Tuesday, May 8, 2018

Thanks, Mom

Mother’s Day, contrary to a widely-held belief, is not a high holy day on the church calendar. It’s a capitalistic gambol seized by greeting card companies to turn our love for Mom into huge profits.

Even as I type, I can hear the complaint of my friend and mentor, the late Dr. Norman R. De Puy, that churches are held captive by Mother’s Day. Norman, editor of Missions and The American Baptist magazines, loathed the fact that so many Baptist preachers ignore the Revised Common Lectionary. “They reject a preaching tool that organizes the church year around the life of Jesus and preach on events imposed by Hallmark,” Norman would protest. 

I hear that, but I’m taking a chance that one more Mother’s Day homily will not push Hallmark’s profits any higher.

And there are good reasons to honor the women who gave birth to us. 

We love Mom, of course, and the love increases when we grow up and move away from her. The longer she is gone from our daily lives, the more we venerate her. My mother has been gone so long I remember her with a clinging idealism, even to the extent of creating a Robert Lentzian icon for her: Saint Mary of Andes. She lives forever as a consecrated porcelain image in the grotto of my heart. After 35 years without her, I still mist-up when I have an impulse to give her a call. In such moments I am grateful that my 91-year-old mother-in-law, Julia, has surrounded me with maternal love and I am glad to be celebrating her good health this Mother’s Day.

One of the awkward realities of  Mothers Day  is that adults who still have their mothers may be slightly less saccharine about them than those of us who nurture idealized memories.

No matter how old she gets – and you get – your mother’s maternal instincts never fade. She will doggedly worry about your safety, interrogate you about your personal life, try to influence your personal decisions, and attempt to control your behavior. 

My mother, the aforementioned Saint Mary of Andes, was a nurse in a geriatric home.  She once presided over the intake of an elderly man who seemed confused about what was happening.

“I want to see my mother,” the old man kept repeating. This request is common in the latter stages of dementia, and my mother spoke soothingly to distract him as he was taken to his room. 

Hours later, an ancient woman wheeled her chair to the old man’s door.

“Harold!” the old woman scolded. “What if I ignored you the way you ignore me? Did you eat your lunch?”

The man groaned. “Aw, Mom.” 

No matter how old you get, your mother is always your mother.

This Mother’s Day, all of us will honor our mothers, either in misty memory or warm embraces. 

And, needless to say, we will show our esteem with greeting cards emblazoned with sentimental doggerel that ignores the intricate complexities of mother-child relationships. 

Hallmark is far too polite to write cards that complain about Mom’s arbitrary rules or maternal hectoring. And Hallmark has yet to make a card to communicate your apology to Mom for being an obstinate or disagreeable child, or for letting her down.

But such complexities are universal aspects of the mother-child relationship. Even the purest of such relationships – Jesus and his mother, Mary – had its ups and downs. When Mary took her baby boy to the Temple, an old man warned her life would not be all lovely smells and tingly bells.
Then Simeon blessed them and said to his mother Mary, “This child is destined for the falling and rising of many in Israel, and to be a sign that will be opposed so that the inner thoughts of many will be revealed – and a sword will pierce your own soul, too. – Luke 2:34-35, NRSV.
If being Jesus’ mother had its disappointing moments, imagine what it must have been like for your mother.

One of the reasons we honor Mom on Mother’s Day is that she shares with all mothers the universal experiences of joy and pain. Like the mother of Jesus, our moms help us comprehend a side of God we rarely acknowledge: God’s feminine side.

Years ago I attended the funeral of a good friend on the American Baptist staff. He was young and energetic and his sudden death by cerebral hemorrhage was a shock. As we sat sadly in our pews, my late friend’s wife was surrounded by her young children. The children, confused and frightened, began to cry. And their mother reached out her arms and hugged them tightly, whispering comfort in their ears.

The minister who officiated at the funeral, Dr. Carl Flemister, pointed to the widow. “Here we see how God comes to us as a mother,” he said. “God shares our grief, our sense of loss, but the Mother God’s first instinct is to embrace and console her children.”

Our mothers are worthy of honor on Mother’s Day because they understand a crucial aspect of human life that Jesus never knew: the experience of motherhood. Jesus had the courage to redeem humankind by suffering and dying on the cross; but it was God and his mother whose hearts broke as they watched him do it.

Most Protestants do not venerate Mary as much as our Roman Catholic, Orthodox, and other sisters and brothers.  I sometimes wonder if this is why Mother’s Day has become such an important feast day in our Baptist calendar. We need a reminder that mothers have special roles and unique insights into God’s creative mysteries.

When you consider the importance of Mary to the church and to Jesus, I wish Protestants had not been so quick to set her aside. She helps us focus on this reality: that the God we want to come to us in shock and awe came instead as a mewling, puking boy. 

It was Mary who nursed him, guided his first steps, toilet trained him and whispered in his ear the Godly secrets that would change the world. Jesus was God, and Mary was his mother.

Throughout history, when a woman is overwhelmed by the joys of motherhood, or when the sorrows of motherhood break her heart, the mother of Jesus understands with an intimacy that transcends the experience of fathers and sons. “I’m a mother so I pray to Mary,” many women say. “She was a mother, too.”

Mary, and our own mothers, remind us that the God whom we call Father has another dimension we rarely call on: the Goddess. God the Mother. 

That aspect is clearly revealed to us in the person of Mary, and Protestants need to work harder to see it. 

Mother’s Day is a perfect time to honor the peasant woman played a crucial role in the life of Jesus and in the foundation of the church.

And Mother’s Day is a perfect time to remind one another of the crucial role our own mothers have played in our lives. 

Thanks, Mom. And blessings on your special day.

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