My mother, mother of seven, had inherited from her own mother (of 10) a beautiful statue of Mary. It was one of the few objects in our home that was kept out of the reach of us youngsters. When I was very young, I asked my mother why the statue was so special and she responded simply that Mary was the perfect role model for every mother.
When I was a bit older and she in a darker mood, the response to the same question was, “Because if I wanted to imitate Jesus in dealing with the Animals (her pet name for my five brothers) I’d need to be able to perform an exorcism. Some days it’s all I can do to ponder these things quietly in my heart.”
Now, with four children of my own, I understand both her sentiments perfectly. I can relate to the image of Mary bent over her infant son in the Christmas crèche, marveling at this new life. But unlike that most perfect of mothers, I can well imagine what would fill my thoughts if I knew that my first moments with my eldest would be forever memorialized in the same way. Unmarried and pregnant? What will people think? You put your newborn child in what? With all of those smelly animals around? What kind of mother are you?
As it happens, I can relate more than I usually care to remember. I was unmarried and pregnant with my first child at far too young an age—19—although under admittedly far less holy circumstances. And my son’s first years were spent in circumstances that might miss the label of “ghetto” only because we received no government subsidy. Poverty was our constant companion. What I remember most is the phrase “not good enough.” Wherever we lived, I knew it was not good enough for my baby boy.
Ditto for whatever he wore, whatever I could keep in the fridge, whatever toys I could manage to provide. And I knew, and often confessed to his tiny bald head, that I was not good enough to be his mother. But there we were, stuck with each other, and we would have to make the best of it.
This would be one of the many places where the Blessed Mother and I part company. Surely, if any mother was “good enough” she must have known herself worthy of that label. But to be the mother of such a Son? And what was good enough for that child? To be born without an earthly father? To spend his first night on a bed of straw? The miracle of birth is too much for any of us to pretend to understand, but the miracle of this birth was on a different scale altogether. Mary did well to ponder these things in her heart.
Francis was full of praise for the Blessed Mother. His preoccupation with the Incarnation meant that the means of the Incarnation—Mary herself—was never far from his mind. As Bonaventure says:
He embraced the Mother of our Lord Jesus with indescribable love because, as he said, it was she who made the Lord of majesty our brother, and through her we found mercy. After Christ, he put all his trust in her and took her as his patroness for himself and his friars.
Because Francis took the Gospels so seriously, he did not have an idealized vision of what life might have been like for the Holy Family. His own fascination with poverty was a result of that gospel poverty he witnessed in the lives of Jesus and Mary.
The memory of the poverty felt by Christ and his Mother often reduced him to tears and he called poverty the Queen of the Virtues because it was so evident in the life of the King of Kings and of the Queen, his Mother.
Yet, when we think of the perfect family or of the perfect mother, how often is this the image that springs to mind? We live in a society that promises equal opportunity for all, but despises any evidence that that promise is not always kept. Mothers of large families are not the selfless heroines of a few generations past, but irresponsible women who refuse to control either their urges or their biology. The message our society offers is that, if you can’t afford children (and this means the best schools, the finest health care, yearly vacations, a lovely home, at least four years of college, and a storybook wedding), don’t have them.
Even at a time when such materialism was beyond everyone’s reach, Jesus could not have arrived in our world had his mother listened to such a message. She could not provide for him the most essential security of childhood—a father. What right had she to say yes in such a situation?
Fortunately for us, Mary was not in the habit of conformity. Her focus was on God. She was so single-minded in this that she could hear that angel’s voice asking the impossible of her. She was so committed that she said yes, knowing full well that she was endangering her own life. And she was so faithful that she brought this infant into the world, raised him to adulthood, and stood by his side while he was tortured and executed. Though Mary’s role in the life of Jesus is often described as the faithful yes of an inspired moment, it was, like all motherhood, the work of a lifetime.
Mary was more than merely the biological mother of the Lord Jesus. Mary’s task in the Incarnation was not over after the event in the stable at Bethlehem. Birth was followed by education. Mary exercised a continuous formation of the young Jesus as he grew from infancy to childhood to the teen years to young manhood.
The New Testament does not tell us how this happened. There is only one brief glimpse…in the narrative of the losing and finding of the boy Jesus in the temple. Mary acts like a typical mother, with the emotions of loss and anxiety and with the maternal demand to know why her son would go off without telling her and Joseph.
It is interesting that Luke cites her words and not Joseph’s. “Son, why have you done this to us? Your father and I have been looking for you with great anxiety” (2:48). These are words we expect a mother to say. Mary is not shy about asserting her maternal authority. It flows from her love of course….
Aside from this brief anecdote, we know nothing else about what happened between mother and son all those years. Her maternal training style, her motherly witness of virtues, her approach to parenting is not recorded for us. Nonetheless, we should not forget that it happened. Mary was indeed mother of God. But she was also a human mother of a son who had a human upbringing.
A good part of a mother’s identity comes into play at Christmastime. How the house is decorated, whether we make our own cookies, buy them at the bakery, or skip them altogether, whether the children have to wear ties and “hard shoes” for the day—each is a litmus test of a mother’s worth. We’ll remember always the presence (or absence) of our own mothers at this time and we’ll imagine that says something about our worth as well.
The falsehood in all of this is that so much of it depends upon money. Francis learned from Mary’s example that money should never be an end in itself and, even when it is a means to an end, it is often a bad end. Francis emphasized instead a truer generosity that ignored self-serving gestures and focused instead on the real needs of others. One time, when some new friars wanted to keep some of their private property upon joining the order, he made this point clear:
My dear brother, God forbid that we should sin against the rule for anyone. I should prefer to see you strip our Lady’s altar bare rather than have you commit the slightest sin against our vow of poverty or the observance of the Gospel. The Blessed Virgin will be better pleased to see her altar laid bare and the Gospel counsel observed perfectly, rather than to have the altar properly decorated and her Son’s counsel violated….
Francis believed that a life of poverty helps us to realize what is always true—we do not depend on our wealth or our own power to survive; we are all utterly dependent on God. That should be as true for our self-understanding as it is for our day-to-day lives. What we learn from Mary is that who we are depends on God’s opinion—not anyone else’s.
We cannot choose how society defines us, but we can choose which voice to listen to. Is a new life worth postponing or forgoing our personal goals? Do the children in our lives know that their worth is unrelated to what is under the tree on Christmas morning? Do we ourselves know the same thing?
This Advent, let’s remember that who we are matters far more than what we do. In the crèche, Mary is not braiding the straw into garland, she is simply present and prayerful.