Christmas centers on the Nativity, the birth of Christ who came into the world to save us from our sins. There would be no birth, of course, if there was no mother. As the poet Coventry Pattmore remarked, Mary is “Our only Saviour from an abstract Christ.” St. Augustine gives substance to this notion when he speaks of the Mother of God as having “given milk to our bread.”
If there is a secondary message that Christmas brings, yet one that is still intimately tied to the first, it is the motherhood of Mary which, in turn, serves as the model for all motherhood. This message takes on greater significance in an age in which motherhood, in many instances, is routinely eviscerated into a “choice.”
Hans Urs von Balthasar, one of the most insightful and prolific Catholic theologians of our time, opens Volume III of his Explorations in Theology with this beautiful and thought-provoking sentence: “The little child awakens to self-consciousness through being addressed by the love of his mother.”
It is precisely because of this moment of utterly unselfish love that the poet Samuel Taylor Coleridge referred to motherhood as “the holiest of all things.” In this image of the “I” of the child awakening in response to his mother’s loving smile, theology and poetry coincide.
Von Balthasar elaborates on this coincidence when he says that “the child does not ‘consider’ whether it will reply with love or nonlove to its mother’s inviting smile, for just as the sun entices forth green growth, so does love awaken love.”
God left to motherhood the task of being an indispensable aid in the final crossing from what appears to be mere life to that being’s vital awareness that he is far more than that — a subject, a conscious “I” who is destined to love and live in a wide and challenging world.
No true mother, intimately involved as she is in completing the creative order, can be an atheist.
This uncanny sensitivity a mother has for her infant has been noted by Henri Bergson, the distinguished philosopher and Nobel Laureate. In this book The Two Sources of Morality and Religion, he turns the reader’s attention to the special sensibility the mother has for her child, something that he believes is “supra-intellectual in that it becomes divination”:
“How many things rise up in the vision of a mother as she gazes in wonder upon her little one? Illusion perhaps! This is not certain. Let us rather say that reality is big with possibilities, and that the mother sees in the child not only what he will become, but also what he would become, if he were not obliged, at every step in his life, to choose and therefore to exclude.”
The mother, like Mary, divines in her child things that non-mothers apparently cannot. She is both a seer and a prophet. This special quality is as indispensable to the human race as is her ability to give birth. We know from various psychological reports about the debilitating effects the absence of a mother’s love has on infants.
The poet William Butler Yeats warned that “the rhetorician would deceive his neighbours, the sentimentalist himself.”
It would be sentimental to depict motherhood as all sweetness and light, devoid of burdens, dilemmas, worries and woes. Surely, nothing could be more unsentimental than the frequency of diaper changes. Let us not deny that a mother’s work can be, at times, drudgery.
But the fact that a mother’s work is difficult does not prevent her vision of the child from being poetic, and even theological. Nor does it deny that her office is monumental. The eternal implications of the diamond in her wedding ring still glimmer during diaper changes. The trials that Christ bore did not mar his mystical capacities. Unsentimentalism and mysticism are not only compatible, they are actually complementary.
Poetry, as we have stated, is situated between two deceptions. The tragic deception in the current era is the reduction of motherhood to a choice. This reduction is concurrent with the popular trend in literary criticism to deconstruct poetry into meaninglessness. At this juncture of human history, Mary, the model of motherhood, becomes all the more indispensable.
Donald DeMarco is adjunct professor at Holy Apostles College and Seminary in Cromwell, Connecticut.