It seems a mama possum was trundling along with her babies clinging to her back when a hungry carpet python decided that her journey was just a “moveable feast.” The python grabbed one of the defenseless (and delectable) babies off of mama’s back, sure that it had snagged itself an easy meal. Not so much.
That’s where our Mother’s Day story gets interesting. Mom possum immediately went on the attack. Despite the fact that her baby was well and truly trussed up by the python, she went after that big snake without any hesitation. By biting, clawing, and wrestling, the mother possum somehow managed to get the snake to release its hold on it would-be-meal, and go to look for a less well guarded dinner elsewhere. Mom and baby took off, both alive and well.[i]
Lesson: Don’t mess with a protective mom.
When I was in elementary school, I loved all my teachers, until fifth grade and Miss Beard. Though my opinion about her has softened somewhat over the years, I still don’t think she was cut out to be a teacher. She didn’t seem to like children very much; didn’t seem to want to be there. I don’t remember much interaction. Mostly she just gave us one reading assignment after another, while she sat behind her desk, preoccupied with her fingernails or something.
Now I had – and still have – a mild form of dyslexia, that makes reading sometimes a challenge. Dyslexia was not something that was diagnosed back in the fifties. I also had a speech impediment growing up. So I was kind of a shy kid in some ways and somewhat easily intimidated. Miss Beard was a rather large woman, and I remember often being shamed by her for staring out the window and daydreaming; and routinely getting sent out into the hall for such offenses.
Well, when the end of year parent-teacher conferences came around that year, Miss Beard informed my mother that her son was obviously slow, and would need to stay behind – in fifth grade – for another year. Now here’s where this Mother’s Day story gets interesting.
I remember my mother – half the size of Miss Beard – standing there shaking her finger in my imposing teacher’s face, telling her (something to the effect of), “My child is not spending one more minute in your classroom.”
Well, that was that. I summarily graduated to sixth grade. And simply fell in love with my new teacher, Miss Roberts (who, by the way, thought I was bright as a penny)!
Lesson: Don’t mess with a protective mom!
One would have say that Jesus was not your run-of-the-mill, stereotypical first century Jewish male.
For example, men of that time and place had little interest or interaction with children. Jesus, on the other hand, simply adored children.
When the disciples chided mothers for letting their children approach Jesus, one day, Jesus admonished them, “Let the children come to me. For to them belongs the kingdom of heaven.” In fact, Jesus often delighted in calling his own disciples “little children.”
In today’s scripture, we find Jesus praying for these `little children,’ his disciples. He thanks God for giving them to him. He basically says `Father, I’ve done all that I could to protect them, to teach them, to nurture them, to keep them safe. I’ve guarded them all with my life so that none would be lost.’ But then he adds – and you can almost hear the maternal grief in his voice when he says – `except for the one who was destined to be lost.’ The one devoured by the serpent.
And, as he perched on the threshold of his final entry into Jerusalem, Jesus looked down from the hilltop and lamented, “Jerusalem, Jerusalem; the city that kills the prophets and stones those who are sent to it! How often have I desired to gather your children together as a hen gathers her brood under her wings, and you were not willing.” [Mt. 23:37]
Nor would first century Palestinian men have much to do with women either; at least in public. If a wife accompanied her husband into town, she had to walk a few paces behind him. And men simply did not speak to women in the public square; it was considered undignified.
Contrast that with Jesus, who not only routinely consorted with women – often with women of questionable background – he once went miles out of his way to the city of Sychar, just to have an encounter with an unclean Samaritan woman at Jacob’s Well. An encounter through which Jesus redeemed this woman’s life by gathering her under the wings of God’s grace and love.
Nope. One could not describe the things Jesus said and did with that old phrase (which I’ve heard on occasion from my wife): “That’s just like a man.”
Jesus was different.
Jesus was loving, gentle, tender, nurturing, extremely family-oriented, and fierce in his protective love for those who belonged to him.
Now who does that sound like to you?
Jesus was the first to call God Abba – “Father” – and rightly so. Because, just as Mary was his biological mother, the Holy Spirit of God was his biological Father; which is one of the great mysteries of the Church.
Yet, we believe that God is both transcendent and all-encompassing with respect to gender. As it says in Genesis: “So God created humankind in God’s own image, in the image of God they were created; male and female, God created them.” [Gen. 1:27]
Therefore, if God is indeed gender transcendent – which is to say not contained by human gender ascriptions – then at the same time God reflects an essential aspect of the divine nature in the creation of both man and woman.
That being the case, we could surmise that Jesus, as the perfect human being – the only begotten Son, the very Incarnation of God – is holistically inclusive of male and female attributes (notwithstanding male physicality), embracing the preeminent qualities or each.
In other words, Jesus reflected most perfectly what it means to be a fully integrated human being. The Christ figure – as with God – upon resurrection is once again transcendent.
In his work, The Book of Creation, J. Philip Newell wrote, “Paul says that in Christ there is neither male nor female. The positive way of knowing, on the other hand, affirms that there is, in God both the masculine and the feminine. There is a mother’s heart at the heart of God, as well as a father’s . . . In essence, God is neither male nor female, but in theophanies [God’s physical manifestations] God is both. And so it is to both that we may look in our search to know more of the Unknowable.”[ii]
And, perhaps, also as we strive to live life more fully as human beings.
Back in the eighties, the male gender was undergoing somewhat of a socio-emotional overhaul. Men started getting in touch with their `feminine side’. A movement I hadn’t really given much thought to until a young woman came up to me (in seminary I think it was) and said, “Tom, you really seem to be in touch with your feminine side.” And I remember thinking, “What’s that supposed to mean!?”
Although I didn’t at the time—now I look at that comment as a great compliment.
My primary role model had always been my dad. Dad was the strong silent type; provider of the family; the definitive decision-maker. Dad grew up believing that he had to be tough; resolute; firm; self-reliant; forceful. And, indeed, perhaps having gone through the Great Depression, World War II and the Korean War, men of that generation had to be tough. They were not taught how – or given much permission – to express those more tender, more nurturing human emotions.
But then, when my nephew Joseph – my father’s first grandchild – was born, I saw an amazing change in him. I first noticed it one day, when Joseph was just a few months old, lying on a big blanket on the living room floor. Dad – now Popa – lay down next to his baby grandson, and began gently stroking his head, patting his little back; cooing and cuddling Joseph, dare I say it, just like a mother hen.
I remember watching in awe and thinking at the time, “Who is this guy?!”
Since that time, I’ve seen Popa steadily grow in nurturing and soft-heartedness. Hugs are more routine with him now. Tears come more easily. Words like, “I love you,” are spoken more readily and more often.
Popa cast off those rigid, restrictive cultural stereotypes of `manhood’ simply because it has now become more important to him that his grandchildren, his children, his whole family knows how deeply – how fiercely – he loves them. In a sense he transcended those culturally imposed limitations to become more fully human.
“I have come so that you might have life—life in all its fullness,” Jesus told his disciples. [John 10:10b gnt].
That is the essence which we as the Church – the Bride of Christ – are called to embody.
In his wonderful little book The Good News from North Haven, Presbyterian Pastor Michael Lindvall shares a story about the time he found one of his members sitting alone in the sanctuary after a baptism Sunday. In Lindvall’s little northern Minnesota church, baptisms traditionally involved the grandparents and aunts and uncles all standing as the newest member of their family was held by the minister for the sacrament.
Through tears Pastor Lindvall’s parishioner, Mildred, told him that she had a new grandson and was thinking about having him baptized. And Pastor Michael told her to have Tina (the baby’s mother) and her husband give him a call to make the arrangements.
“Tina’s got no husband,” Mildred said. “She’s eighteen, was confirmed in this church just four years ago . . . she started seeing this older boy.” She wavered and then the rest of the story came spilling out. “She got pregnant and Jimmy (the father) joined the Air Force and she decided to keep the baby and she wants to have him baptized here, in her church, but she’s afraid to come talk to you.”
Now, in that time and place, a situation such as Tina’s raised eyebrows; in fact, it was controversial enough that the Session had a long discussion about the appropriateness of the whole matter before eventually approving the baptism. Ultimately Session did, indeed, approve it. But, the real problem, as everybody knew, would be when the minister got to that part where the whole family stands up and there wasn’t going to be anyone to do so; and then Tina’s situation would be out there in the open for everyone to see.
So the day arrived, the last Sunday in Advent, and the church was full. An elder announced, “Tina Cory presents her son for baptism.”
“Down the aisle she came,” remembered Michael, “nervously, shaking slightly with month old Jimmy in her arms, a blue pacifier stuck in his mouth. The scene hurt all right, every bit as much as we knew it would.”
“`Who stands with this child?’ Michael asked and Mildred, Tina’s mother, stood up all by herself. (Now here’s where this Mother’s Day story gets interesting) Michael writes, “I was just about to ask Tina the parents’ question when I became aware of movement in the pews. Angus McDowell had stood up in his blue serge suit, Minnie beside him. Then a couple other elders stood up, then the sixth grade Sunday School teacher stood up, then a new young couple in the church, and soon, before my incredulous eyes, the whole church was standing up with Tina and little Jimmy.”[iii]
On this Mother’s Day, we remember that God has a Heart like mother’s heart; one that not only feels the depths of Divine Love, but also acts fiercely, courageously, sacrificially, and wisely on behalf of all God’s children. Let it be so with us as well. In Jesus Christ.
[ii] J. Philip Newell, The Book of Creation: An Introduction to Celtic Spirituality, Paulist Press, 1999
[iii] Michael Lindvall, (as told by John Buchanan) The Good News from North Haven: A Year in the Life of a Small Town, Crossroad Pub., 2002, pp. 168 – 175.