Tonight I had the pleasure and privilege to deliver the homily at the monthly liturgy of the Resurrection Community here in Cincinnati, an independent congregation led by Roman Catholic Womenpriests. Several people asked for a copy of my remarks so I’m providing it here, along with the reading texts. Advent is my favorite season, and today is my paternal grandmother’s birthday, which inspired the theme: Following the Maternal Line.
First Reading: “Mothers”
(excerpt from Motherprayer: The Pregnant Woman’s Companion, by Tikva Frymer-Kensky, p.76-78 )
Slight delicate woman, standing erect
three million years ago, mother in bone.
traced in our genes.
Borne in our cells, from mother to mother to mother,
her little organelles create the energy of life.
we carry your gift within us,
mother in protein, mother in cells.
Mother of all living.
Lady of autonomy and disobedience,
lady of culture and wisdom.
You ate the knowledge – and shared it.
We remember the one who created with God
mother of our triumph,
mother of our sorrows,
mother of life.
To Sarah, Rivka, Rachel, Leah,
servants of God and mothers of Israel,
women to whom God attended:
. . .
The destiny of Israel lies with you.
. . .
May God who answered you our holy mothers
answer also me.
. . .
Mothers in the book
mothers of us all.
To Hannah and Mary,
whose born was exalted,
who magnified God.
Whose songs ring forever.
The one who asked for a child,
the one who received one unbidden.
Two mothers who waited.
. . .
mothers of leaders
. . .
mothers of memory
. . .
mothers of song.
I sing to all the mothers of my myths,
to all the mothers of my past.
I respond to the mother of my genes,
and the mothers of my soul.
I remember the mothers-in-bone
and the mothers-in-song.
I am conscious of all who came before me,
and to all I say,
. . .
“With the mothers from the past,
let me be mother of tomorrow.”
Second Reading: From the Gospel of James
This text from the second century extends backward in time the infancy stories found in Matthew and Luke. It describes Mary’s father Joachim as a wealthy member of one of the Twelve Tribes of Israel. Joachim and his wife, Anna, were deeply grieved by their childlessness. The couple began to devote themselves to rigorous prayer and fasting, in isolation from one another and from society. Then their dreams are realized.
Joachim came with his flocks, and Anna stood at the gate, saw him coming, and ran and hung upon his neck, saying: Now know I that God has greatly blessed me: for behold the widow is no more a widow, and she that was childless shall conceive. Behold her months were fulfilled, and in the ninth month Anna brought forth. And she asked the midwife: what have I brought forth? A girl, came the reply. Anna said: My soul is magnified this day, and she laid herself down. And when the days were fulfilled, Anna purified herself and gave suck to the child and called her name Mary. Day by day Mary grew strong, and when she was six months old her mother stood her upon the ground to try if she would stand. She walked seven steps and returned to her mother’s breast. Anna caught her up, saying: As my God lives, you shall walk no more upon this ground until I bring you into the temple of God. Anna made a sanctuary in her bed chamber and suffered nothing common or unclean to pass through it.When the first year of the child was fulfilled, Joachim made a great feast and invited the priests and the scribes and the assembly of the elders and the whole people of Israel. Joachim brought Mary to the priests, and they blessed her, saying: Bless this child and give her a name renowned for ever among all generations. And all the people said: So be it, so be it. Amen. Then her mother caught her up into the sanctuary of her bed chamber and gave her suck.
Awakening to NPR’s Morning Edition last Tuesday, I heard a discussion about the 60th anniversary of Rosa Parks’ historic refusal to give up her seat on the bus. “Oh yes, I realized, it’s December 1. Yesterday was the feast of St. Andrew. Tomorrow will be the anniversary of the four churchwomen murdered in El Salvador, then St. Francis Xavier on Dec. 3.” All of these recollections came to me because of a children’s book that we read for many years in Advent when our kids were young, featuring a different holy person for each day. Fittingly, we anticipate the feast of the incarnation by remembering those who have prepared the way with their lives.
Today, December 9, is the birthday of my paternal grandmother, Alice Jennings Morse. She would be 115 years old. When I was invited to give the reflection this evening and to choose a theme and readings, this association was the first thing that popped to mind. Thus the theme chose me right from the start. Both of my grandmothers were important in my childhood because my mother died when I was only seven years old. At the time my dad’s mom, Alice, seemed rather remote and stern compared to my other grandma, who was more indulgent and fun, so it wasn’t until college that I came to appreciate Alice’s spunk and style.
Grandparents and other extended family often play significant roles in children’s lives even when there is no loss or other disruption. Yet when we say “holy family” in the Christian context the term typically refers only to Jesus, Mary and Joseph, a nuclear family. However, the reading tonight from the Gospel of James, a second century text that’s not part of the canonical bible, invites us to enter into the maternal lineage of Jesus. Anna, his grandmother, here is modeled on the figure of Hannah in the Hebrew scripture, who also pined for a child and begged for God’s help, and she became the mother of Samuel.
What’s so beautiful to me in this story is the joyful, unqualified welcome of a daughter by both parents. Such a contrast to other miracle birth stories in scripture that focus on male children, and to the terrible treatment today of women and girls all around the world. Before the baby is even born, Anna proclaims that she will bring either a girl or boy child as a gift to God. Her soul is magnified when the midwife tells her that she has a baby girl. Anna goes so far in adoration of Mary that she won’t even let her walk on the ground and creates a special sanctuary for her in the bedroom. This wish to put the baby on a pedestal, though, is balanced by the multiple times we’re told that Anna “gave suck to the child.” The bodily process of breastfeeding keeps the story grounded in real-life female experience.
Particularly poignant to me is the final line, at the conclusion of Mary’s first birthday party, where she has been blessed and feted by a large crowd at a great feast arranged by her father. It’s easy to visualize baby Mary here as a tired and overstimulated toddler, on the verge of meltdown. Like any other mother responding to her child, Anna scoops Mary up and takes her back to the bedroom to nurse and rest. It’s also easy to imagine Mary imitating Anna’s example and providing this same tender care to her own child in the future. “Attachment parenting” we call it today. But even more significantly – take a step further back and consider that perhaps Mary had the confidence and courage to trust her own intuition when she replied “yes” to the angel Gabriel, precisely because she had been so deeply loved and treasured as a child.
And consider the impact of multiple strong women being present to Jesus as he grew up, nurturing the person he became in adulthood. Medieval artists often featured Anna, Mary and Jesus together in sculpture and paintings, a form later called the St. Anne Triple. An even more fascinating image from late medieval art is called the “Holy Kinship” grouping. It comes from a popular legend of the time that gave rise to the story that Anna was married two more times after Mary’s father died, to Cleopas and Salome, and had a daughter with each, the women in the Gospels called Mary Cleopas and Mary Salome. Many medieval images show St. Anne as a matriarch among her three daughters and their children, with Mary beside her and Jesus held between them. Imagine that, a female community surrounding Jesus. I invite you in the coming week to do a Google image search of “Holy Kinship” and ponder the numerous and varied images that come up. Or choose one and spend time with it in contemplation. These images provide a welcome counter balance to paintings of the Last Supper. Unfortunately, following the Reformation the church wanted to de-emphasize these non-scriptural devotions which were seen as excessive and even superstitious. Something important was lost in this shift, I feel, something embodied and earthy and real.
With intention, we can reclaim the maternal line in all of its meanings. As suggested by the poem that was read first this evening, physical motherhood has real significance for all of us as human beings, evoked in the opening line by the figure of Lucy, an ancient ancestor unearthed in Africa, and then by unseen mother Eve, a reference to the discovery that part of human DNA is carried only by women. We hold each of these in our bodies, inherited from our own maternal ancestors. The poem goes on to remember our foremothers in faith – Eve, Sarah, Rachel, Leah, Hannah, Mary – each with her own contribution to our collective story.
We need to celebrate these links to the past – to remember our mothers in bone and mothers in song, but we mustn’t stop there. Our maternal lineage actually connects us with all of life through a universal motherhood that bridges past, present and future and transcends biology. As expressed in the poem:
I am conscious of all who came before me,
and to all I say,
With the mothers from the past,
Let me be mother of tomorrow.
Yes, let me be mother of tomorrow. Let me incarnate creativity, love, compassion and justice in a world that is desperate and traumatized. Like Rosa Parks did. Like the churchwomen in El Salvador did. Like any woman today who leads, who advocates, who serves, creates, or ministers. Like each of you here.
And just as we know that delivering a baby is not all sweetness and light, so too, bringing forth tomorrow is equally a difficult, risky labor, one that’s tough to do alone. In traditional childbirth, our pioneer foremothers of the 19th century spoke of “gathering their women” to provide support and practical help at this momentous time. Most were far from family out on the frontier and had to rely on their husbands and friends for assistance. Isn’t this just another form of kinship? To gather together around a need or passion? During this Advent season, I invite you to follow your own maternal line, and not just among blood relatives. Appreciate all the people – women and men — who are your companions, even if only now in spirit. We are all of woman born, so we all have a maternal line. In your mind’s eye, imagine a “holy kinship” portrait with you at the center. Who would be surrounding you? Who supports your work, your life? And then extend this vision further to include the next generation. Who looks to you as elder? Who are you mentoring? How can you bring greater intention to passing on the wisdom you’ve gained?
As the feast of the incarnation draws near, let us uplift maternity in all of its meanings, as a powerful, sacred and essential part of divine presence. In the words of Meister Eckhart, “We are all meant to be mothers of God because God is always needing to be born.”