On the last day of the Christmas Octave (eighth day after Christmas), which happens to be the first day of the calendar year, the Church invites us to celebrate Mary as mother of God. This celebration highlights one of the four Marian dogmas with the others being the Immaculate Conception, perpetual Virginity and the Assumption.
The dogma of Mary, mother of God draws its inspiration from the Christological clarifications at the council of Ephesus (431), which said Jesus Christ is two natures and one person. Clearly then, one cannot stress enough the fact that Mary’s light draws its power from Christ. The Marian reality draws its power from the Christological even though foundational to this Christological is the Marian Fiat: Be it done unto me according to thy word. In these words, Mary epitomizes the genius of motherhood.
Our contemporary society is in a crisis of motherhood. We live in an age that is “allergic to children.” We must look to Mary, the daughter of Zion, to rediscover the meaning of motherhood. In the first instance, motherhood is a gift. Mary expresses this thus: I am the handmaid of the Lord. Bearing a child is first and foremost a divine gift that elicits human response. A child is a gift: given and received. To be a mother then is to receive actively, be a divine conduit – God’s handmaid. God extends his creative act to the woman. Properly understood then motherhood is not a right but rather a privilege. God is the starting point and not the petri dish or the comfort of the living room: Be it done unto me according to thy word. This is passive in an active way.
How does this play out in the drama of contraception and abortion so prevalent in this age and time? The Catholic Church in America often celebrates the annual right to life march in January. On the first day of the New Year, the Church’s invitation to be pro-life resounds in the Fiat: I am the handmaid of the Lord, be it done unto me according to thy word. Women are challenged to truly appreciate the gift and value of motherhood. To be a woman is to be a mother. Womanhood finds its fulfillment in motherhood. Pregnancy is not an illness, the prevention of which is contraception and the cure, abortion. Far from bring a negative imposition impinging on the woman’s right, depriving her of choice, pregnancy becomes a celebration of the path to motherhood.
We live the contemporary paradox where more and more women try to and/or steal newborn babies, very often to please their husbands and save their marriages. Others think the best show of their freedom and right is to dispose of life willy-nilly. If only more women could truly appreciate the gift of motherhood, the discourse on contraception and abortion would shift gears.
Beyond being a gift, motherhood is in fact a vocation. Helen Alvare’s “Breaking through: Catholic Women Speak for Themselves,” is an excellent read for Catholic women in this year of the faith. She describes motherhood as the “basic vocation to love.” It is “finding-oneself-by-losing-oneself.” It is this “losing” – in a sense a surrender of oneself that this Christmas season invites us to rediscover. Physically, some fear motherhood because they lose the mannequin or chic physique to a bulk as the woman bulges forth during pregnancy. Or what is more, her once elegant breasts suffer the wear-and-tear of breastfeeding. The physical bodily exasperations that come with pregnancy cause some women to shun motherhood. As a revolt against male chauvinism and careerism, the vocation to motherhood is in decline.
Alvare captures this reality when she notes “Our world views motherhood as a waste of time, economically worthless, socially disvalued and particularly so by comparison with the many other paths opening up for women.”
We must never forget that Motherhood is a vocation, a path to sainthood or more properly holiness. Christmas is a celebration of motherhood.
Motherhood also helps sustain marriages. This not only in the sense that now the husband values the wife more, if at all. The mother discovers the husband through the son. Alvare drives the point home when she notes that: And I can see qualities in my husband – unselfishness, determination, wise planning – I would not likely otherwise have seen. Having boys on particular has helped this feminist grasp the charm of males qua males. (A friend and I recently laughed to discover that we had both told our husbands how much we had learned to love about men by raising sons, and how useful it would have been to have raised the boys first, and then (I) met their fathers.
It behooves us to broach the question of barren couples. While some presume children as a natural outcome, the true character of the gift is appreciated when one realizes that there are some who either through no fault of theirs or by the consequence of some previous action cannot bear children. This is a very difficult situation especially for Africans in a culture where a man without a child is a curse. There are too many families torn apart because of this and unfortunately too often the blame is on the woman. Christmas rings out a message of hope for such couples to be patient. The bible is replete with examples of God’s miracle to barren couples – Isaac, Samson in the Old Testament and John the Baptist in the New Testament, to cite but these. The brevity of human intuition precludes us from waiting for God. The fact of barrenness once again shows us that motherhood is a gift and not a right. Learning to wait for God is a timeless Christmas message.
Christmas also invites us to consider adoption. By the incarnation of Jesus Christ we have become adopted sons and daughters of God. St Paul so eminently discusses this (Romans 8:15, Galatians 3:26). Joseph at the angel’s recommendation adopted Jesus Christ as his son. He is often referred to as foster father of Jesus Christ. Even though it is not because they were barren, barren couples are invited to consider the adoption route. If you cannot bring forth children you can adopt them and if you cannot adopt them you can give birth to them in Church by being sacramental sponsors.
In this year of the Faith, those who have given birth to children in Church as Godparents must renew their vows and ask themselves how they have helped to groom the children in their faith. Godparents also share a huge part of the responsibility of those who leave the Catholic Church for one reason or the other because these parents failed in their responsibility to be Godparents.
May Mary, mother of God whom we invoke every time we pray the Hail Mary, intercede for all women, mothers and barren couples.