother Was Standing] is a twelfth- or thirteenth-century hymn which gives us a sense of the growing devotion to the virgin. It is not as though there was no resistance. Well into the high medieval period there was concern about the elevation of the virgin Mary. Fast forward most of a millennium to 1964, when the Roman communion nearly completed the Marian project by pronouncing her “Mediatrix” (Lumen Gentium; Catechism §§969–70). Among the theologians, priests, and laity, it is popular also to refer to her as “Redemptrix.” Remarkably, the usually theologically liberal Francis, the Roman Bishop who fancies himself the vicar of Christ on the earth, rebuked those who call her “co-Redemptrix.” The history and trajectory of the Roman communion is reasonably clear and eventually the theologians, laity, and priests will get their way and she will announce that Mary has always been “co-Redemptrix,” but that doctrine in no way threatens the uniqueness of Christ’s office as Redeemer, just as naming her “Mediatrix” does not threaten the uniqueness of Christ’s office as Redeemer. Rome is the communion that also claims that the daily memorial (propitiatory sacrifice of Christ) in the mass, though it participates in the once-for-all sacrifice of Christ on the cross, in no way impinges upon that sacrifice.

All of this naturally makes Reformed folk wary of elevating the virgin beyond her proper station. That caution is well deserved. Nevertheless, the Apostle John did draw our attention briefly to Mary, whom we confess, in the the Definition of Chalcedon (AD 451) to be the Theotokos (θεοτοκος), the Mother of God, and to two other Marys. There were, after all, three Marys at the foot of our Lord as he suffered on the cross, which we remember on Good Friday.

The First Mary

The first Mary John mentions is Mary, the mother of our Lord. Of course Jesus was and remains God the Son incarnate—one person, as we confess in Chalcedon:

One and the same Christ, Son, Lord, Only-begotten, to be acknowledged in two natures, inconfusedly, unchangeably, indivisibly, inseparably; the distinction of natures being by no means taken away by the union, but rather the property of each nature being preserved, and concurring in one Person and one Subsistence, not parted or divided into two persons, but one and the same Son, and only begotten, God the Word, the Lord Jesus Christ, as the prophets from the beginning [have declared] concerning him, and the Lord Jesus Christ himself has taught us, and the Creed of the holy Fathers has handed down to us.

Just before this marvelous passage (have you ever meditated on the Definition of Chalcedon?) we say, “born of the Virgin Mary, the Mother of God, according to the humanity . . . ” (θεοτόκου κατὰ τὴν ἀνθρωπότητα). In the Apostles’ Creed we confess that Jesus is both the “only begotten Son” (Filium eius unigenitum) “who was conceived by the Holy Spirit, born of the Virgin Mary” (qui conceptus est de Spiritu sancto, natus ex Maria virgine). By the mysterious operation of the Spirit, our Lord Jesus took his true human nature from the blessed virgin. Thus, the writer to the Hebrew Christians reminds us that Jesus is like us in every respect, sin excepted (Heb 2:17; 4:15). We have a true human Mediator, at the right hand of the Father, the God-Man (Θεανθροπος), who is able to hear and to save us helpless sinners.

Belgic Confession Article 26 is right to reassert that Jesus is not merely a unique Mediator (as Rome says) but also the only Mediator between sinners and God. It was he alone whom “the Father has appointed between himself and us.” He is a sympathetic Mediator, who “ought not terrify us by his greatness, so that we have to look for another one, according to our fancy.” No one, not even the blessed virgin loves us as much as he. Contra Rome, “who will be heard more readily than God’s own dearly beloved Son?” The Ave Maria does not honor the virgin Mary. It is a form of unbelief to call upon the saints, something for which they never asked “but which in keeping with their duty, as appears from their writings, they consistently refused.” Indeed, as we confess,

What more do we need? For Christ himself declares: ‘I am the way, the truth, and the life; no one comes to my Father but by me.’ Why should we seek another intercessor? Since it has pleased God to give us his Son as our Intercessor, let us not leave him for another—or rather seek, without ever finding. For when God gave him to us he knew well that we were sinners. Therefore, in following the command of Christ we call on the heavenly Father through Christ, our only Mediator, as we are taught by the Lord’s Prayer, being assured that we shall obtain all we ask of the Father in his name.

Still, there they are at the foot of the cross, the three Marys—the Mother of Jesus, Mary the mother of Clopas, and Mary Magdalene. Calvin calls them “holy women” (Commentary on the Gospel of John, in loc.).

The Second Mary

Little is known about Mary the mother of Clopas. John identifies her as Mary’s sister (“ἡ ἀδελφὴ τῆς μητρὸς”). I would take it literally but Calvin takes it broadly to signal that she was Mary’s cousin. There is an ancient tradition that identifies Clopas with Alphaeus, the father of the Apostle James (Matt 10:3) but this is uncertain. The Greek text says “Mary of Clopas” (Μαρία ἡ τοῦ Κλωπᾶ), which Edwin Palmer (ISBE, s.v., “Mary”) suggested means the wife of Clopas (the ESV interprets the “of” to signal Mother of. Given the ambiguity, it might be preferable for translations to just leave these things ambiguous).

The Third Mary

The other Mary present at the death of our Lord was Mary Magdalene. She has often been confused with Mary of Bethany (Luke 7:36–50), but Mary of Magdala was a different person. Most modern Bible dictionaries (e.g., ISBE, Eerdmans) note this, but Michelle J. Morris in the Lexham Bible Dictionary (s.v., “Mary Magdalene”) notes that it was Gregory I (c. 540–604) who established the mistaken notion that Mary Magdalene was Mary the harlot. The Gnostics have tried to make her into Jesus’ wife but that is without foundation in fact and history. The Gnostic gospels are spurious and written a century after Jesus’ death with the purpose of turning the Christian faith on its head. Modern proponents of this nonsense should be rejected just as furiously as they were rejected in the second century.

Mary Magdalene appears in all four gospels as a follower of Jesus. Jesus cast seven demons from her (Mark 16:9). She was able to provide for Jesus (Mark 15:40–41). She bought spices to anoint Jesus’ body (Mark 16:1). She was at Jesus’ tomb (Mark 16:8). She was among those to run to tell the disciples the good news (Matt 28:1–8). In John 20 we see her going along to the tomb, where the stone has already been rolled away. She tells Peter and John, but later sees two angels and mistakes Jesus for the gardener until he reveals himself.


So, we know some details about two of the three Marys but we know something about all three of them. They were members of Christ’s church. They were those for whom Christ came to obey, to suffer, and to die. It is good to pay attention to the three Marys, but as we contemplate them momentarily, our eyes are drawn again to where their eyes were focused: Christ.

They are present in John’s gospel as objects of his love. Yes, Mary was standing (stabat) but she was standing there with the other two Marys not as Mediatrix and not as co-Redemptrix, but as a sinner saved by the favor of God alone (sola gratia), through faith alone (sola fide).

Sentimentalism would have us neglect Jesus or, as my pastor Chris Gordon has observed, regard him with pity. That would be a serious mistake. Jesus was not a victim. He was the victor. He orchestrated his suffering and his death and he did it because it is what he agreed with the Father, from all eternity (pactum salutis) he would do for us: “I glorified you on earth, having accomplished the work that you gave me to do. And now, Father, glorify me in your own presence with the glory that I had with you before the world existed” (John 17:4–5; ESV).

The origins of the expression “Good Friday” are shrouded in mystery but it is good, is it not? On it we behold our Savior and our salvation and the highest expression of the love of God for his church. Appreciate the three Marys at the foot of the cross but put your trust in the only Mediator Jesus, who accomplished your salvation and who willingly and happily hears and answers your prayers.

© R. Scott Clark. All Rights Reserved.


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