Coptic Orthodox Diocese of the Southern United States

An Uncommon Motherhood

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When we think of the motherhood which the Theotokos was privileged to receive, we think of a rare, delightful, and radiant experience. To be the mother of the Lord! Did she not say, "My spirit rejoices in God my Savior," and "henceforth all generations shall call me blessed" (Luke 1:47,48)? It was indeed a blessing, a very great one, that would fill any human being with an exultant joy. Could any young woman aspire to enter a life more blessed than that of St. Mary's?

And yet, the "blessing" which the Archangel Gabriel's announcement brought to her, was not merely a life of sweet and happy companionship with her perfect Child, but also an existence full of suffering. The first sting came when, at the age of about 30, the Lord had to inform her that he was leaving their cozy home at Nazareth to inaugurate His Father's work. The ministry required an irreversible exodus from the family and city of His youth. No longer would He enjoy the familiar odor of sawn wood in the carpenter's workshop. No longer would He mingle with the friends and family who had come to love Him so. No longer would He pass beneath the old trees or stroll next to the bubbling brooks of His childhood.

It is perhaps not easy for a mother to watch her son come of age, get married, and move away to start a new life on his own. It must certainly be much more difficult to see her son leave without clearly explaining his plans for the future. Where would He live? What career would he engage in for His upkeep? How often would He return to visit? It cannot be doubted that St. Mary's heart, like that of any other mother's, yearned for a stable and predictable future for her Son. But alas, when compelled to query Him about His reasons for suddenly leaving Nazareth, what more response could He give but that He must go out to finish the work for which He was sent by His Father?

It might be surprising to hear us speaking like this of St. Mary, that is, not as the great Theotokos and Queen of Heaven, but as a humble mother with the typical affections of humanity. There is, however, no other way to truly begin to understand her sorrows. Her sufferings can only be appreciated by an attempt to "enter into" her experiences through the portal of a tender, human, maternal consciousness. Our icons represent her sitting upon a sumptuous throne with the royal child Jesus seated on her lap, both crowned with a nimbus of old and glowing with heavenly radiance; but this is of more theological significance than historical. No such scene ever really existed. Her clothes were ever humble, and her posture ever meek; and her Son's divine status was never visually revealed, except on the Mount of Transfiguration.

The darkest valleys into which her heart descended came during those trying hours of the final stages of holy week. We would be mistaken in imagining her, while her Son was brutally fixated to the Cross, as the transcendent Mother of God in a state of theological reflection upon the soteriological implications of the scene before her. More accurately, and more touchingly, she was the mother of Jesus, shocked and horrified at the inhumane treatment to which her beautiful Son was subjected, straining to endure the turbulent emotions that tore at her heart, and struggling under the momentous physical stress that that threatened to break down the body. "The world rejoices in receiving salvation, while my heart burns as I look at Your crucifixion, which You are enduring for the sake of all, my Son and my God." In this prayer are imperceptibly mixed the emotion of burning grief—strictly pertinent to St. Mary—and our theology of salvation—strictly pertinent to the Church.

Not just any woman could have endured the painful lot appointed to St. Mary. We consciously praise and revere her for her purity and intercession, but we sometimes forget to honor her more "negative" or difficult role in salvation history. Someone had to give birth to the Messiah, and that someone had to withstand the unimaginable pain associated with such a motherhood: "A sword will pierce your soul" (Luke 2:35). Simeon's ominous words must surely have floated in and out of her mind frequently as the years passed by, until they reached a fulfillment more terrible than the young Mary could have ever anticipated. Many mothers have indeed witnessed the murder of their sons; but the more precious the son, and the more loving the mother, the more agonizing is the feeling when the relationship is cut off. The Nativity hymn Pi-jen-messee speaks about the "spiritual birth-pangs" that the Virgin underwent to bring forth her incarnate Son. Those travails were intensified and transformed into spiritual death-pangs at the Cross.

We have a responsibility of gratitude toward the holy mother for the role she assumed in biblical and world history. Her silent suffering bore spiritual fruit that has been harvested and enjoyed by the world, that is, by every soul that has willingly submitted to the name of Jesus.

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