On Saturday before Mother’s Day, the front page of the Faith Section in the Kansas City Star ran the headline, “The Good Mother,” and went on to detail lives of three mothers from three different faith traditions: Mary in Christianity, Hannah in Judaism, and Khadejah in Islam. In both Judaism and Islam, the women were wives, strong, resourceful, and independent. Only Christianity presents The Good Mother as obedient, virginal, and by extension, subservient. First I was angry, and then I became sad. What’s a good mother? How can any of us live up to that title?
We have the myth in Western society that to be a good mother means to sacrifice ourselves. And, of course, in the living we all fall short and become guilty that we’ve fallen short. There’s no “if” to falling short; it’s more a matter of “when.” And the when happens over and over. As does the guilt.
What we don’t think about is how the concept of Mary and her obedience is based on the life of Roman women two thousand years ago. Rome was patriarchy. The same patriarchy that rules the Roman Church today. Rarely are women told that Mary was considered the first disciple; even less rarely are we told that Mary lived her life and raised children as a single mom since it’s likely that Joseph died before her children reached adulthood. Her eldest, Jesus, would have been the father-figure in such a Jewish family.
Maybe that’s the reason he didn’t enter ministry until he was around thirty years old. That’s middle-aged in First Century life spans. Why did he wait so long? Is it possible that Jesus waited so long because he had to support the family as a carpenter after Joseph died?
Instead of a family woman, Mary is presented as a perpetual virgin, never having sexual relations, never complaining, never angry, never demanding. As always innocent; as always young and pure. And yet, evidence in the gospels says that Jesus had brothers at the least and probably sisters. Where did these brothers come from if not from Mary? And why did Mary and Jesus’ brothers confront him and ask him to come home? (Mark 3:31; Matthew 12:46; Luke 8:19)
Perhaps his response is akin to a modern woman saying to her grown children, “Okay, guys. You’re old enough to take care of yourselves now. I’m going back to school!”
The problem with perpetuating “the good mother” is that there’s no logic behind the myth. There is only a model that’s unrealistic and unattainable. One could also say that it is a reconstruction, in Mary’s case, rather than an actuality.
Ray Brown, the preeminent Roman Catholic scholar of the Infancy Narratives says, in part: “…the opening of the Magnificat is a deliberate parallel to the opening of Hannah’s canticle after the birth of her child in Samuel 2: 1-2. The Hannah parallelism continues throughout the Magnificat, e.g., Luke 1:48, ‘Because He has regarded the low estate of His handmaid,’ echoes the prayer in 1 Samuel 1:11, ‘O Lord of Hosts, if you will look on the low estate of your handmaid.’ This handmaid motif was anticipated by Luke in 1:38 where ‘Behold the handmaid of the Lord’ was part of Mary’s final response to Gabriel. The term employed is literally the feminine form of ‘slave’; and besides the religious context of servants of the Lord (see Acts 2:18), it may reflect the sociological situation of many early Christians…That Mary designates herself a handmaid is poetically beautiful in our hearing, but…whether or not the Magnificat came from an early Christian group of ‘Poor Ones’, [as Brown illustrates in his proceeding chapter] it clearly shares their mentality. Mary has become the spokeswoman of their ideals” (Brown, Christ in the Gospels of the Liturgical Year p. 92).
In other words, our “Good Mother” is modeled on slave mentality.
It serves no one for women to believe themselves less because they do not perfectly emulate a woman’s story created in myth.
None of which means that the concept of the Holy Mother isn’t important. It is. We all need a spiritual mother as well as a physical mother. We all need to believe that there is an understanding mother when we make mistakes and fail, when we stumble and fall. A mother that will hold us and comfort. In other words, a mother’s face on God. Interestingly, while God is called “perfect,” as a masculine face, he’s also permitted pettiness and anger and jealousy.
In a post-denominational world, could we see Mary as fallible, as jealous of the other disciples, as wanting Jesus to come home and not put himself in danger? If we could move to that understanding, would we then see “the good mother” as someone complete in herself, with all the human characteristics that we humans have? And wouldn’t that be liberating! Both to women and to their children and to their husbands.