Mary as ‘ideal mother’

Features Suzanne Manning4 May 2012 The image of Mary as ‘ideal mother’ that the Church presents seems a long way from the reality of life for many of today’s mothers….


Suzanne Manning
4 May 2012

The image of Mary as ‘ideal mother’ that the Church presents seems a long way from the reality of life for many of today’s mothers.

The words of a well-known hymn show Mary as a ‘gentle mother, peaceful dove’; in homilies and readings she is usually described as ‘meek’, ‘mild’ and ‘obedient’. But if these are the criteria for being a successful mother, I and the vast majority of mothers I know, fail.

When my children talk to each other of the things I have done, of the times when they consider I’ve been a ‘good mother’, it is not my peaceful moments they recall.

Instead they remember when I sprinted to catch my daughter before she fainted (and the swear word I uttered as well), or when I ‘took on’ the teachers on their behalf (from my point of view, simply clearing up misunderstandings), or when I spoke to the school at special assemblies.

The adjective ‘obedient’ isn’t even relevant to these occasions and ‘meek and mild’ certainly doesn’t describe my actions.

I searched biblical descriptions of Mary, to see if I could find an image to fit more closely my experience of motherhood.

To my surprise I found only one gospel with the information required – Mark and John skip Jesus’ childhood, and the writer of Matthew takes Joseph’s point of view, with Mary’s voice being silent.

Therefore to Luke I turned, yet found no mention of ‘meek’, ‘mild’, ‘gentle’ or ‘peaceful’. Instead I found a Mary who said ‘yes’, a Mary who was ‘deeply troubled’ and ‘treasured things in her heart’, a Mary who told Jesus when she found him in the temple that ‘your father and I were worried about you’.

How can I have heard these words for so many years and not realised that Mary and passivity are not combined in the gospel?

So the gospel needed no altering to produce an image of Mary as ideal mother to which I could relate. I simply needed some new adjectives to describe her actions, and they were relatively easy to find.

In accepting God’s challenge to become the mother of Jesus, Mary is being more than just ‘obedient’, that is, without choice. Rather than simply acquiescing, I believe Mary enthusiastically embraced the mission offered to her. Further, I prefer to think of her pondering on the things she had seen as being intelligent. She observed, she considered meanings, she remembered. She is the mother who sees all things, that a child can’t ‘get one past’. I tell my children all the time that I am like that.

The other thing about the gospel stories is that they reported words, but not often the tone used or the manner in which the words were spoken. I know how I would say the words ‘your father and I were worried about you’ if I had just spent several anxious days looking for a lost child, and I know that no-one would be able to describe my manner at such a time as ‘peaceful’, ‘meek’ or ‘mild’. I like to think that Mary would also have managed to put quite some emotion into such a statement.

This Mother’s Day, I would like to hear a homily that focuses on the qualities of mothers as proactive advocates, confident and competent protectors and carers, intelligent confidantes and nurturers – in short, real mothers, as I picture Mary. Maybe the hymn could be rewritten:
Lively mother, soaring dove/ Source of wisdom, and active love.