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…