One of my young son’s favorite books is the P.D. Eastman classic Are You My Mother? In this story, baby bird becomes separated from his mother and frantically goes in search of her. Along the way, he asks many creatures and even inanimate objects if they’re his mother, but none of them are. Finally, when hope is just about lost, baby bird is reunited with his mother, who was out catching worms for their breakfast.
Sometimes this children’s book gets me to reflect on all the “mothers” in my life. I think primarily of my own mother, as well as my deceased godmother and grandmothers. I also think of my wife Maureen, who in our house is affectionately known as “Mommy.” As I noted in the January-February issue of Lay Witness, my oldest daughter has joined the ranks of motherhood. I also call to mind the heroic birth mothers of my adopted children, and the faithful godmothers whose prayers and goodness help our children to grow in the love of Christ.
As I consider the matter further, I have to include the Grandmammy of them all: Eve, whom Scripture describes as “the mother of all the living” (Gen. 3:20). And despite contemporary confusion regarding the family and gender roles, it’s true that all women are maternal at the heart of their being. I have been the recipient of the maternal love and nurture of women since my earliest school days, including in a special way the tender care shown me through the years by religious sisters.
There’s Something about Mary
The above list is formidable, and I’m profoundly grateful for all the “mothers” in my life. But there’s another mother who stands above them all, the masterpiece of God’s creation: the Blessed Virgin Mary.
Just as Christ is the New Adam, the source of new life for all those who were dead in sin, so from apostolic times Mary has been called the New Eve, the mother of all those who are alive in Christ. She truly is our spiritual mother, our mother in the order of grace (see Catechism, no. 968).
Here we must strenuously avoid the temptation to equate “spiritual” with “abstract” or “less than real.” Mary’s motherhood is more real than flesh-and-blood motherhood, not less. And by its nature it’s relational, calling us to a filial love of our Blessed Mother.
This truth was not lost on the first generation of Protestant reformers, who maintained some devotion to Mary. For example, Martin Luther once wrote that “the veneration of Mary is inscribed in the very depths of the human heart.” Only over time did this devotion subside as the Reformers further distanced themselves–and the Bible–from the living tradition of the Church, especially the sacred liturgy.
Thus Marian apologetics is very important today as we strive to demonstrate with clarity and reverence the biblical and traditional bases for our Marian beliefs. But ultimately, mothers are to be loved and honored, not merely proven and recognized.
I remember many years ago hearing a story about Gerry Faust, a devout Catholic man who coached the Notre Dame football team in the early 80s. He was visiting the home of a top recruit. Everything seemed to be going well, but then when the recruit’s mother entered the room, he treated her disrespectfully. That was all Coach Faust needed to see. He refused to offer the young man a scholarship. Despite the recruit’s obvious athletic ability, he had a significant character flaw. Coach Faust was wise enough to know that how we treat our mother speaks volumes as to what kind of person we are.
When it comes to the Blessed Virgin Mary, we communicate what we really believe through our loving mother-son, mother-daughter relationships with her. It’s one thing to talk a good game and trot out Scripture verses and conciliar decrees. It’s quite another to live the Fourth Commandment’s injunction to honor our spiritual mother.
Behold Your Mother
All Christians recognize the primacy of faith in Jesus Christ, the one savior of the world. This faith is lived out by becoming disciples, or followers, of Christ. In fact, the mission given to the apostles and thus to the Church by Christ was to “make disciples of all nations” (Mt. 28:19). All sincere Christians want to be faithful disciples of Christ.
Among the many disciples of Christ mentioned in the Bible, St. John is singled out as the “beloved disciple” or “the disciple Jesus loved.” Surely Jesus loved all of us to the point of shedding His blood on the Cross. Yet St. John is identified as the disciple whom Jesus especially loved. We can only imagine the remarkable relationship they must have had.
St. John is the only apostle who hung in there to the end with Jesus. From the Cross, Jesus says to the beloved disciple, “Behold your mother” (Jn. 19:27). Jesus didn’t entrust His dear mother to just anybody, but to a faithful disciple whom He really loved.
What’s critical for us, as disciples in our own right who yearn to learn from the disciple par excellence, is St. John’s response. We read that “from that hour the disciple took her into his home.” There was no reticence about taking Mary in, as though she got in the way of St. John’s relationship with the Lord. Rather, the beloved disciple clearly saw that his Christian discipleship impelled him to take Mary into his home.
And Mary wasn’t simply John’s concern. We see, less than two months later, Mary in the midst of the apostles and disciples at Pentecost, praying for an outpouring of the same Holy Spirit that overshadowed her in the Annunciation. And to this day she is there, in the midst of her Son’s disciples, praying with us and for us with the heart of a beloved mother.
Woman Clothed with the Son
St. John wrote five books of the New Testament: his Gospel, three epistles, and the Book of Revelation. In Revelation 12, he uses rich imagery to describe the epic battle between the offspring of Satan and the offspring of Eve foretold way back in Genesis 3. The child of Revelation, who rules all nations with an iron rod (Rev. 12:5; cf. Ps. 2:9; Rev. 19:15), is Christ Himself, and the woman clothed with the sun who gives birth to the child is the Blessed Virgin Mary. (For an excellent, more detailed presentation, see Michael Barber, Coming Soon, available at Emmaus Road Publishing.) That’s why on several Marian feast days the Church in her wisdom selects a Mass reading from Revelation 12.
In Revelation 12:17, we learn the identity of Mary’s other offspring: “those who keep God’s commandments and bear witness to Jesus.” If we are Christ’s disciples, if we bear witness to Christ and keep His commandments, we have Mary as our mother. And of course Scripture tells us that all generations will call Mary “blessed” (Lk. 1:48). So it’s altogether fitting that we lovingly call Mary our “Blessed Mother.” Her mission is not to magnify herself, but to magnify the Lord (Lk. 1:46), as she continually beckons us to be faithful disciples, to do whatever Jesus tells us to do (Jn. 2:5).
As we prepare for the coming of Jesus this Christmas, let us also, in imitation of the beloved disciple, prepare anew our hearts and homes for His mother.