Some of my earliest memories are of my mother: singing my younger brother and I to sleep, teaching me my prayers.
Along with my brother, I had two older sisters. She and my father insisted we attend Catholic schools, so they made big sacrifices to make that happen. We moved a lot for my father’s coaching career, literally from Georgia in the Southeast to Washington in the Northwest, and many places in between. We had crazy busy schedules, but she and my father made sure we made it to Mass every Sunday and on holy days,(even if we were occasionally late).
She worked hard as a nurse while we were growing up, sometimes working nights and weekends, but still made sure we all ate dinner together every night, even when she couldn’t be there. When my father and sisters had us at swim meets all day, or my brother and I were playing double headers for baseball, she made certain to have picnic dinners ready so we could eat as a family. There was always a bit extra though, in case a friend wanted to join us, and they often did.
Even when she was fighting cancer, my mother made sure we were all cared for. She took her lumps and kept moving. I can’t imagine how exhausted she was. Yet, being sick for us kids was almost a treat. We were pampered like little kings and queens.
She taught me to cook and to bake, being patient with the massive messes I’d make, along with a few extra broken eggs. She cheered us on for football, basketball, baseball, swimming, soccer, and lacrosse, rarely missing a game. She helped me get ready every morning and off to school until the day she delivered me to college for football camp. She wept. I never quite understood why; that is until I sent my eldest off to college and realized how seldom I would see her over the coming years… She has prayed for me fervently ever since, spending Thursday evenings in the adoration chapel praying for her children.
Today we are reminded that God too had a mother. While contemporary music asks if Mary knew who her son really was, and she certainly didn’t know how everything would transpire, she definitely knew her son was the Messiah, and God incarnate. The reason for this Solemnity is that many people have asked questions about Mary and her relationship to her son over the centuries. Was Mary simply the mother of Jesus or the Mother of God? Was she the mother of Jesus’s humanity, or the Mother of the eternal Word of God?
As the Church discerned these questions over the years, they determined that these questions had more to do with the nature of Jesus than they did anything having to do with the Blessed Virgin. Was Jesus God? Yes. Was he God before he was born? Yes. Did he simply take on flesh in some superficial way, perhaps like an angel, or did he become fully human? The various early councils of the Church tell us that Jesus was fully God and fully human. They conclude that what is conceived and eventually born is a person. A single person, a total person. And the mother is the mother of that person, in this case, a divine person. So, on this particular day, we celebrate Mary, the Mother of God… Jesus whole and entire.
But the scriptures don’t tell us much about what that was like. While St. Luke gives us a few small details, St. Paul seems to give us a bit more insight:
…though he was in the form of God, did not regard equality with God something to be grasped. Rather, he emptied himself, taking the form of a slave, coming in human likeness; and found human in appearance, he humbled himself, becoming obedient to death, even death on a cross. (Phil 2:6-8)
St. Paul is telling us that Jesus would have acted in most ways like any other boy. He didn’t parade his divinity around nor use his divine power for cheap parlor tricks. He “humbled himself” becoming in all ways like any other man, except sin. So, what might that early life have been like? I can only refer to my own memories of growing up and to the few details we have in the gospels.
We read in Luke’s gospel how Mary had an encounter with Gabriel, an angel sent by God, and how she accepted her pregnancy at great risk to her own life, trusting in the providence of God. She took time to help her relative Elizabeth with her own pregnancy, caring for others before herself. She was forced to travel a great distance in the middle of her pregnancy, not taking time to complain, but simply caring for the baby growing inside her. We know from Matthew’s Gospel that a short time later she was forced to flee to a foreign country and live for years in Egypt before being allowed to return home. While there, we can turn to historians and archaeologists to discover she was likely responsible for raising her son: changing diapers, feeding the family, likely tending a garden to grow their food, even making all of the family’s clothes. We know there was a small Jewish community in Egypt and she was likely responsible for integrating their family into that community. She helped to provide his early education, getting him to a small synagogue for prayer and keeping the Jewish covenants and holy days. How wonderful it must have been when they were finally allowed to return home, and she could take her young son to visit the holy places of their people.
We are told that somewhere along the way to visit Jerusalem, she and Joseph lost their son. Her panic was likely no less than any other mother. She suffered the loss, but perhaps a bit more she likely felt she had lost God. Any of us who have struggled and lost our faith at any point, can certainly understand what that might feel like. But her greatest struggle, was likely the one predicted by Simeon in the Gospel of Luke: “and you yourself a sword will pierce” (Luke 2:35a). We are told that at the end, when her son would leave this world, she would have to consent; consent to the cross. For Jesus was obedient and as the commandments state, he would honor the wishes of his Father and mother.
I remember my own mother as I left for college and she shed those few tears. She consented to my leaving her side. This was a temporary though difficult separation. Far more difficult was the day my mother lost one of my older sisters to cancer. The pain was existential, total, all consuming, as we experienced her breathing her last. It was clear my mother was losing a part of herself. There was no possibility of consolation in that moment.
Only from this can I understand what Mary, at the foot of the cross, must have experienced. This was not a moment of deep theological speculation. It was the moment when her son, her only child, her very heart, was being ripped from her chest. She nursed him. She raised him. She taught him. She LOVED him. She loved him in a way only a mother can. Because God himself became her son, she suffered everything that love would mean. By doing so, she gave birth to our salvation; she gave birth to our hope. A hope that the loss of a loved one might not be the final word. The hope that her Son might have the final word, a final victory, a victory over death itself.