May 14, 2017
For thus says the Lord… As a mother comforts her child, so I will comfort you
Happy Mother’s Day to all of you who have mastered the fine art of being able to place any amount of food on a plate without anything touching.
Happy Mother’s Day to all of you who count the sprinkles on each kid’s cupcake to make sure they’re equal.
A Happy Mother’s Day to all of you who have recently cut your husbands Veal Scallopini into bite sized pieces for him.
Kids are precious aren’t they? I read about one woman whose daughter just turned 11 months old. Full of the awesome wonder of the new world, her first word was ‘Wow’. “She spoke this marvelous word for anything new and wonderful to her, such as the assortment of toys she spotted in the pediatrician’s office or the gathering of clouds before a storm.
She whispered, “Oh Wow!” for things that really impressed her, like a brisk breeze on her face or a flock of geese honking overhead. Then there was the ultimate in “Wow,” a mouthing of the word with no sound, reserved for truly awesome events. These included the sunset on a lake after a magnificent day and fireworks in the summer sky.
One day when she was 14 months and they were cuddling in the bed on an October day. Her daughter just said ‘happy.’
Another day, when she was in the midst of her terrible two’s she pointed to a beautiful model on the cover of a magazine and said ‘Is that you, Mom?’
And one day when she was three she put her hand on her mother’s arm and said “Mom, if you were a kid, we’d be friends.” ‘At moments like that’ her mother wrote ‘all I can say is ‘Oh, Wow’!
It is for this reason that we should say a word about Mother’s as the divine presence. For we worship a God who knows every hair on our head, a God who cares for us, an unseen presence that we recognize as comfort and strength.
You know, every week, we repeat a prayer that begins “Our Father, who art in heaven”. And the Apostle’s Creed begins “I believe in God the Father Almighty, maker of heaven and earth.”
But did you know that there is another tradition in the bible that thinks of God as Mother? It is a minor tradition, to be sure, but it is important nevertheless.
In the book Children’s Letters to God, one letter is from a girl named Sylvia, who wrote: “Dear God, Are boys better than girls? I know you are one, but try to be fair.” Sylvia.
I think most of us are like Sylvia. We think of God as Dad, probably because Jesus referred to God as Abba, daddy, papa.
But there is a minor tradition in the Bible that thinks of God as feminine.
The prophet Hosea uses one image for god, seeing God as a parent who teaches a child to walk, a parent who picks it up and bends down to feed it. These are all the tasks that a mother performed in ancient Hebrew society. God is agonizing over the prodigal child, but rejects fierce anger in favor of warm and tender compassion, like a mother waiting up and night in worry. “When Israel was a child, I loved him, and out of Egypt I called my son. The more I called them, the more they went from me… Yet it was I who taught Ephraim to walk; I took them up in my arms, but they did not know that I healed them. I led them with chords of human kindness, with bands of love. I was to them like those who lift infants to their cheeks. I bent down to feed them… My compassion grows warm and tender. I will not execute my fierce anger; I will not again destroy Ephraim; for I am God and not human, the Holy one in your midst, and I will not come in wrath” (Hos. 11:1-4; 8-9).
Yet another prophet, Jeremiah, speaks of the love that God has for us that comes from the womb. “Is Ephraim my dear son? Is he the child I delight in? As often as I speak against him, I still remember him. Therefore, my womb trembles for him. I will surely have motherly compassion on him, says the Lord” (Jer.31:20)
These are not verses our children have memorized but perhaps they should. Jesus knew them; in John’s gospel he uses this image of giving birth to describe the ordeal of the disciples as they were being birthed into a new life. He said “You must be born again”.
Jesus freely identified with a mother animal image, likening himself to a mother hen who gathers her chicks under her wings. He says “Jerusalem, Jerusalem, city that kills the prophets and stones those who are sent to it! How often I have desired to gather your children together as a hen gathers her brood under her wings, but you were not willing”. Jesus uses an image of a comforting mother to describe his deep love for a lost city.
Michaelangelo got this balance about right when he sculpted the Pieta that sits in St. Peter’s Cathedral at the Vatican. He remembers Mary grieving over the death of her son Jesus. In the story, everyone fades away, the disciples who betray him or flee in fear, the crowds which cry for his death. Only Mary is there at the end with her friends.
Michaelangelo expresses this theme of God’s Maternal love with a sleight of hand. If you look at Mary closely, her lap is enormous, big enough to hold the adult body of her son.
God gives us that same expansive supportive love. And then, if you look closely, you notice that Mary is about the same age as Jesus. She is young. But isn’t that always the case with Mother’s. No matter how old their children are when they hug them, worry over them, give them a blessing… there is a sense in which is like holding them again when they were babies, the primordial delight and love of a young mother just seems to shine through them transcendently.
I think that is right. There is a strong sense in which our Mother’s are the presence of divine comfort for us. Or conversely, for the vast majority of us, when we experience the presence of divine comfort, we remember our Mother’s, our Grandmothers- vaguely, viscerally.
The psychologist Robert Coles wrote about the children that first went through the experience of integration in the Deep South in the early 60’s. It was traumatic at the time, these black children walking to school with white parents protesting outside, yelling slurs at them, while they tried to keep their composure and just walk in the front door of the school. Coles wondered what that was like for them, so he interviewed some of their parents. One African-American mother he interviewed said this.
“Every day when my daughter comes home from school, I can tell she is anxious and worried. Those adults yelling hateful things at her on her way to and from school. She would never show it in front of those people but she was afraid and nervous. So everyday when she got home from school, I would have her put away her books and things. And then I would have her come over to me and sit on the couch and I would just hold her there in my arms. After a bit she would just start to cry. I would hold her and rock her and she would get through it.
And then it would make me angry and worried. I don’t know how I would have gotten through it, except every evening I would go over to my Mother’s house. We would share the goings on of the day, how she was doing and what not. Then I would reach over and put my hand on her arm. And she would put her hand over my hand. I would just stand there for a moment and we’d get through it.
At some point I began to realize that my daughter was leaning on me, I was leaning on my Mother, and my mother was leaning on Jesus. That’s where we got the strength. My mother was Jesus for me and I was Jesus for my daughter.”
That’s it in a nutshell. And you can do this probably better than you know. We have friends that decided they were going to be foster parents, so they took the classes, filled out all the paper work. The state is so slow on all of that you almost forget you signed up to do this.
One night she gets a call from a case worker. It seems these calls always come in the middle of the night. Could she take a child right now? Sitting up in bed, trying to think this out, she just said ‘yes’. The case worker said, “I’ll be right over”.
No sooner had she put down the phone than she started fretting over what to do to get ready for this child. Her kids were older now and she tried to remember what 3 year olds were like.
In short order the doorbell rang, the case worker introduced herself, walked back to her late model car, and carried in a 3 year old boy, screaming bloody murder in a full blown tantrum that could wake the neighbors. She was carrying the characteristic plastic trash bag with the few items of clothing that he had.
She explained that the child had been taken out of his home earlier that evening and separated from his mother in an emotional scene at the DYFS office. And this kid was just terrified, angry as hell at the world, scared to death, and motherless. At this point, he had gone into full blown rage, so she took him from the case worker, even as he wrestled as hard as he could to be freed.
Forget the preparations, she carried him into the bathroom. He had peed all over himself, drew some hot water, soaped him up, rinsed him off and dried him, screaming the whole time.
At this point she had no idea what to do. Miraculously, her husband had rifled through a bin of baby clothes they hadn’t thrown out and found a pair of footie pajamas that fit the boy. But she was racing with anxiety that she wouldn’t be able to calm this child down.
She took him into his bedroom and laid down next to him. Her husband had fixed some soup. She fed him and he started to quiet down a bit. She brushed his hair back on his wet head, put him under the covers. The bed had recently been made, so it was crisp. She pulled the covers tight over his chest and prayed for him.
Her husband came in, turned off the light. She lay there next to him, holding him close. And just like that he fell asleep. It was like a little miracle. She hadn’t lost her maternal mojo after all.
She slipped into her bedroom with the parental quiet slide so as not to wake sleeping children. Her husband said, “Maslow’s hierarchy of needs. #1 Safety and security.” Bath, soup, tight covers, prayer, presence.
You can do this. Yes, even you, can be a fairy Godmother.
I don’t know anybody, how old, how independent and tough, that doesn’t need a little divine mothering. I don’t know anybody, however young and naïve, that can’t pass on a little divine compassion to others. I hope you get to be part of the blessing somehow, someway.
A blessed Mother’s Day to you Mother’s. A blessed Mother’s Day to you Mother figures, and a blessed Mother’s Day to that Mother most in need of liberation, the woman in every man. Amen.