Today we have before us two great celebrations: the first is the Ascension of Our Lord into heaven; the second is Mother’s Day. And, wonderfully enough, I think they are tied together. (You’re wondering how I’m going to do this. Yeah, me too….)
You’ll notice over there the beautiful statue of Mary, holding the child Jesus. A few days ago, our school children crowned them at the May Crowning, the crown of roses being the transformation of the crown of thorns which they both wore during the Crucifixion—Jesus wore the crown of thorns on His head; Mary, in her great love, wore the crown of thorns spiritually on her heart.
That day of the crucifixion was so difficult for Mary. There is a statue that depicts that day: the Pieta. It is Michelangelo’s famous work from marble where Mary holds her son, Jesus, no longer as a little child, but as the young man—His body lifeless—as He is placed into Mary’s arms. Can you imagine? Michelangelo depicted Mary lovingly holding her son, but her left hand is free, and outstretched, palm to the heavens, as though in prayer to the Father, saying “This is my Son… this is my flesh and blood….”
These two moments, I believe, get at the heart of Motherhood: a mother, unlike anyone else on earth, can echo with Christ: “This is my body, given up for you.” A mother, just like Jesus, feeds her infant child with her body and blood. And Mary, like all mothers, when she gives over her child, can say to all who receive Him, “This is my body, given up for you.”
But Mary’s sacrifice—as are all mothers’ sacrifices—is given a glorious return. Her Son rises from the dead—and more, He ascends into heaven. This is significant because Mary knows—knows with certainty, without any doubt—that her child is in heaven. This is one of the many glories of the Ascension and, as well, a great hope for mothers today: this is what all mothers want: their children to be in heaven! Yet, how many mothers suffer: when their child suffers, mom suffers. How many mothers have experienced the loss of a child—by a miscarriage, by a sudden and tragic death, or simply by the expanse of distance and time. The Ascension gives all mothers a great hope that they will see their children again!
For Mary, the Ascension transforms her motherhood. No longer is she only the Mother of Jesus, but as Jesus ascends, the entire Church gathers around Mary in the upper room. She is now the mother for every disciple there. Indeed, this was Jesus’ dying wish when, on the Cross He said to John, “Behold, your mother.” As her child goes to heaven, Mary’s motherhood is expanded to include every Christian. This is not figurative or a nice sentiment. Rather, precisely because we were baptized into Christ and so emerged from those holy waters as a child of God, we became through that great sacrament Mary’s child. And so, when you see that statue of Mary holding her child, Jesus, you can picture her holding you.
So, even if you did not have a good relationship with your mom, or if your mom has passed, or if you never knew your mom—or if you had the greatest of moms—all of us have the best mom, the mom God chose for Himself: Mary, Our Mother. Picture yourself in her arms right now....
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We celebrate our mothers this day. But, if we are honest, our celebration and our gratitude for all of mom’s sacrifices and for how much we love her—this requires more than a day. Really, if we truly love mom, we imitate her. We enter into the words of her life, words that say “This is my body, given for you.”
How many women saw Mary as their mother and were transformed because of it? How many holy women have imitated her!
I think of St. Monica, who imitated Mary’s tears, Our Lady of Sorrows, weeping for the conversion of her son. Monica’s prayers were answered—and not only for her son, but Monica’s husband also converted (and just in time: he converted before his death).
Or I think of St. Zelie Martin, who was canonized last October. She had three children die before turning one year old, and another before becoming five. And yet, Zelie kept the faith, confident that she would see her children again. Zelie would die of breast cancer. But her children would imitate her, one of them being St. Therese of Lisieux—who would say that it was her parents who revealed for her the love of God.
I think of St. Gianna who, when she became pregnant with her fourth child, was diagnosed with a malignant tumor. The doctors told her to have an abortion, else she would die. Gianna saw it as a decision between her or her daughter. She thought of her daughter and the words came: “This is my body, given up for you.” Gianna gave birth and a few days later, she died. Her daughter, also named Gianna, was recently in St. Louis.
I think too of St. Elizabeth Ann Seton. At a very young age, her husband died; she was a widow with five children living in poverty. Elizabeth Ann, in an attempt to provide for her family, opened up a parish school (this would become the basis of our parochial school system) and would eventually establish a religious order. Elizabeth saw her motherhood as a widow transformed: she would become the spiritual mother for many!
All of these women loved Mary and so imitated her. Where they experienced thorns here on earth, they now have the glories of heaven.
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To all of our moms: our love and gratitude to you. These words are not enough. You inspire us and we thank God for you.
To our young, teenagers and twenty-somethings: I challenge you. You live in a culture that celebrates motherhood, but does so at a distance. What I mean by that is, we give cards that say “Happy Mother’s Day!” but fewer are actually becoming moms. It really is a schizophrenic culture that we live in: on the one hand, we celebrate moms, but on the other hand, we destroy children in the womb, we advocate and use contraceptives, and we urge a comfortable—that is, selfish—feminism that says, “This is my body, I do with it what I want.” This is a great challenge and I pray that you will be different than the culture at large. Get married. Have lots of kids. Or be a spiritual mother by being a religious sister with many spiritual children. But don’t just thank your mom. Be a mom.
Finally, I want to speak to those women who may have used contraception or had an abortion in the past or who may have gotten wrapped up in self and missed their chance to have children. I want you to know that the Church is a Mother, too, and she extends her arms out to you in mercy and in healing. You are not alone and we want you to know that there is no condemnation here—we are with you. If your heart is hurting, the Church, like a good mother, is here to embrace you and hold you and to help you heal again. She loves you. We love you.
And to all mothers who have lost a child before birth—and for any reason—know that there is a very beautiful prayer that we can say with you. It is the Rite of Naming and Commendation of an Infant who Died before Birth. You can give your child a name and we lift your child up to God, commending your child to the care of our Father who loves the little children—and us. If you have never done this, I (and I am sure any priest) would be happy to help you. I know it won’t bring your child back; but what a wonderful hope: that your child has a name, that you still love them, and that you will see them again.
I think similar prayers were in Mary’s heart as she saw Jesus ascend into heaven. In the meanwhile, she now comes to us with her Son in the Eucharist, to strengthen us by His grace, so that we too may live those words: “This is my body, given up for you.”