Acts 10:25-26, 34-35, 44-48; Ps 98:1, 2-3, 3-4; 1 Jn 4:7-10; Jn 15:9-17
Happy Mother’s Day. As I’m sure y’all know, Mother’s Day is not an official holiday on the liturgical calendar. Hence, the Scripture readings don’t exactly reflect the occasion; there are no direct references to the dignity of Christian motherhood. There is, however, a theme that I consider indirectly related to Christian motherhood: baptism. The reading from the Acts of the Apostles presents baptism as the culmination of the Holy Spirit’s among in Cornelius and his household. Since Christians have always considered baptism a birth to new life, and the Church the womb where that new life gestates, they have always also considered the Church a true mother.
But what does the Church’s motherhood have to do with the flesh-and-blood motherhood that we celebrate today? I think, actually, quite a lot. Experience suggests that esteem for the Church’s supernatural motherhood is closely tied to esteem for natural motherhood. Even the historical origin of Mother’s Day in certain countries suggests this. “Mothering Day” originated in Ireland, for instance, from the ancient custom of making an pilgrimage on Laetare Sunday. On that day, all Christians would visit their “mother church,” that is, the Church of their baptism and second birth. Since in former times most lived and died in the same village, this often meant no more than a walk down the road. In the 19th Century, however, economic hardship began forcing many young children to leave their families to find work in the cities. Then the annual pilgrimage to the “mother church” took on a new significance. It was not only a gesture of gratitude for the gift of baptism, but an opportunity to visit and thank mom as well.
Historically, it was the celebration of the “mother church”—and of the gift of eternal life made possible through baptism—that opened a space for the popular celebration of moms. But this historical development suggests an ongoing truth: Christianity grounds the true dignity of motherhood.
When all is told, celebrating our mothers means affirming that what we have received from them—namely, our life—is precious and good. If we thought that our mothers, without any real consideration for us, had thrown us into a void of meaninglessness and pain, we would be more inclined to curse them than to bless them. This is the kernel of truth in the adolescent protest: “I never asked to be born.”
But where does our confidence that life is precious and good come from? How do we know that our lives, when we weigh them in the balance, won’t have more emptiness than fullness, more pain than pleasure? What if we end up poor? Below average? Burdened with sickness and disability? Forced to leave home and work at a young age, as the Irish children who made Mothering Day popular? The Greeks used to say, “Call no man happy till he is dead” (Agamemnon 1:928). Are we a little premature in thanking our mothers today?
The answer, of course, is No. But it is hard to muster much conviction unless we believe also in the Church’s motherhood, by which we gain access to a life beyond that which even the best mothers provide. For only if a Spirit of power is poured into our hearts (as it was poured on Cornelius and his family), only if the gates of heaven are opened to us, only if the sufferings and trials of this life cannot prevail against this Spirit and this life, only then can we say with bedrock certainty: life is good. Only then do we have the hope that the sacrifices of mothers will bear “fruit that will remain” (Jn 15:16).
Otherwise, life remains too great a gamble. Just a glance at global birthrates suggests that, where confidence in eternal life and the Church’s motherhood fade, the decision to become a mother becomes more agonizing. In dechristianized countries, fewer women choose to be mothers at all. Or they choose to do so only if they can stack the odds overwhelmingly in the favor of a “painless” life, that is, only if they can insulate their children–through material advantages and private coaching and the like–against blows to their self-esteem.
But if the Church’s spiritual motherhood is true, and if we have the hope of eternal life through her, then mothers have reason to rejoice today, and their children have reason to be grateful. The rite of baptism has a blessing for new mothers that recalls this joy:
God the Father, through his Son, the Virgin Mary’s child, has brought joy to all Christian mothers, as they see the hope of eternal life shine on their children. May he bless the mother of this child. She now thanks God for the gift of her child. May she be one with him (her) in thanking him for ever in heaven, in Christ Jesus our Lord.
We can do no better than pray that this blessing descend upon all mothers today: that they be given the grace and wisdom to raise their children for everlasting life, and that their children live and die in such a way as to give their mothers reason for eternal joy.