I have a problem with the image of Mary as the ideal mother. I’m sure I would have had no problem with the real, historical person of Mary, but I do have issues with the image that is presented to me through my experience of the church. For example, in the words of a well-known hymn, Mary is pictured as a “gentle mother, peaceful dove”; in sermons and readings she is usually talked of using adjectives such as “meek”, “mild” and “obedient”. But if these are the criteria for being a successful mother, then I fail – big time! And the vast majority of mothers I know also fail (I do know of one mother who actually meets these criteria, and she is definitely the exception to the rule). Of course I acknowledge I am imperfect, but at the same time I disagree that this image should be the “ideal mother”. Yet this is the predominant mothering image that is presented to me in sermons, hymns and prayers at church.
When my children talk with each other in awe of the things I have done, of the times when they consider I’ve been a “good mother”, they don’t talk of my peaceful moments. Instead they recall the time when I sprinted to catch my daughter before she fainted (and they recall the swear word I uttered as well), or when I “took on” the teachers on their behalf (from my point of view, simply clearing up misunderstandings), or when I spoke to the school at special assemblies. The adjective “obedient” isn’t even relevant to these occasions, and “meek and mild” certainly doesn’t describe my actions. Regardless of that, my children seem to be proud of me as a mother at these times, and I don’t believe they would want me to conform to the stereotyped image of a passive Mary.
So I thought I might look to the biblical descriptions of Mary, particularly of the annunciation and her mothering of Jesus in his early years, and see if I could rewrite some of the wording to fit an image that matched more closely my lived experience of motherhood. I was surprised (obviously I’m not a bible scholar). Firstly, there was only one gospel with the information required – Mark and John skip Jesus’ childhood, and Matthew tells the stories from Joseph’s point of view, with Mary’s voice being silent. Therefore to Luke I turned, yet found no mention of meek, mild, gentle or peaceful. I thought it must be the bible I was using, so I checked other versions, and no, these sorts of words were not used at all. Instead I found a Mary who said “yes”, a Mary who was “deeply troubled” and “treasured things in her heart”, a Mary who told Jesus when she found him in the temple that “your father and I were worried about you”. How can I have heard these words for so many years and not realised that Mary and passivity are not combined in the gospel?
The gospel needed no altering, then, to produce an image of Mary as an ideal mother that I could relate to. I simply needed some new adjectives to describe her actions, and they were relatively easy to come by. For example, in accepting God’s challenge to become the mother of Jesus, Mary is being more than just obedient. The word “obedient” suggests that she didn’t really have a choice, and I firmly believe that she did more than simply acquiesce; I believe she enthusiastically embraced the mission offered to her. Further, when she pondered over the things she had seen, this could be viewed as being passive. I prefer to think of it as being intelligent. She observed, she considered meanings, she remembered. She was the mother who sees all things, that a child can’t ‘get one past’. I tell my children all the time that I am like that!
The other thing about the gospel stories is that they reported words, but not often the tone used or the manner in which the words were spoken. I know how I would say the words “your father and I were worried about you” if I had just spent several anxious days looking for a lost child, and I know that no-one would be able to describe my manner at such a time as peaceful, meek or mild! And I like to think that Mary, as a real mother with real feelings, would also have managed to put quite some emotion into such a statement.
When Mother’s Day comes around each year, I would like to hear a sermon preached that focuses on qualities of mothers as proactive advocates, confident and competent protectors and carers, intelligent confidantes and nurturers. In short, real mothers – the way I picture Mary to be. Maybe the hymn could be rewritten:
Lively mother, soaring dove/ Source of wisdom, and active love.
This piece was originally published in the Wel-Com, the Wellington diocesan newspaper, in 2013.