In the sixth month the angel Gabriel was sent by God to a town in Galilee called Nazareth, to a virgin engaged to a man whose name was Joseph, of the house of David. The virgins name was Mary. And he came to her and said, Greetings, favored one! The Lord is with you. But she was much perplexed by his words and pondered what sort of greeting this might be. The angel said to her, Do not be afraid, Mary, for you have found favor with God. And now, you will conceive in your womb and bear a son, and you will name him Jesus. He will be great, and will be called the Son of the Most High, and the Lord God will give to him the throne of his ancestor David. He will reign over the house of Jacob forever, and of his kingdom there will be no end. Mary said to the angel, How can this be, since I am a virgin? The angel said to her, The Holy Spirit will come upon you, and the power of the Most High will overshadow you; therefore the child to be born will be holy; he will be called Son of God. And now, your relative Elizabeth in her old age has also conceived a son; and this is the sixth month for her who was said to be barren. For nothing will be impossible with God. Then Mary said, Here am I, the servant of the Lord; let it be with me according to your word. Then the angel departed from her. (Luke 1:26-35, NRSV)
One of the most under appreciated roles in our society are the roles of parents. Parenting is one of the most difficult, rewarding, confusing, enlightening, perplexing and stressful positions any human being can undertake. For many of us, parenting is a job that we didn’t sign up for (at least when we intended) and when it was thrust upon us, there was never any clear manual to of ‘dos and don’ts.’ Many more of us (those who planned and those who did not) felt, and feel totally ill-equipped for the position of parent. Having a life depend on your reasonable decision-making, responsible actions, and moral guidance 24 hours a day, seven days a week, for 18 or more years is a level of stress and microscopic supervision that can overwhelm.
The work of parenting on the whole is most fully realized in the office of mother. This is not to say that the father is somehow ‘less than’ mother in the life of a child. Fathers and father/mother figures make up a half of the parental unit that contributes to a stable and balance upbringing. Yet, the mother is so often the one who experiences the full brunt of parenting even before the child is born. It is the mother that first makes the sacrifices that are indicative of parenting, when she gives of her nutrients and gives her body over to the child growing in her body. The mother is first among parents to intuit her child’s feelings and pains. She is also the first to be present when that child is realized in the world. Sadly, mom is often the one who is there when tragedy strikes her child and feels the agony in her very being when her child suffers.
Sure, there are many parents and mothers who fall far short of this exercise of the best of the office. But it does not mean that those delinquent mothers are somehow less in the experiences of carrying another human being for 9 months and living with someone for 18+ years.
At the heart of motherhood (and parenting) is sacrifice. Parents must give of themselves from the beginning, for the sake of their children. Biologically they give genetic material. Emotionally, the give their tears, joys and hope. Physically, they make space, room and provision. Financially, they give all they have to ensure stability and well-being. Psychologically, they give their fears and their psyche. These actions of giving are not just characterized by simple sharing, but sacrifice. As a parent, you give your ALL to your children, for the sake of your children. So many parents and mothers give up or defer their hopes and dreams for the sake of their children. So many parents and mothers give up ‘themselves’ so their children might be greater than they.
The lens of parental sacrifice is the frame through which I approach the above text. What was the life Mary gave up to be the mother of Jesus? She (and we) shall never know. We usually glorify Mary’s faithfulness to God and her ready willingness to serve. However, like all of us in the journey of faith, what we choose in God comes with unintended effects and consequences. Choosing God always results in many actions and events that were not foreseen when you made the initial decision (see Moses, Isaiah, Peter, etc.). So to, being a parent also comes with that same ‘hidden portfolio’. Debt, sadness, happiness, disappointment and gratitude are all parts of the portfolio that you never fully know as emotions until you become a parent. So then, imagine Mary making this choice for God, to be a parent. A child that has never been born before and never will be again. A special class of motherhood that comes with all the stresses of being a parent PLUS working with and by a mysterious and powerful God.
Mary gave up more than we will ever know to be the mother of Jesus. She gave up her life to see that child grow into the fullness of being that we know as God incarnate. She gave attention, time and energy as any parent would. She would give up all of her hopes and dreams for him so much so that she would suffer as he suffered at Calvary’s cross. Now celebrated as chief among mothers we cannot know the agony of the loss she experienced or the joy of reward she felt because of what her child is to the world.
I simply offer the following vision of truth: We do not know what many of our mother’s have given up for the sake of (or in spite) of their children. We blame wayward mothers for the indiscretions of their choices. Challenge unwed mothers and unconventional motherhood as being ‘bad for the child’. We undermine the work mothers do by limiting time off of work and limiting places for motherly activity (breastfeeding, play and growth, etc.). We even somehow lessen the experience of a mother when she makes a decision that does not line up with our view of parenting.
The simple truth is we don’t know what was given for the sake of being a mother. Only a select few of our parents in our society understand the power of such a choice. Let us celebrate our mothers/parents for what they gave up and what we are. Not just because of what they did, but because of who they are.