“There were many women there, looking on from a distance, who had followed Jesus from Galilee, ministering to him” (Mt. 27:55).
Women have always had an important place in the Gospel. Here, the Gospel of Matthew tells us that women were gathered at the site of the crucifixion, naming Mary Magdalene, Mary the mother of James and Joseph, and the mother of the sons of Zebedee. From Veronica with her veil, to Mary at the foot of the cross, to this cluster of devoted followers, women punctuate the Passion narratives.
As we experience Holy Week, we might ponder what is God’s vision of women. What is his design? What is the grandeur of his idea of women?
One of the most magnificent aspects of femininity is motherhood. As John Paul II claims in Mulieris Dignitatem, whether a woman participates in motherhood physically or spiritually, the vocation of all women is maternal. Motherhood in all its forms taps into the very essence of what it is to be human: to be “a gift of self” to others. Motherhood is “a special openness to the new person…. In this openness, in conceiving and giving birth to a child, the woman discovers herself through a sincere gift of self.” The essence of the human person is to be a gift of self, and motherhood is by its nature such a gift, physically, emotionally, mentally, and spiritually. What is a more complete gift of self than to share one’s flesh, blood, genetic structure, nourishment, time, energy, thought, care, love, character, virtue, faith and knowledge with someone else? Whether in utero or through a child’s upbringing, mothers have a singular role in sustaining the life and health, in a variety of senses, of another person. Human beings are such that we require the gift of self on the part of someone else in order to become fully who we are. This is a great mystery. Human personhood means relationality: existing in a relationship. Motherhood—whether physical or spiritual—is the epitome of this most sublime mystery. Motherhood is rightly understood as the full expression of human personhood.
During Holy Week, we celebrate God’s generous gift of himself. The liturgy highlights Christ giving himself on the cross for us: “He humbled himself, becoming obedient to the point of death, even death on a cross.” While Catholic spiritualities of motherhood tend to focus on the Mariological dimensions of this vocation, we might also consider the Christoligical dimensions. Motherhood can be seen as a reflection of the generosity of God. Mothers—physical mothers, adoptive mothers, foster mothers, stepmothers, godmothers, aunts, sisters, and grandmothers—pour themselves out in various ways for the child. They give their time, talent, energy and best gifts, providing for and nurturing the children for whom they care.
Six weeks ago, a good friend of mine volunteered to be a foster mother for two weeks to an orphaned infant from China. The child was coming to the U.S. to have surgery to correct a severe malformation of his mouth, and the non-profit organization arranging this surgery asked for a host family to keep the child during the process. My friend offered this gift of herself. Two weeks later, my friend had grown so attached to the infant, and he so attached to her, that she and her husband, with the unanimous support of their five other children, asked to adopt the child permanently. The precious baby is now in his new mother’s arms, and as you read this, he is likely nestled in her front carrier, relaxing in her gentle sway.
What more profound sign could there be of God’s generosity? By its design, motherhood is an emptying of oneself for someone else. This is epitomized by the cross, the heart of our faith. Motherhood, then, is a reflection of the heart of God.
As we celebrate the Pascal mystery this week, and come face to face with the mystery of Christ’s outpouring of love for us, may tired and weary mothers around the world draw refreshment from his beautiful outpouring of himself. May mothers adore Christ the Suffering Servant, and consequently find their stores of love replenished, so that, with renewed generosity, they may tend to those in their care.