Friday, April 20, 2012

The Mother of All and the Face of Hope

As I was reading the miracle stories, a line from a book I recently read for another class, Good Wives: Image and Reality in the Lives of Women in Northern New England 1650-1750 by Laurel Thatcher Ulrich, came to mind:  “Although both men and women may have fondled babies, spanked toddlers, and chastened teens, the affectionate side of child-rearing was symbolically liked with mothers, the authoritarian with fathers.”  Though, as the subtitle of the book makes clear, Ulrich was describing motherhood in a very specific context, that of colonial America, the general view of motherhood seems to me to hold true not only in modern times, but to some extent, throughout history. To think of Mary as a mother is certainly nothing new, however to me it is a key to understanding the vastly different types of stories collected in our readings. Indeed, several stories deal with mothers calling on Mary on behalf on their children, with one in particular seeming to appeal to Mary as mother.  Herlot tells a story of a woman whose son has been taken prisoner.  Though calling on Mary again and again, her son is still gone, so this mother goes into the church and takes an image of Christ, saying “…as my son was taken from me, so will I take away yours….” How better to appeal to Mary than as a mother who has lost her son?

Perhaps part of the reason why I identify with Mary so personally within these stories is that Mary, in her role as mother, is fundamentally relational.  If she was not the Mother of God, Mary would be admirable and perhaps even worthy of praise because of her faithfulness, but she would not be Mary as we understand and celebrate her.  It is only within the context of this relationship that Mary becomes significant and enters into the salvation story.  The reason these stories get told and retold, is that they are so relatable, so personal.  God, formless and all-powerful, alone uncreated can seem foreign and incomprehensible.  Even Jesus in the completeness of humanity, is still God.  Mary, though, is not only a person, but a person that we all know and hold in special regard.  She is a mother.  Even those who have no mother or are mistreated by theirs, I think can still connect powerfully with the idea of motherhood.  Motherhood, indeed, is the most intimate of relationships—even in situations where constraints on time and social norms may have caused the role to look a lot less nurturing than we understand it to be today (Ulrich in her book calls this extensive motherhood, with many children and many chores, as opposed to intensive mothering, with time to play and cuddle with children). In raising children, they also serve as their children’s’ most valuable teacher. Mothers, in their role as nurturer, also show love even when it is not deserved and are quick to respond to their children in their times of distress (gee, this is making me miss my mom!).   When I first read through these stories, I was a bit shocked at the stories that seemed to show as, what the called in class (and I also have written in the margin), vengeful.  It sat uneasily with me to see Mary in this light, and I had difficulty understanding it.  The more I thought about Mary as a mother, however, the less uneasy I became.  Mary did not act for the sake of causing pain in retribution for a slight (true vengeance)—instead, in each instance, Mary’s punishment ultimately brought about repentance, which, presumably, was the point.  Though it is still difficult to think of Mary as causing pain, it is much more clear why she might serve in the role of punisher.

Mary’s role as mother makers her an extraordinary advocate.  Through Mary, there is hope for all.  As we discussed in class, these stories depict a tremendous variety of people.  Mary comes to the help of empress and beggar alike. Both the wise and the “half-witted” (as in the case of the priest who knew only one mass) are granted her mercy. Whether your sin is willful, as those of the many thieves that graced our pages, or coerced and resisted as is the case of the pregnant nun, it is not beyond the mercy of Mary.  She does not turn her back on the faithful or the wicked. Mary even shows mercy on a Jewish boy (from my understanding of the context, being Jewish would have been seen by many as worse than being wicked). Mary regards no distance, as Mary in the form of the Lady of Rocamadour worked in lives of those at the church and those far from it.  Death and a deal with the devil, both of which are boundaries ordinarily seen as insurmountable by all but God and Jesus, are overthrown by the mercy of Mary.  Mary’s mercy can conquer even the protest of God (particularly vivid in Herlot’s story of Theophilus). We discussed in class how it perhaps seemed unfair that someone who is faithful may have to wait and wait for Mary to grant a miracle, while others just have to cry out in their time of need and are automatically granted what they need.  To me, that suggests the purpose at the heart of these stories: there is always hope.  If you have led a life of sin, you still have hope in Mary; and if you have been faithful but still suffer, do not give up, because Mary still hear your prayers and will intercede. All of these stories, as seen so poignantly in the story of the Tumbler, show that Mary will accept you for whatever you are, so long as you are willing to submit your heart.  Mary is emblematic of the hope of salvation.  She is its human face, even more so than Jesus.  And she is not only human, but stands in relationship that is uniquely intimate, uniquely loving, uniquely sustaining, and uniquely trustworthy. The hope of all humanity is represented in the form of Mary, one who loves as only a mother can.  --LB


  1. I agree with your discussion of Mary as a mother. We all have a special bond with our mothers and our moms will always be our number one fans and supporters. I don’t think Mary was really vengeful though. She disciplined us in order for us to repent and avoid eternal punishment. She helps save us by bringing pain in order for us to change our lives around and turn to God. She, like our own mothers, never wants to hurt us or see us hurt, but wants us to do the right thing. That is also why Mary is our intercessor. The line of the Hail Mary “pray for us sinners now and at the hour of our death” show that Mary is looking out for us and praying for us. I think that Mary helped people with different levels of devotion such as the faithful or sinners offering up a quick prayer in need. This reminds me of how Jesus came and interacted with sinners. Mark 2:17 states “Those who are well do not need a physician, but the sick do”. The message is hope, like you said. Everyone can make it no matter what life they’ve led in the past, as long as they repent and open their hearts.

  2. I agree with KP: the message is hope. Even the most destitute, even the least virtuous have hope of salvation. Mary was not the first to suggest this: her Son dined with prostitutes and tax collectors, after all! But it is interesting how when we read the miracle stories, Mary seems (potentially) more capricious and punishing than Jesus does in the Gospels. How is that? I like very much your meditation on Mary's relational qualities: yes, she helps put us in relationship to God. But God also seeks relationships with humanity, as, for example, in traditional Jewish and Christian readings of the Song of Songs. Somehow, we need an image of God that includes these relational qualities while at the same time including Mary. Lots to think about here!


  3. I enjoyed this post very much. I think it draws attention to the fact of Mary as mother, which is, funnily enough, a side of Mary that I find easy to overlook. One reason for that, perhaps, is how little we get of Mary as a mother in Scripture. We know she "pondered" about the circumstances surrounding Jesus' birth, we know she wrapped him in swaddling cloths and laid him in a manger, and we know she was worried about Jesus when he stayed behind at the temple to teach as a boy. In just listing these events, I am struck by how universal Mary's mothering experience sounds: she pondered, she nurtured, she worried. I am left with questions about what it meant to mother Jesus on a day-to-day basis, and what their relationship looked like, especially when he was a boy. Those questions aside, we do know Mary's mothering experience was far from normal, in that she watched her Son's sacrifice. It was in the "Mater Dolorosa" readings for 4/22 that I was most struck by the singularity of her role as mother. She mourned in a way that humans can only grasp at understanding, because she mourned the loss of her Son and the loss of her Lord. Even though I have been a Christian all my life, I don't think I have ever been truly sad during the Lenten season. But in reading about Mary's pain at the cross, I remembered my own grief and the grief I witnessed in parents who had lost a child, and I cried for the death of Jesus. So there you go - only through Mary was I able to understand, even if only a little bit, the sorrow of Jesus' crucifixion. - genf

  4. LB: Interesting argument about the reason the Mary stories are told and retold being that they are relatable in a way that God, Jesus are not. But is this the whole “story?” There is much in Paul and other NT writers indicating that Jesus is the way that we can relate to God. Would you suggest that the figure of Mary and the stories about her represent a further step in this direction? (And the saints as well?) If so, do the miraculous stories end up serving to make Mary less of “a person, a person we all know”?

    You have developed a very interesting thesis on Mary as a (normative) mother-nurturer instead of as just in terms of a womb and a nurse only. I like how it helps us to view these stories. But let me ask: What detail and elaboration do any sources give us on Mary as a mother that “raises children?” Is the normative model of a nurturing mother that you discuss at the beginning of your post present in readings previous to these stories? If not, does this model really emerge from these stories if we do not bring it to the stories?

    1. I have just read the other comments, and genf expresses much more eloquently than I do what I was trying to get at: Mary's mothering experience is both unique and lacking in detail (in the accounts) as far as "normative" mothering behaviors. What does it mean to bring our own understanding of "mothering" beyond carrying, giving birth to, and nursing to understanding Mary?

  5. I actually had an opposite experience to genf: Mary’s role as mother always struck me as the most powerful, the most relatable of all her roles in relation to Christ. But I definitely find it interested how general her role as mother is in the bible; I had never really thought about that before. Despite its generality, though, I think that her role as mother is essential to forge a connection with Christ. Despite his human form, everything about Jesus is awe inspiring, from his birth to his miracles, and finally his resurrection. Even though he lived as the son of a carpenter on earth, he was always marked out for something greater and so in a different league from the rest of humanity. Mary, on the other hand, fulfills the simplest, most routine, tasks of a woman: she is a wife and mother. I won’t go so far as to say this makes her a mundane character, (because I think we can all agree she is far from that!) but she exists in a role that everyone has experienced in one way or another. In the miracle stories, she acts as a mother really would. I’m sure our mothers have chastised us all on occasion, and it’s usually to rectify some mistake and better us in the long run. I think her actions (which I agree seemed a little harsh and out of place when compared to the other images of Mary we’ve seen) anchor these tales in reality and that on some levels, Mary’s maternal reality is more persuasive than the fantastic miracles she performs.