Our Blessed Mother

There is much to marvel at in God’s creation, but the bond between mother and child is chief among them. In marriage, the two become one flesh. In motherhood, what begins as one flesh proceeds, through a nurturing and protective process, as a new being that grows into full maturity. The process of pregnancy and birthing is a paradox of sorrow and joy – so much so that it becomes the best analogy that Jesus can find to describe the Resurrection (John 16:16-22). The process of guiding children into adulthood replays the same paradox. If strongly supported and protected, healthy mothers are able to partner with healthy fathers in guiding their children into responsible adulthood. The mother desires that this young human being, who began in her womb with absolute dependence and need, will gradually reach a point of no longer needing and depending on her, but living autonomously with a free and joyful capacity for communion and total self-gift. I am friends with many moms, and have seen in their eyes that amazing combination of painful loss and intense joy as they proudly watch their sons and daughters shine in adulthood. But they are up against so much!

O how the devil hates this beautiful gift of motherhood! In every age, he renews his assault against it, and against the precious daughters of God who are called to it. Last time, I shared the particular ways in which our modern industrialized (and now digitalized) age tends to war against women. Toxic understandings of masculinity and femininity have infected both secular society and our own churches. Wave after wave of collective trauma has caused most of our families to perpetuate cycles of harm from generation to generation – unless and until we have the courage to face it all and heal. When I say collective trauma, I am thinking of the immigration of my and your ancestors, the previous pandemic, World War I, the Great Depression, World War II, Vietnam, the most recent pandemic, and so much more. Few families have fully faced and fully healed the heartache. Most of us minimize it, pull ourselves together, and carry on – which totally made sense during the traumatic events themselves – but over time has corroded our capacity for healthy intimacy and relationships. One of many sad results is that most of us did not receive all that we truly needed from our mothers.

God sends Jesus as his own beloved Son to plunge into every betrayal, every assault, every loss, every moment of heartache – and to transform it all. We are no longer alone or powerless in our agony – he suffers with and for us.

So does our mother Mary! God chose her to be the mother of his own Son. He is true flesh of her flesh, born of the Virgin by the power of the Holy Spirit. God also chose her to be our heavenly mother, as Jesus revealed to us on the Cross: “Behold Your Mother!”

How can she possibly be a mother to each and every beloved disciple? Only if she participates fully in the Lord’s Resurrection and Ascension – just as she participated fully in his Cross and burial. When Jesus is raised from the dead and exalted in heavenly glory, he opens up a new dimension of human existence. His body is one and the same as the body placed lovingly in the tomb, yet gloriously transformed beyond our current comprehension. The resurrection accounts make it clear that our current limits of time and place cannot contain him. He can be fully present many places at once – not just as God, but in his human flesh.

The Catholic doctrine of the Assumption of Mary into heaven may seem to many to be abstract or unbiblical or irrelevant. But it makes so much sense if you look at it through the lens of Jesus giving us the heavenly mother that he knew each and all of us would need! He knows the relentless assaults of evil. He knows that many mothers and many children in every generation will be vulnerable to attack. He promises not to leave us orphans.

Sharing already in Jesus’ Ascension glory, our Blessed Mother is able to provide the tender nurturing, the fierce protection, and the motherly mentoring that we may have missed out on. We cannot give what we have not received!

My heart has been warmed at how many of my Protestant friends are curious about devotion to Mary. They and I recognize that the polemics of the past (on all sides) resulted in much misunderstanding, distortion, or loss. Our American culture, with its Puritanical roots, has been particularly suspicious of devotion to Mary – unlike most other times and places in the history of Christianity. From at least as long ago as the early art in the Roman catacombs, Mary’s motherhood has captivated the imagination and creative expression of Christian disciples in every age. She is always the mother that we need, because our good Father knows of our need and always provides.

I have a few writing projects that I’ve chipped away at in recent years. Five years ago, I wrote a book on the Beatitudes which I will eventually rework and publish. While on sabbatical, I wrote a book about devotion to Mary for those who really need it. The idea came originally from a mentor who was a Protestant minister and therapist. I wasn’t ready to write it for a long time, but it is nearing completion now. I look forward to sharing some stories of how Mary has been the heavenly mother I have needed, and hope that many of you will find her to be exactly the mother that you need.

Behold Your Mother!

As Jesus died on the Cross, he uttered his final words. In any great story, the last words of the hero are loaded with significance. The dying and rising of Jesus is the greatest story ever told.

On the Cross, Jesus speaks to his mother Mary and to his beloved disciple (John 19:25-29). He tells her, “Behold your son!” He tells him, “Behold your mother!”

Why does Jesus make a point of introducing this relationship? Why does John, inspired by the Holy Spirit, make a point of recording it for all posterity to read?

Jesus is not a procrastinator who suddenly realizes he has not made arrangements for his mother. He is not worried about who will take care of her. He is inviting you and me into a relationship with his mother. He is introducing her as a mother that we all need!

Each one of us is a beloved disciple of Jesus. Each one of us is invited into the new and eternal covenant, sealed with his blood on the Cross. And each one of us needs a heavenly mother.

At the Last Supper, two chapters earlier (John 17), Jesus prays his priestly prayer to his Father. He delights in the intimate relationship he has with his Father. He prays for the disciples he has chosen. He also prays for you and me –for those who one day will believe and become his beloved disciples (John 17:20). He desires and prays that all that is his will be ours. That includes his intimate relationship with his Father. It also includes having his mother as our mother.

This weekend we celebrate another Mother’s Day. As we show honor and delight to our earthly mothers, or give thanks in their memory, we can also ponder Jesus’ invitation from the Cross. He offers us Mary as an icon of motherhood, but also as a real human being (now sharing in his glory in heaven) who is capable of being intimately present as a heavenly mother to each and all of us in the ways we most need.

As children, we all needed tender nurturing, fierce protection, and wise guidance. These needs are hardwired into us in the biological bond between mother and child.

Those needs may shift in adulthood, but they do not go away. In fact, for the last couple of centuries, it is mothers themselves who have been most deprived of those needs! The very genesis of the Mother’s Day holiday is a feeble acknowledgement that we live in a culture that devalues and degrades women while expecting the impossible of them.

Most mothers that I know feel like they are failing most of the time. They continue to struggle with their own ache for nurture, protection, and mentoring, and are somehow supposed to provide those things to each child – AND be a strong and capable worker, AND have the right body shape and allure, AND engage in prayer and self-care, AND…   You get the point. Holding a commercialized holiday in mid-May does not dispense us from the duty of conducting a thorough inspection of the toxic waters we expect mothers to swim in.

Some think it has always been so. I do not agree. Yes, throughout history, women are subject to exploitation by men seeking privilege and power. But it shows up differently in different times and places. What many consider to be “traditional” gender roles are much more modern than they realize! The burden placed upon women in the West in the modern industrial era is uniquely ugly.

If you study the Saints of the Middle Ages, you will find many tender-hearted men and many fierce women. Literacy was not widespread anywhere prior to the printing press, but there were many literate women who became strong leaders. One of the unintended side effects of the Protestant splintering was the abolition of religious life. No more alternative paths for women. Be a wife and mother.

A second major shift happened with the Industrial Revolution. The division into specialized labor led to massive migration, pulled extended families apart, and pushed men who used to work at home or close to home into factories. The nuclear family replaced extended families as the norm, and women were left alone at home – except at wartime, when they were also supposed to provide the needed labor in the workforce. In all these shifts, women were largely abandoned in their God-given task of mothering – without tribe or village supporting them. It is impossible to mother alone! That conviction seems to be what fueled Anna Marie Jarvis in the original observance of this holiday.

Both the culture and our churches tend to perpetuate false and impossible expectations on women. The “perfect family” idealized over the decades in ads or TV shows or church culture does not actually exist! Some glamorize the “good old days” of the mid-20th Century – ignoring the ugly realities of domestic violence, sexual abuse, and objectification. Meanwhile, the ideal woman is supposed to check an impossible list of boxes regarding appearance and performance, while still finding a way to nurture, protect, and guide her kids.

How can mothers give what they have not themselves received? And how do our institutions and structures back up mothers to ensure they can thrive during the critical years of mothering? For multiple generations now, motherhood has been in survival mode. That cycle means that even the best of mothering experiences will leave the children aching for more when they enter adulthood.

The Catechism of the Catholic Church (n. 2779) warns us that our notions of fatherhood and motherhood are often wordly, distorted, and toxic. They need to be purified by looking to how Jesus has revealed God’s Fatherhood (and Mary’s motherhood) to us. We have much to reflect on!

In the meantime, each of us needs Mary’s mothering. Each of us has an ongoing ache for the tender nurture and fierce protection that she can provide. Each of us can turn to her as the wisest of mothers.

To be continued…