Great Mother, Great Mothers, Just Mom
Rev. Jeffrey Symynkywicz, May 11, 2008
The hymn is actually about the “Motherheart of God”. (Written back sometime late in the 19th century, it was way ahead of its time with its imagery of God as Mother, too; which is why I insist of trotting it out and dusting it off, as it were, on Mothers’ Day, almost every year.) But many mothers seem to have piled a similar list of expectations upon themselves. Sometimes I’m afraid that the way we celebrate Mothers’ Day only adds to their burden.
The chief proof that evolution is not true, one writer has said, is that mothers still only have two hands. Or, as a little girl in a cartoon I came across recently exclaims when she and her brother discover a bright red cape with a large letter “S” emblazoned on it in their mother’s closet—“So that’s how she does it!”
Some mothers may feel they have to live up to that vision of being a “Supermom”—that they have to live up to the ideal of being perfect. That is not an easy calling to follow; it’s not necessarily a very healthy one, either. I remember another cartoon—this one with Mom lying there on the psychiatrist’s couch. Pad in hand, the good doctor is saying to her. “Let me see if I’ve got this right: You give 50% of your energy to your job; 50% to your husband; and 50% to your kids. I think I’m getting some idea of what your problem is.”
You don’t have to have a Ph.D. in psychology to understand that such unending, untiring, unequivocal selflessness is kind of unhealthy, as well. We need to keep that in mind as we celebrate Mothers’ Day.
We also have to keep in mind these caveats which one of the editors of a publication called “Sermons Illustrated” (I’ve love to see the “Swim Suit Issue” of that magazine) very helpfully laid out for those preparing to preach about Mothers’ Day. “You must remember,” the editor began:
So, I consider myself duly chastened, and forewarned, as I proceed into these suddenly treacherous waters of “Motherhood, sublime, eternal”.
And venture out into these waters I do, because there is something very important about Mothers’ Day, and worthy of worship. Beneath the unrealistic expectations; and beneath the mixed feelings; and beneath the sentimentality; and beneath the hype and commercialization, there are good reasons to take a bit of time to reflect upon motherhood, very good reasons.
One thing Mothers’ Day reminds us about is the life force present at the very heart of all creation. We all can celebrate Mothers’ Day because we all have mothers. But even more, we share a common creation story. We share a common Mother Earth.
On Mothers’ Day, we are invited to connect again with the Great Mother—the Divine Mother—the feminine face of God—the “motherheart of God,” as Willis A. Moore puts it so beautifully in that fine old hymn.
Indeed, days honoring motherhood even date back to ancient Greece, where every spring there were tributes to Rhea, the mother of the gods. Mothers’ Day can remind us of the motherhood of God. It can remind us that “God is more our Mama than our Papa,” as Albino Luciani, Pope John Paul I, put it so simply, yet so profoundly, just the day before his death in 1978.
God is our Mother, because it is directly from the creative, nurturing powers of the God’s universe that we have come. We have born from dust and stars, from the very heart of the universe, and the Spirit of Life holds us in her loving arms.
In the artwork of ancient Egypt, there are statues and images in which the Pharaoh sits on his throne, ruling over the land—the Pharaoh, who was himself considered the god Horus while he lived and reigned, and the great god Osiris after his death. Pharaoh, the almighty leader, atop his throne—a throne which, interestingly, is a representation of the goddess Isis, the Great Mother, the bringer of life.
Even the god Pharaoh had a mother.
At the great cathedral in Chartres in France, built at a time when cathedrals to Notre Dame—Our Lady—were going up all over Europe—over the western entrance there is a magnificent image of the Christ Child, blessing the world, as its undisputed Emperor and King. But Jesus sits in the lap of the Madonna, in the lap of his Holy Mother, who herself comprises his throne.
Even Jesus Christ, Lord of Lords and King of Kings in the Christian tradition, had a mother.
Mothers’ Day reminds us of the Great Mother: the power of the universe; the feminine face of God; the archetypal power of creation which can empower us all.
A little closer to home, it can remind us that every individual mother is the Great Mother in microcosm. Every birth is the Big Bang made personal. Conceiving, carrying, and giving birth to a child is as close as any person can come to sharing in the creative power of God. As one writer has put it: “[T]he Great Mother is the creative, abundant, overflowing, life-giving, nurturing, protective, and sefl-sacrficing energy that has been present in Being from the very beginning, which has made its way [through time] through an unbelievable evolutionary process, and which is now here [among us] in… individual human mother[s].”
Wow! And you thought she was “Just Mom”. She’s a living embodiment of the Great Mother—the living embodiment of the Creative Power of the Universe! You’d better get her something real nice for Mothers’ Day, then!
But the fact of the matter is that not all “Great Mothers” are great mothers. There is something profoundly awesome in the miracle of giving birth, and whatever the state of our relationship with our own biological mothers (and I’m quite aware that that can range widely across the spectrum), on Mothers’ Day we need to ponder the significance of the miracle of our being here—of all of us, of all life, being here.
But we don’t need to give up on Mothers’ Day if, for whatever reason, our own mothers didn’t meet the high level of expectation often piled upon mothers. We don’t have to jettison Mothers’ Day if we found no “Supermom” cloak hanging in her closet. As a German poet has put it:
(Oh, you want me translate?)
To become a biological mother is one thing. To be am other in practice requires something more. But some—many-- have made the grade as “great mothers”, and there are numerous examples we can cite:
Some of us might nominate Mary of Nazareth herself. She accepts the burden of being an unwed, teenage mother—no easier back then than it is now, we can imagine. She nurtures and fosters within her son a deep sense of compassion and concern for all people, a radical sense of inclusiveness, best captured, perhaps, in her own Magnificat:
At the wedding at Cana, Mary even persuades Jesus to launch his earthly ministry. Then, she stands by him, even unto his death on the Cross—and even beyond. Theirs is a perfect mother-child bond, and they complement each other fully.
Other traditions have mothers no less great, as do other voices of history (and experience).
After her husband died, Cornelia Gracchus, devoted her life to the upbringing of her two sons, Tiberius and Gaius. When asked by wealthy neighbors why she never wore any splendid jewels, she would point to her sons and say, “These are my jewels.” Both Tiberius and Gaius grew up to be great public servants, who sacrificed themselves in service of Rome and her people. When Cornelia died, many hailed her as the “Mother of All Rome.”
By the time John Adams had been elected to the Continental Congress, he and his wife, Abigail had already had four children. During his long absences doing the work of the revolutionary government, Abigail managed the family and the farm and corresponded not only with her husband but with many family members and friends. During the Revolution, she also served as the primary educator of the children, including the future sixth President of the United States.
At her death in 1818, John Quincy Adams wrote of his mother:
Not all great mothers have been, necessarily, biological mothers. Of course, Mothers’ Day tends to lean heavily toward our biological mothers (that’s only natural, I suppose). But Mothers’ Day also gives us an opportunity to consider those others who have “mothered” us—who have held us, and helped us, and pointed us along life’s way. We need to be reminded sometimes to consider these people, and to express our appreciation to them, and to ponder the great significance they may have had in our lives.
Mothers’ Day also reminds us of the responsibility we all have to nurture—and care for—and foster growth in others. We all have a responsibility to those who will come after us; we have a responsibility to care for the Earth. Mothers’ Day reminds us all—women and men alike; mothers and fathers all; whether we have ever parented children ourselves or not-- to be gentle with one another; to do our part to widen just a little the great circle of love and caring and community; to strive to meet the needs of others, to the best of our abilities; to take care of one another.
Mothers’ Day is a time to remember great mothers, who can continue to inspire us and light our way. The influence of a good mother reverberates through time.
But it should also be a time to honor the fact that motherhood comes in a wide array of different shapes and sizes, and not everyone will do it the same. Nor will everyone to whom the tasks of motherhood are assigned do them well. There have been great women who have not necessarily been great mothers. Eleanor Roosevelt, for one, admitted as much about herself. But Eleanor Roosevelt’s example as a humanitarian and stateswoman and role model shines in our hearts still. She continues to empower our vision for a better society. For all she lacked in mothering her own children, she nurtured something to be cherished in many of us.
So, on this Mothers’ Day, let us give thanks for our own mothers, and for the gift of life we have been given. Let us cherish that gift, and know the joy of being alive. And know that this world is better because each of us is here.
On this Mothers’ Day, too, let us ponder the gift of creation, and feel its surge within us, and inspire us and uplift us to reach out, and create new works of beauty and joy and love—in our own lives, and in our own world.
Let us remember those great mothers we have known—and remember how their lights still shine; and remember what their lives still mean.
On this Mothers’ Day, may we repay these precious gifts by devoting ourselves to caring for this Earth, which is the Mother of us all. And by devoting ourselves to finding ways of ridding our institutions and our society and our world of the violence and the killing and the bloodshed which as caused so many mothers so much pain and grief. May we strive to build a church, and a society, which reflects the ways of peace, of love, of care and compassion—which captures that holy rhythm of power and strength, with which the heart of the Great Mother—and great mothers everywhere—beat hard, and steady, and true.