Oh, My God: Maternal Love and the Cross
#1: The part of my mind hard-wired like that of any self-respecting tigress screamed: “This little 90 pound … witch … is hurting my son. It is incumbent upon me as his mother to hurl her like a javelin into the waiting room, grab my poor half-naked shrieking baby, and run screaming through traffic, half ambulance siren and half Amazon battle cry.”
#2: The part of my brain that still had some sort of grasp on rational thinking offered the following: “Yes, but throwing the doctor would be wrong and Theo getting polio or hepatitis or any of that other awful stuff would be very bad.”
You’ll be pleased to know that the second part of my brain retained control, but only in the sort of way you have control over a spooked horse in a cheap bridle. Nevertheless, I clenched my jaw as my eyes welled up with tears. On the cab ride home, I kissed his little fingers over and over again as he slept and I prayed a silent prayer to Mary. “Oh my God,” I prayed, with both complete reverence and horror. “Oh my God.”
In my church, a painting shows Mary standing mournfully in the shadow of the cross and I am absolutely convinced that all such images are produced by men. In my head, as we come home from the doctor’s office and the heat of my first real brush with the power of the maternal instinct is still humming in my veins, I imagine her pulling that cross right out of the ground (in the same way you’re always hearing on the news about some adrenaline filled mother pulling a car from atop her child) and then, with her half siren-half Amazon cry, pulling the nails from her son’s body with her bare hands. At the very least, I imagine the two other Mary’s holding her back, grasping desperately at her limbs as she tries to make her way toward him.
“Grown don’t mean nothing to a mother,” Toni Morrison writes in her novel Beloved. “A child is a child. They get bigger, older, but grown? What’s that suppose to mean? In my heart it don’t mean a thing.”
Now I obviously cannot compare our relatively mundane misadventure at the pediatrician’s office to Mary’s experience at the foot of the cross but the feeling I got that day … however fleeting … broke open the way I see Mary and the way I understand the cross and, for the first time, made me question whether I could really envision God as Mother. After all, I reasoned, how could such a horrible thing happen to a boy with two mothers, one of whom is the Creator of the Universe? How could they bear it when the people assembled argued back and forth about the semantics of the inscription that hung above his head and callously picked over his few belongings like vultures? It is utterly beyond me.
But then I step back. I take a giant step back as if I’m standing in front of a huge painting at a museum and need some distance to take in the whole scene. I remember that the boy wounded and crumpled on the cross is more than a boy. I remember that he is both the fragile child of Mary and the Eternal One. Standing at a distance from the picture painted in John’s Gospel, I can see that he is in fact his mother’s Mother. He returns her look of anguished desperation, torn open as much by her pain as she is by his. On the cross he enters into the fullness of what it means to be human so she and we will never have to be alone, so that there is no terrain in this life that he has not traveled before us. Like our mothers who have crept stealthily into our rooms to watch us as we’ve slept, who have felt our pain sharp and deep, who have rejoiced in our small victories, who have claimed us even in defeat, Jesus is God promising to love us fiercely, vigilantly, intimately, and ultimately. He is God saying that all of the tears and holes our brokenness has rent in our relationship with God can be mended if we are willing to bring them to him, sit still, and let him work.
It’s this Jesus, ragged Son and mending Mother, who looks at Mary and says, “Woman, here is your son.” It’s this Jesus, who promises us through the cross that there is no place that God will not go with us, who looks at John and says, “Here is your mother.” As Blessed Julian of Norwich reminds us, “He did not say, ‘You will never have a rough passage, you will never be over-strained, you will never feel uncomfortable, but he did say You will never be overcome.’”
This year, as I pray the Stations of the Cross with my Church family, the 12th station, the one that asks us to meditate on these words Jesus speaks to his mother, I will see the powerful gaze of two fierce mothers whose hearts are breaking but whose love is furious and holy and for us … all of us … and if it is not there in the image I will paint it there with my heart. I will know that the intensity and ferocity with which I love Theo is like one drop of water in the ocean compared to God’s love for each of us and every night before bed when I trace the Sign of the Cross on my son’s forehead I will pray with reverence and stupefied awe “Oh my God. Oh my God.”
(This is a sermon based on John 19:17-27 written for a preaching class the author took at Union Seminary in New York City. It received the 2008 John Kneeland Award for best exegetically-based sermon in manuscript form.)
[Published on: April 3, 2012]