Today is Mother’s Day, a time for getting together with Moms near and far. For many, it will be a day of breakfast in bed, or just letting Mom sleep in, with no interruptions. For others, it is a day that will include brunch get togethers or dinners, usually with flowers and some kind of gifts, however symbolic. There will be zoom calls for Moms who are far away. And there will be toasts for those mothers who have died.
Church is better at Mother’s Day than Christianity is. We can include hymns and anthems in our services for mothers, and ministers like me can try to keep their sermons short so that people get to brunch on time. (I’ll do my best). But when we look in the Bible, and our theology, mothers get short shrift. There are certainly lots of mothers in the scriptures, but often we don’t know too much about them. Usually, we know more about the sons and husbands than we do about the mothers. Mary, the mother of Jesus is the obvious exception, and the Catholics did their level best to give her an important role in the faith. But Protestants distanced ourselves from that since it relied on too many apocryphal tales that were not in the Bible. There was a time when people knew lots of stories about Mary’s childhood and later life after Jesus. But that was pushed aside in the name of Biblical loyalty and accuracy.
It has not been fair to compare all mothers to Mary, and I’m glad we don’t do that. Her pregnancy was inherently exceptional, and new mothers who claim their sons will be gods are off to a bad start. But part of the cost of the protestant approach has been a loss in appreciating the sacred dimension of motherhood. Early goddess religions understood very well that motherhood involves cosmic forces, the ability to create life, nurture it, and give birth. Every birth is a miracle, the birth of a new universe of consciousness and identity among us, a glorious weaving of flesh and bone into a living being. And of course, the mysteries don’t stop there. The sense of safety and dependence that children have in their early months defines what it means to be safe for the rest of our lives. We speak of God as a Father in the traditional language, but surely calling God a mother is more appropriate. Women create, they deal with the full reality of every soul incarnated. They feed us, with their own body often, and we know from science that this creates chemical bonds which are deep and enduring.
It is little wonder that early religions considered gods to be female,
as seen in some of the earliest idols found. Their ample curves suggest fertility and abundance.
But we also know that as much as motherhood is a wonderful blessing, it can also be a source of pain for children. Some mothers don’t nurture as well as children hope. Others are simply the victims of forces beyond their control, of ill health, separations of all kinds, estrangements, of distance or death. An absent or malicious mother can leave just as deep an impression as an engaged and present one and can shape our lives for years to come.
In today’s scripture reading, Jesus talks about his imminent departure. In the previous chapter, he has washed his disciples’ feet, just before the last supper. He does this as a servant would, but also as a mother would for her children. He has led his disciples for many months, and now he is preparing to serve them and the world by being crucified. He will become the ultimate gift, the world’s most famous self-sacrificing parent. He tells his followers that he will be going away, to be killed. But he reassures them – he will not go away completely. He will send an advocate, a helper – the Holy Spirit. In this way, he and God will be with the disciples even when he is physically gone.
The disciples live in a world which Jews and Romans alike believe is full of spirits, good ones, bad ones, minor ones. The air is thick with them, influencing everything that goes on. Demons encourage people to do bad things, as Judas will do when he betrays Jesus. The Romans believe in guardian angels and other helpful spirits which can be paid to do favours through sacrifices and libations. But Jesus isn’t talking about one of those. He is saying that there will be an invisible presence of God and Jesus who will keep the disciple’s company. The rest of society will not know this spirit – Jesus calls society the world – but Christ’s followers will.
In many ways, Jesus has served as the disciples’ mother. He speaks of God as the father, but he never speaks of himself that way. The American mystic Richard Rohr has described Jesus as a man born with the soul of a woman. Jesus is constantly suggesting that we act in compassionate ways, but also to stand up for what matters, as mothers do. He is not suggesting meek submission for his followers. He tells them to be ready to die for the faith and justice.
When mothers in Argentina started protesting the death squads that had disappeared their sons, that was mother power in action.
When mothers formed MADD, Mothers Against Drunk Driving, that was mother strength at work, and a force which changed our laws and our minds about drunk driving. Recently, in Canada, Moms Stop the Harm was formed to protest Canada’s Drug laws. One wonders if mothers in Canada will organize against the police, who continue to kill young people with mental health problems. A suicidal young man was killed by the police just this past Wednesday in Scarborough, and his mother wants to know why. Sometimes, mothers are the only people society will listen to. We all sense they have a connection to that sacred power of creation which creates all of us, from humble worker to the most powerful politician or general. We all must answer to our mothers in some way.
But motherhood changes over a lifetime. The mother up at 3 am feeding the baby is different from the mother who raises a teenager, or who gives advice to a grown child who is struggling to get a job, get a partner, or raise their own child. Mothering changes as the children grow up. The physical demands go down, no more balancing a child on your hip while you stir a pot. But a phone cradled on a shoulder while listening to a weeping 25-year-old is still mothering. It’s less demanding physically, but the stakes are higher than a bruised knee.
It is difficult to know when motherhood ends. There are times when giving motherly advice to a grown child is a good idea, and other times when silence is the best policy. Even a bit too much mothering in adulthood can cause resentment and bitterness with children who once revered you. Mothering becomes more homeopathic – strongest in small doses, and sometimes just symbolic.
And then there are situations when motherhood clearly comes to an end. The mind that once had all the answers no longer recognizes your face. The mother who dressed you now needs help being dressed. And finally, all mothers must one day pass away. Often leaving children and grandchildren who wonder how they will get on without this mother, once so imbued with that sacred power of creation and nurturing. A mother who could heal or harm with a word or a look. What do we do now with that power gone?
Jesus feels like a mother who will be abandoning her children. That’s why he promises the disciples that he will send the Holy Spirit to guide them and to take care of them. This spirit will only be available to those who know of the spirit, and who ask for its help. The rest of the world, He says, won’t even know that it is there. It is like motherhood. Your mother has had a power over you that cannot be easily transferred to anyone else. They may like your mother, admire her, but she is just one Mom among many. But to you, with that personal history with her, her influence is beyond dispute. Your heart is open to her, sometimes even when you might wish it were closed.
But when mothers leave this world, we may wonder, what will we do now? The answer, I think, is like what Jesus offers his disciples. The power of the motherhood is not invented by any particular woman, although each mother is filled with it and embodies it. Each mother inherits this sacred power to create life, to guide and shape it, but that power is always bigger than any one woman. It feels like a sacred force because it is. And it changes each woman who becomes a mother. They become who they are, plus that mysterious power of motherhood, which makes them into a different person. Usually that is a welcome transformation, but not always. But the change is always real, there is no feeling indifferent to being a mother.
But when a mother dies, and her children are left behind, she remains in them, as a model of what being a mother means. In a strange twist, just as we emerge from mothers, they enter into us. They become part of us, gestating inside us, becoming a voice in our head, a way of making jam or a favourite dish, a way of laughing, perhaps a series of favourite sayings. Mothers take up residence in us, like a local spirit. They don’t ask to possess us, to take us over. Instead, they just take up residence within us. Learning to live with our mothers is as much an interior process as a relationship with someone across the kitchen table.
Jesus says he will not leave his followers orphaned. He will send a spirit that will serve as a helper and advocate. Because that’s what loving parents do – they want their children to thrive even when they are gone. Mothers give themselves to us, too, knowing that we may move far away, but even when we wave goodbye through the windshield, they are coming with us.
So, whether your mother is still with you, or she has died; whether your relationship with her is easy or hard; on this Mother’s Day, let us honour those who created us, with God’s help. Let us honour those women who, for a while, we worshipped, and who, someday, will be the voice in our head giving us advice on how we can nurture life in others.