Today we celebrate Jesus the Good Shepherd--and we also celebrate Mother's Day. For me, there is an interesting coming together of images on this day: Jesus, the mother of us all, and our earthly mothers as good shepherds. Both Jesus and our mothers are anxious that we follow their lead, and I celebrate the ways in which the two influences work in us to create an enduring spiritual agenda. The challenge, of course, is to give honor where honor is due and to take responsibility for the choices we make. When do you hear the voice of your mother in your mind? What is the voice of Jesus like? How do you distinguish between the two? How are they the same? How are they different?
Some of the images of "Jesus as Mother" have been around for a long time and evoke many of the associations present in today's Gospel about the Good Shepherd. Anselm of Canterbury wrote: "Jesus, as a mother you gather your people to you; you are gentle with us as a mother with her children." The maternal action, or behavior, of gathering people together and being gentle with them recalls the action and behavior of the good shepherd, bringing the sheep together. The shepherd, like a good mother, embraces his own sheep as well as sheep of other folds, speaking to them in a voice that they recognize and trust. The maternal image of Jesus also contains within it the protective, sacrificial role of the good shepherd who lays down his life for his sheep. In the writings of Julian of Norwich we read: "Jesus is our true mother, the protector of the love which knows no end...In nature, Jesus is our true mother by our first creation, and in grace by taking our created nature. All the love of offering and sacrifice of beloved motherhood are in Christ our Beloved."
I wonder what Dame Julian's own mother was like? Her strong poetic language of "the love of offering and sacrifice of beloved motherhood" perhaps belongs to an age other than, and far removed from, our own. But there is a powerfully appropriate connection in Julian's use of these maternal qualities to illuminate the role of Jesus Christ in our lives. Anselm and Julian synthesized the images of Jesus and motherhood, creating a startlingly modern-sounding description of Jesus that helps us to take what we know of love, protection, and sacrifice in our daily life, and make life-giving connections and insights to our spiritual life. The images we have of Jesus and God are often born in the creative, spiritual intersection between the care we experience from our mothers (and fathers!) and our innate desire for meaning and connection with something greater and more powerful than ourselves: God.
The desire to know our mothers, to have that connection with them, is vividly portrayed in stories we read of the search of some grown children, raised by adoptive parents, who later seek their birth mothers. There have been several accounts in The New York Times recently about people trying to find out about their birth families. Their search is balanced by the stories of women who gave up their children for adoption and do not wish to have that time in their life re-opened because of the pain and suffering they experienced.
There are two sides to the issue of motherhood. When I think of my own mother, I can see a sort of divine archetype of a good shepherd. I remember her efforts to raise four children, create a home of love, learning, and culture, and, at the same time, hold down a paying job and volunteer what "spare time" she had to foster creativity and beauty in the community in which we lived. All these activities of hers were life-giving, and are the basis for the gratitude I feel towards her on Mother's Day--and every other day.
Perhaps because I am myself no saint, I sometimes forget Mom's good qualities as I try to sort out my growing up issues and attempt as a grown man to parent myself with humor, love, and gentleness. Yet it is this coming to terms with our life and the people in our life that is near the heart of our spiritual journey.
Knowing who we are and where we come from is what we celebrate today. It is serendipitous how St. John speaks directly to these issues of belonging on this Mother's Day and Good Shepherd Sunday: "Beloved, we are God's children now." Mothers, sons, daughters: we are all equally embraced in this new identity. By giving our lives to Jesus to lead and shepherd us, all of us can begin to draw from him the spiritual sustenance no human mother is equipped to give. By honoring our mothers and those who "mothered" us, we honor Jesus as well; he loves us like a mother, and (as Julian of Norwich says) "Jesus is the true mother of us all."
Who are the people who have mothered you, given you a sense of being loved, protected, and nurtured you? What wounds do you have that might need prayerful attention as you think of the woman who gave you birth?