The month of May includes the secular commemoration of Mother’s Day. This observance is not a feast of the Church nor is it given any particularly religious content. Motherhood, however, is certainly not something foreign to the Orthodox Christian Faith. We encounter mothers and the concept of motherhood throughout the Scriptures and the various elements of Holy Tradition. We see there examples of what it is to be a good mother, and we are reminded that motherhood embodies so many of the virtues of the spiritual life.
Like secular society, the Church becomes somewhat sentimental about motherhood. Our Lord Himself is particularly gentle and indulgent with mothers, as the Gospels tell us. On one occasion, as Christ entered a village, He came upon a funeral procession. The chief mourner was a poor widow who had lost her only son, a young man just entering the prime of life. He had just reached the age to assume his place in the world; he had just come to the time when her loving care and toil, her hopes and expectations for him, would bear fruit. Yet just at that moment disease or accident snatched him from her. She had already lost her husband; now her only son was gone, he who “alone was all that is sweet and precious in a mother’s eyes” (St Gregory of Nyssa), leaving her desolate and inconsolable. Christ and His disciples come upon this tragic scene. We are told that Christ saw her and realized her plight, that “He had compassion on her,” and that He immediately restored her son to life (Luke 7:11-15). Elsewhere He asks those who are beneficiaries of His power for some act of faith or assurance of repentance. The Gospels record no such requirement of this widow. The grief of a mother is in itself enough to evoke the Savior’s mercy.
Likewise, our Lord treats His own Mother with deference. At the marriage feast at Cana, when she speaks to Him about the lack of wine, He mildly rebukes her, but He also accedes immediately to her request (John 2:4-8). And as He hangs on the Cross, impaled there by the sin and corruption of the world, He pauses in His agony to entrust his Mother to one of His disciple (John 19:26-28).
This divine indulgence of mothers extends even to circumstances where they are in the wrong. The Gospels tell us of a request which an overzealous mother makes on behalf of her sons. The mother of James and John, two from the inner circle of apostles closest to the Master, comes to Him and asks that her sons be given the places of honor in the Kingdom, on His right hand and His left (Matthew 20:20-28)
We might think that the Fathers, in interpreting this event, would censure the woman or hold her up as an example of what we ought not to do. They do not, however. Instead they note that Christ does not rebuke her, but directs His response to her sons. In part this is because they, not their mother, were the real source of the request. In part, however, Christ does not reprimand her because her lapse arose from faith and zeal, and her sin derived from unrestrained virtue, not from vice. “Although it was an error, it was an error of a mother’s affections; for a mother’s heart knows no patience” (St Ambrose). A mother’s love is unstinting – it knows no limitation or restraint. Certainly the request was improper, but it does not spring from malice but from immoderate and ill-directed love. “The mother of the sons of Zebedee, in an impulse of parental affection, asked a thing in ignorance of the measure of what she was asking, but pardonably, through the excess of her love …. For there is nothing more affectionate than a mother. And I speak of this that I may lay down a law for honoring mothers” (St Gregory of Nazianzus). As St Ambrose recognizes, she had already given up her sons, the support of her old age, permitting them to abandon their duty to her and follow the Lord; she had “allowed her children to leave her, and preferred the reward her sons should receive in following Christ to her own pleasure.” Her deep faith in the Savior told her that in Him lay the promise of the Kingdom; her love for her children gave her the boldness to approach the Lord to secure for them a share in His glory. “Not shameless was her request, for she thought not of herself, but of her children” (St Ambrose). So Christ deals with this woman with gentleness and forbearance. The great shortcoming of motherhood is a readily forgivable one: When mothers sin it is so often through an excess of love for their children.
There is a melancholy side to motherhood, however. Often it involves worry in anticipation of what may happen and grief when misfortune does indeed occur. All of us bear concern for our own safety and welfare. However, as several of the Fathers note, a mother’s primary anxiety cannot be for herself; it must always be for her children. A good mother instinctively puts the welfare of her child before her own.
St Ambrose evokes a startling story in the Old Testament to make this point. In I Kings 3, we read of two women, both prostitutes, who each deliver a son within days of one another. One of the children dies in a tragic accident. Each woman claims the remaining infant as her child: One asserts simply that the other woman’s child is dead and that this one is hers; the second contends that the first woman’s child was the one lost and that the first woman has switched the children while they slept. The two women bring the boy before King Solomon for his judgment. The wise monarch resorts to a trick. He commands that the child be cut in two and that each mother be given half. One woman responds, “It shall be neither mine nor yours; divide it.” But the true mother cries out, “Oh, my lord, give her the living child, and by no means slay it.” The king then awards the infant to his rightful mother (I Kings 3:16-28).
St Ambrose affirms Solomon’s insight, that “the true mother would have more regard for her son than for her comfort, and would set kindness before right, not right before kindness.” His deception was designed to “elicit the voice of a mother’s heart. For a mother’s feelings were laid bare when she chose that her son should live with another, rather than that he should be killed in his mother’s sight.”
This woman was no model of matronly behavior; Scripture clearly labels her a harlot. Still, without excusing the weakness and depravity which enslaved her, St Ambrose holds up for our emulation her faithfulness to her vocation as a mother and her self-sacrificing love for her child which characterizes and redeems motherhood. When St Paul avers that “woman will be saved through bearing children, if she continues in faith and love and holiness, with modesty” (I Timothy 2:15), he does not intend the mere act of bringing forth progeny. Rather, he commends to us the selfless love which motherhood encourages and which constrains a good mother to subordinate self-will and pride to the welfare of her children. Thus, in holiness and humility, a good mother works out her own salvation by faithful fulfillment of her sacred calling.
For a woman to be a good mother, she truly must fulfill the Lord’s command to seek first the Kingdom of God. She must genuinely deny herself and place sacrificial love, in imitation of Christ, at the heart of her life. By pursuing that selfless goal, however, she will become not merely a good mother, but also a worthy handmaid of the Lord and a true daughter of the Kingdom. The characteristics of a good mother are also those of the devoted and faithful Christian. Women and men both must aspire to these virtues and participate each in their own way in this high calling. As we honor our mothers on Mothers Day, let us all seek the virtues which typify the good mother. Let us all, men and women together, take our mothers as our example and by so doing aspire to the blessings of the Gospel and to a share in the grace and holiness of our crucified and risen Lord.