I am convinced that one of the most powerful forces in all the universe is a mother’s prayers for her children. An inspirational example of the efficacy of such prayer comes from the life of Saint Monica, the mother of Saint Augustine. Of all of the children she bore, it was Augustine that proved to be the source of the greatest anxiety for Monica. Augustine was not always a saint in fact in his early days he lived a pretty rock n’ roll life style of womanizing, heavy drinking, and partying. He even got sucked into a religious cult called Manicheism. In his autobiographical work, the Confessions, St. Augustine writes that through it all his mother never gave up on him, but continued to pray for his conversion. In her agony for the soul of her son, Monica sought the council of Bishop Ambrose who told her, “God’s time will come. Go now, it is not possible that the son of so many tears should perish.”
If you are a mother who worries for her troubled children, you should be encouraged by the story of Saint Monica. Not only did her son finally accept the Christian faith, but he went on to become one of its most powerful and articulate defenders, a Bishop and a doctor of the Church.
The love of a mother is often the Hound of Heaven in the life of a wayward son. The country singer Merle Haggard said it best,
I turned twenty-one in prison doing life without parole
No one could steer me right but Mama tried, Mama tried
Mama tried to raise me better, but her pleading I denied
That leaves only me to blame 'cause Mama tried
There is perhaps no better image of the relentless, unwavering, way that God’s grace pursues us in our sinfulness. We address God as Father—I believe it is appropriate for us to do so not least because that is what Jesus taught us to do. I think it would be a mistake to change the Lord’s Prayer from ‘Our Father’ to ‘Our Mother’ like some liturgical revisionist suggest—yet nevertheless there is a maternal as well as a paternal side to God. God, as an eternal spirit, transcends the categories of gender. Both male and female, fatherhood and motherhood, find their source, their virtue, beauty and truth in their creator. Both man and woman were created in the image of God and both are meant to represent him in their unique way.
The Bible at times uses maternal language to speak of God’s loving-kindness. For instance Isaiah writes, “Can a woman forget her sucking child, that she should have no compassion on the son of her womb? Even these may forget, yet I will not forget you” (Isa 49:15), and “As one whom his mother comforts, so will I comfort you” (Isa 66:13).
Nowhere is God’s motherly compassion and tender mercy better seen than in our Lord Jesus Christ who says to his rebellious people, “How often have I desired to gather your children together as a hen gathers her brood under her wings, and you were not willing!” Indeed many spiritual writers and theologians, such as Saint Anselm and Julian of Norwich, have spoken of the motherhood of Christ. The metaphor of Christ as mother is appropriate in a number of ways.
First, Christ is the one that his people run to for protection from danger and comfort in sorrow. A mother hen will gladly sacrifice her own safety for the protection of her young. If a fox or some other predator sneaks into the hen house the mother will call her young to her and shelter them with her own body, putting herself between them and the danger. The chicks will instinctively run to her for safety and shelter. In the same way Christ puts himself, his own body, between us and our sins. He bears the brunt of their consequences on our behalf. He yearns that his people might run to him for safety and protection.
The mother is the fiercest and most selfless protector of her young. For instance no one wants to get between a mama grizzly and her cubs! The mother’s bosom is the universal place of safety and security. When we are endangered, when we are perplexed, when we are sorrowful, Christ wants us to find our solace in him. He covers us with his righteousness when we are fallen in sin, he shields us when we are attacked by temptation and despair. As Psalm 91 says, “He will cover you with his feathers, and under his wings you will find refuge; his faithfulness will be your shield and rampart.”
Secondly, the motherhood of Christ is seen in the fact that he washes, feeds, and nurtures us. It is one of the wonders of nature that a mother is able to nourish her child with her own body. Julian of Norwich writes,
“The mother may suckle her children with her own milk, but our precious Mother Jesus, he feeds us with himself. And he does this most courteously, with much tenderness, with the Blessed Sacrament that is our precious food of true life. And with the sweet sacraments he sustains us with every mercy and grace.”
Just as an infant depends on his mother for all his needs, so are we dependent on Christ. He cares for us in our helplessness just as a mother cares for her young. He washes us in baptism and the blood of his cross and feeds us with his own body and blood.
One of the oldest symbols for Christ, dating back at least to the second century, is that of a Pelican feeding her chicks. The image is actually rooted in an ancient legend that predates Christianity. The legend was that in a time of famine a mother pelican actually tore pieces of her own flesh out to feed her starving young with her flesh and blood. In one version of the story the mother bird revives her chicks from death. The Church embraced this story as an image of Jesus’ motherly love for his people and it became a fixture in church architecture.
Third, and finally, Christ is our mother because he suffers the pains of labor to bring forth a new creation. Jesus spoke of his own imminent suffering in terms of a mother’s labor pains. He said, “A woman giving birth to a child has pain because her time has come; but when her baby is born she forgets the anguish because of her joy that a child is born into the world.”
In the same way, Jesus considered the agony of his passion to be pure joy on account of the new creation account of the new creation it brought about. He bore each of us, our sin, our guilt, our shame, in his own body on the cross. He considered the pain to be worth it in order that we might be born again and saved from the power of sin and death.
When Christ died on the cross, a roman soldier pierced his side and out gushed blood and water. The Church Fathers see great spiritual significance in this fact. Blood and water, they say, represent the two chief sacraments of the Church, the Eucharist and Holy Baptism. Just as Eve was taken from the side of Adam, so here is the Church born from the bleeding side of Christ. We are the children of his labor and passion.