Being Mothering Sunday, and in celebration of it, I thought I should say something about it. So, I’d like to focus on the relationship which Jesus had with Mary, his mother. I think you’ll agree, Mary exemplifies virtues common to most mothers and of every age. More importantly, perhaps, Mary gives us a glimpse of this mysterious, marvellous and challenging role we call motherhood.
What we know about Mary, the mother of Jesus, is found in the several brief fragments which we read. The first is from the gospel according to St. Luke. It comes months before Jesus was born.
According to St. Luke, the angel Gabriel visited Mary and told her that God had found favour with her and that she was to bear a son and call him Jesus. Mary reacted as you might expect. She exclaimed:
“‘How can this be, seeing I am a virgin?’
The angel answered her, ‘The Holy Spirit will come upon you, and the power of the Most High will overshadow you. Therefore, also, the holy one who is born from you will be called the Son of God …’
‘Behold, I am the servant of the Lord; let it be done to me according to your word.’”
Long before Jesus ever took his first breath, and long before she’d any idea what was in store for her, Mary began preparing a place for him in her heart.
A child once asked his mother, “Mommy, where was I before I was born?” She said, “Sweetheart, you were a thought in the mind of God.” She might well have added, “… and a prayer in my heart, as well.”
What’s it like to have new life come into being within your body? Around half of us will never know. As a man, I can only marvel at what a woman must experience as she feels the baby come to life in her womb, and as it draws its strength from her very own life’s blood.
Many of us will never have that experience, yet all of us came to life in just that way. What we should remember is that, just as our bodies were being nourished in the waters of the womb, so also were our souls being nurtured by the loving thoughts and prayers of our mothers. When all’s said and done, that’s what mothers are for and what they do best.
The next fragment comes about twelve years later. It’s also found in the gospel according to St. Luke. Jesus and his family had made the long pilgrimage to Jerusalem to celebrate Passover. They would travel in caravan with friends and family. When they got there, of course, the city was crowded.
When they were getting ready to go home again, Jesus was busy making mischief with the other boys … or so they thought. They travelled all day, but when they set up camp for the night, Jesus was nowhere to be found.
Have you ever had a child get lost? This once happened to my late wife, Annis and me. It was just before a Christmas when we were living in Carluke. We took our Son, Stewart, and our daughter Jillian ages, I think, about 4 and 2; we went to Hamilton to do some last minute shopping. The shopping mall there, of course, was packed.
I was browsing among the stacks of Books in Menzies when I ran across a children’s book I thought Stewart might enjoy. When I turned to show it to him, the 4-year-old standing at my side wasn’t Stewart. It was someone else’s child. I called to Annis, “Is Stewart with you?” She called back from a bit away, “I thought he was with you.” Of course, we both panicked.
We split up and went in opposite directions looking for him. How do you spot a lost child in an overcrowded shop? Eventually, I went to the front door of the mall and peered out into the cold, dark, winter night. Someone said they thought they’d seen a little boy go out earlier, alone. “Could he have gone to the car?” I thought.
In desperation, I ran up the ramp and across the bridge into the carpark, and cut through the rows of parked cars. Annis and Jillian weren’t far behind. Sure enough, when we got to the car we found one brave, frightened little boy clinging to the locked door handle. He said he figured that, as long as he’d a good hold on the car, we couldn’t leave without him. You can imagine our relief, as we hugged and cried for joy. And then Annis gave him a severe talking to.
According to St. Luke, Mary and Joseph travelled a full day’s journey before they realised that Jesus was missing. When they got back to Jerusalem they found him in the Temple talking with the elders. They breathed a sigh of relief, then Mary did what any mother would have done: She hugged her son and kissed him – and then gave him a proper scolding! She screamed:
“Son, why have you treated us this way?
Behold, your father and I were anxiously looking for you.”
Do you know, I’ve never understood this capacity mothers have to reassure and reprimand their children virtually in the same breath. I tell you, there are contradictory forces at work here! But, for a mother they go hand-in-hand. She wants to expose her children to the possibilities of the world while, at the same time, protecting them from its dangers. I don’t quite know how to explain it other than saying that Mothers – well, Mothers are like that.
Mary appears next in the life of Jesus at the scene of his first miracle. And ironically, it’s his mother who prompts him to perform this miracle. The setting is a wedding party in the little village of Cana of Galilee. As St. John tells the story, the wine failed, and the party was about to come to a screeching halt when Mary stepped in.
“Don’t just stand there, do something!” she said to her son. And he said, “OH MOTHER!”
O.K., so that’s not a strict translation, but you get the point: Jesus didn’t want to get involved. He thought that it wasn’t any of their business; besides, he said, “My hour has not yet come.”
But Mary insisted. So, Jesus told the stewards to fill the purification jars to the brim, then he transformed the water into the most robust, sparkling wine you’ve ever tasted. As I said, this was his first miracle. It’s perhaps fair to say that, up to this point, no one knew he had the power … except his mother.
She knew what her son was capable of, perhaps better than he knew himself. And when the time was right, she provoked him to act in order to unleash the potential within. The rest is history, I suppose. And this would be the first of many, many miracles to come.
This is a quality mothers have that’s hard to explain. Like a mother bird who knows her chicks can fly. But they won’t unless they have to. And so, with great courage, she pushes them over the edge, lest they become too comfortable in the security of the nest. How does she know they’re strong enough to fly? Mothers, well Mothers just know.
One of the most difficult moments for Mary comes later. It was when she got wind of the gossip going around that her son was acting irrationally. “He is insane,” the people were saying. His friends thought he was possessed by a demon. They sought to reason with him, but when it became obvious that he wouldn’t listen, they sent for his mother and brothers to come and take him back to Nazareth.
According to St. Mark, Jesus was in a house teaching when he got word that his mother and brothers were outside. Here’s what he said:
‘Who are my mother and my brothers?’
Looking around at those who sat around him, he said,
‘Behold, my mother and my brothers! For whoever does the will of God, the same is my brother, and my sister, and mother.'’
However, just so as we’re clear, Jesus didn’t say that Mary wasn’t his mother. Instead, he pointed to the bigger picture. The family circle includes all who belong to God – brothers and sisters through faith. He didn’t deny his relationship to his mother, but he did set the limits of her authority. He made it clear he was accountable only to God. It was up to Mary to step aside.
This is one of the hardest things any mother has to do: Relinquish control; let the child make his or her decisions, make his or her own mistakes; entrust the child to the world – and to God – and be brave enough not to stand in the way. Of course, some mothers let go more gracefully than others, and some never let go at all. Those who do, do so in faith – and with every hope that in giving up the parental role they may become friends.
Mary had the courage to let go. She took a back seat. After this episode – which seems to have occurred early on in his ministry – we don’t hear another word about Mary until the day Jesus was crucified. That’s not to say Jesus never saw her again; yet, it is to say that her role was to become one his many followers. At the appropriate time, Mary stepped aside. She allowed her little boy to become a man. After all, she was his mother, not his God. And it’s for mothers to know the difference.
Not long after Annis died I was talking to a friend and she was asking, really about the relationship I had with my daughter. She said that she remembered when her mother died and her father said to her: ‘Remember, I’m your father, but you’re not my mother.’
The final scene in the relationship Jesus had with Mary comes on the hill of Golgotha. Mary was there, of course, standing at the foot of the cross. You can imagine the anguish she felt watching the suffering and death of her son, unable to lift a finger to help him.
Standing beside her was his beloved disciple, John. In his last moments, Jesus called to her and said:
“Woman, behold your son.” Then he called to John and said, “Behold, your mother!”
It was his final act of devotion, to entrust the care of his mother to his closest friend. He knew that John would provide for her and protect her in his absence. In turn, Mary would become as a mother to John. And, sure enough, sources tell us that she went with him to Ephesus, where she lived a long life and served as a model of faith and devotion to Jesus in the development of the early church.
Well, that’s the sermon. What follows is a postscript. I just came across it, apparently it was written by someone called, Erma Bombeck:
“While the Good Lord was creating mothers, he was into his sixth day of overtime when the angel appeared and said, ‘You’re doing a lot of fiddling around with this one.’
The Lord said, ‘Have you read the specs on this order? She has to be completely washable, but not plastic, have 180 movable parts – all replaceable – run on black coffee and leftovers; have a lap that disappears when she stands up; have kisses that can cure anything from a broken leg to a disappointed love affair and have six pairs of hands.’
The angel shook her head slowly and said, ‘Six pairs of hands … not possible.’
‘It’s not the hands that are causing my problems,’ said the Lord. ‘It’s the three pairs of eyes that mothers have to have.’ ‘That’s on the standard model?’ asked the angel. The Lord nodded. ‘One pair that sees through closed doors, when she asks: “What are you children doing in there?” when she already knows. Another here in the back of her head that sees what she shouldn’t, but what she needs to know. And, of course, the ones here in front that can look at a child when he makes a big mistake and she reflects, “I understand and I love you, just the same,” without so much as uttering a word.’
‘Lord,’ said the angel, touching his sleeve gently, ‘come to bed, perhaps tomorrow …’ ‘I can’t,’ said the Lord, ‘I’m so close to creating something like myself. Already I have one who heals herself when she’s sick, can feed a family of 8 on a pound of mince and can get a six-year-old to stand under a shower.’
The angel circled the model of The Mother very slowly. ‘It’s too soft,’ she sighed. ‘But tough!’ said the Lord excitedly. ‘You can’t imagine what this Mother can do or endure.’ ‘Can it think?’ asked the angel. ‘Not only think, it can reason and compromise,’ said the Creator.
Finally, the angel bent over and ran her fingers across the cheek. ‘Ah but, there’s a leak,’ she said. ‘I told you that you were trying to put too much into this model. You can’t ignore the stress factor.’ The Lord moved in for a closer look and gently lifted the drop of moisture to his finger where it glistened and sparkled in the light. ‘It’s not a leak,’ he said, ‘It’s a tear.’
‘A tear?’ asked the angel. ‘What’s it for?’ ‘It’s for joy, sadness, disappointment, compassion, pain, loneliness and pride,’ the Lord replied. ‘You’re a genius,’ said the angel. The Lord looked sombre and whispered. ‘But I didn’t put it there.’
Now, glory be to the Father, and to the Son, and to the Holy Spirit, as it was in the beginning, is now, and ever shall be, world without end.