Tuesday, December 11, 2012

Mary, the Good Enough Mother

        They [mess] you up, your mum and dad,
        They may not mean to, but they do.
        They fill you with the faults they had
        And add some extra, just for you.

        ~ Philip Larkin

Christmas cards have mostly moved beyond the blond, blue-eyed Jesus, but the air-brushed, sentimental, sweeter than candy canes Holy Family is a tougher nut. I prefer a glum Philip Larkin quatrain, and a hammer for iconoclastic expression… to the glory of God.

I love Mary. To me, she’s an essential part of Christian identity, enormously attractive, exemplary, a model for us all. But the plaster statues and gooey pictures of Mary often pollute our vision of her and leave an ideal that is no ideal.

There’s a lot of pressure for parents not to make mistakes. We assume perfection, and that may be especially felt by moms. Aren’t they supposed to greet their darlings coming home from school with freshly baked cookies, while also being employee of the month and running the neighborhood association? It’s as likely as being virgin and mother.

Religion is often used to justify unsound expectations and stresses on us. Smash the conventional view of Mary as the perfect mother. She wasn’t. She was good enough.

The gospels give us only one picture of Jesus’ adolescent years, and it cracks the delusion of perpetual domestic bliss and tranquility. (Luke 2:4-51) Twelve-year-old Jesus left his parents without telling them and conversed with strangers in the Temple. When his parents noticed his absence, they became anxious and agitated.

Upon finding him, Mary laid on the guilt, “Why do you treat us this way?” She was angry, hurt. Has there ever been a parent of an adolescent who hasn’t felt that way? Jesus replied, “Didn’t you know I had to be about my father’s business?” Has there ever been an adolescent who hasn’t dismissed his parents with similar aloof contempt?

Mark’s gospel especially shows us not a devoted, supportive mother, but rather a mother-son relationship with its share of tension and ambivalence. When Jesus returned home, an excited mob gathered; there was lots of commotion. Jesus’ family went out to rescue Jesus, to take Jesus away by force because they thought that he was “beside himself,” that he was deranged. (Mk 3:19b-21)

Just after that scene, Jesus spoke to a crowd, and his mother and brothers came looking for him and began calling to him. Someone told Jesus that his mother and brothers were outside asking for him, and Jesus said, “Who are my mother and brothers? Here they are in front of me.” He ignored his family. (Mk 3:31-35)

God relies not upon perfect, ideal people, but upon unexpected, good enough people to be extraordinary – not only Mary, but also: Peter, who abandoned and denied Jesus, to be head of the church; Mary Magdalene, a disreputable, lonely woman, to discover the resurrection; Matthew, a despised tax collector, to be an apostle; Paul, who persecuted the church, to be its chief missionary to the nations. It’s the Magnificat: God doesn’t choose the mighty and obvious, but lifts up the lowly and meek.

Did Jesus think Mary was the perfect mother? The bible suggests not. Did Mary think Jesus was the perfect son? The bible suggests not. So when we look at our own lives, we too recognize that there’s the perfect, our ideal, and what we have. There’s the ideal Christmas, and the one we have. There’s the ideal lifestyle, and the one we have. There’s the ideal job, and the one we have. There’s the ideal house, or car, or hair, or education, and the one we have.

So, too, our relationships: there’s our ideal spouse or partner, and the one we have. There are our ideal parents, children, siblings, friends, and the ones we have. There’s our ideal church, president, neighbor, priest, savior, and the one we have.

The good news is that we don’t need our ideal, and indeed it’s probably not even what’s best for us. We experience grace not in what’s perfect, but in what’s good enough.

Rev. Lane Davenport is the rector at Ascension and St. Agnes in Washington, DC. 
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