Articles by Michael Fallon

Mother's Day

In 1988, Pope John-Paul II issued an apostolic letter on the dignity and vocation of women [Mulieris Dignitatem]. I enjoyed reading it again in preparing this homily for Mother's Day.

We human beings, men and women, experience love in many wonderful ways, but there is no bonding that is so central to our being as that which we have with our mother. It is no surprise that the name given to woman in the Book of Genesis is 'Eve', meaning 'the mother of life'(Genesis 3:20). When something goes wrong with our relationship with our mother, we experience intense dislocation and suffering. When our relationship is experienced as one of love, we are being nurtured at the deepest core of our being. The mysterious bonding that takes place within our mother's womb and in the early and most vulnerable and formative years of our life is indeed sacred.

When we think of Mother's Day, naturally we think of our own physical mothers - and so it should be. The Pope, however, makes a beautiful point, it seems to me, when he observes that human beings are a harmony of the physical and the spiritual, and that physical motherhood is an expression of spiritual motherhood which he speaks of as that special way of loving that is feminine - a way of loving that is nurtured by a spiritual communion with Christ, the bridegroom of the soul, and that bears fruit in that special way of nurturing others that belongs to a woman as a woman (see MD n.21).

Every woman, by virtue of the fact that she is a woman, is called to be a mother, spiritually if not physically. Every woman is graced in a special way to bear, to nurture and to give life. We have all experienced this gift from our sisters, our female teachers, nurses and friends. And so today, as a community, we pay honour to all women.

The Vatican Council reminded us that we are made in the image and likeness of God. Since God is love, and since creation is essentially a gift of love, we are reminded that: (in the words of the Constitution on the Church in the Modern World, Dec 1965): 'human beings cannot fully find themselves except through a sincere gift of self'(GS n.24). This is one of the central themes of the Pope's letter: 'To say that we are created in the image and likeness of God is to say that we are called to exist for others; we are called to become a gift'(MD n.7).

This is true for all of us, men and women, but today we are focusing on that special way of being in the image of God and of giving oneself to others as a gift which makes a woman a woman. Without in any way suggesting that the following statement is not true of men, the Pope rightly states that: 'Woman can find herself only by giving love to others'(MD n.30).

The Old Testament has some especially beautiful passages in which God is spoken of using feminine imagery.

'The Lord is kind and full of compassion, slow to anger and abounding in love. How good is the Lord to all, compassionate to all his creatures'(Psalm 145:8-9).

The word translated 'compassionate'(Hebrew rahamim) comes from the word for the womb (Hebrew rehem). The Psalmist sees God as a mother who holds the whole of creation in her womb. Incidentally, Jesus uses the same word when he tells us to be compassionate as God is compassionate (Luke 6:36).

The Pope refers to other passages in which God is spoken of as our Mother (MD n.8):

'Zion said, 'The Lord has forsaken me, my Lord has forgotten me.' Can a woman forget her child at the breast, or show no compassion for the child of her womb? Even these may forget, yet I will not forget you'(Isaiah 49:14-15).

In the Apocalypse, the Church is likened to a Bride. Elsewhere in the same book, the Church is likened to a Wife, enjoying the intimacy of divine love, and to a Mother bearing children for God. The prophet Isaiah speaks of Jerusalem as a mother nurturing God's children at her breast, carrying them in her arms and rocking them on her knees. In doing so Jerusalem, like the Church today, is acting in the image of God. Isaiah goes on to speak for God, saying: 'As a mother comforts her child, so I will comfort you; you shall be comforted in Jerusalem'(Isaiah 66:10-13).

Because of the profound communion between a mother and her child, a woman experiences intense suffering when, for whatever reason, her child suffers, or her relationship with her child is broken. The Pope writes:

'As we contemplate the Mother whose heart 'a sword has pierced'(Luke 2:35), our thoughts go to all the suffering women in the world, suffering either physically or morally. In this suffering a woman's sensitivity plays a role, even though she often succeeds in resisting suffering better than a man. It is difficult to enumerate these sufferings; it is difficult to call them all by name. We may recall her maternal care for her children, especially when they fall sick or fall into bad ways; the death of those most dear to her; the loneliness of mothers forgotten by their grown up children; the loneliness of widows; the sufferings of women who struggle alone to make a living; the women who have been wronged or exploited. Then there are the sufferings of consciences as a result of sin, which has wounded the woman's human or maternal dignity: the wounds of consciences which do not heal easily. With these sufferings too we must place ourselves at the foot of the Cross'(MD n.19).

Isaiah speaks of God suffering just such pain: 'I will cry out like a woman in labour, I will gasp and pant'(Isaiah 42:14). He goes on to remind us that God, our Mother, will never forsake us:
'I will lead the blind by a road they do not know, by paths they have not known I will guide them. I will turn the darkness before them into light, the rough places into level ground … and I will not forsake them'(Isaiah 42:15-16). 'Listen to me, you who have been carried by me from your birth, carried from the womb … even when you turn grey I will carry you. I have made, and I will bear; I will carry and I will save'(Isaiah 46:3-4).

Christians have always had a tender devotion to Mary, for we know from our own experience, the rich relationship she must have had with her Son. Like us he was 'born of a woman'(Galatians 4:4). No doubt it was this special love which he had for his mother that is reflected in the beautiful image which Jesus uses when Nicodemus comes to him by night, puzzled as to what he had to do (John 3). Jesus tells him that he has to let God's nurturing Spirit envelop him, carry him, and give birth to him. In other words he has to accept God as his Mother and allow God's love-Spirit to give him life. He must be born of God.

If as disciples of Jesus we are to come to a proper Christian appreciation of the beauty and wonder and sacredness of what it means to be woman, it is essential that we reflect on God as our Mother. Jesus expresses something of the motherly feeling of God when, weeping over the city, he likens himself to a mother bird longing to gather her chicks under her wing, only to be rejected (Luke 13:34). Julian of Norwich, a woman English mystic of the 14th century, frequently refers to God, and also to Jesus, as her Mother. However, such an image is rare, because, while there are aspects of the masculine and feminine in each of us, Jesus is male. Christian tradition has found it easier to look to Mary, a woman , and the one presented to us in the Newer Testament as the model of the perfect disciple.

The Pope takes words from her Magnificat 'He has done great things for me'(Luke 1:49), and sees in them: 'the discovery of all the richness and personal resources of what it mean to be a woman just as God wanted her to be, a person who discovers herself by means of a sincere gift of self'(MD n.11).

On Mother's Day, I would like to reflect with you especially on the scene where Mary becomes a mother, for it has something beautiful to say of every mother. As the Pope says: 'Mary's words at the Annunciation - 'Let it be to me according to your word' - signify the woman's readiness for the gift of self and her readiness to accept a new life'(MD n.18).

The scene as painted by Luke is meant to speak to all disciples, but especially to all mothers. As mentioned earlier, there is a special way in which women, in their femininity, express the divine. For this reason all women are called to be mothers, in spirit if not in physical fact. And so the scene of the Annunciation is meant to speak to all women. Notice that it is God who makes the approach. God assures Mary that she is full of grace and very much loved. 'Hail Mary, full of grace, the Lord is with you'. How can we listen to God, how can we experience the stillness needed to pray if we are not assured, deep in our heart, that we are loved? If a woman is to give motherly nurturing to her children or to those in her care, she needs to know and experience being loved? The Pope reminds us of this obvious truth: 'The person must be loved, since love alone corresponds to what the person is'(MD n.29).

When Jesus asks us to love one another as he loves us, this includes a request that we love the women that are in our lives, and love them as in a special way bearers and nurturers of life. For a woman to fulfil her vocation as a giver of life, she needs to be loved. So God comes to Mary and tells her that he is truly with her, filling her with love.

When she asks how she is to have a child, God assures her that he will come down upon her and that he will draw her into his embrace and breathe the breath (the Spirit) of his life into her. This is why the child that she will conceive out of this love will be holy and be God's Son. In a wonderful way this is true of every conception. It is God's love, expressed in different ways by the husband and the wife that accounts for the miracle of life. All loving is meant to be a sacrament. It is the most sacred thing we can do because God is love and whenever we truly love, we are acting in the image of God. That is why, in the Christian tradition, marriage is celebrated as a sacrament. Again quoting the Pope: 'Man and woman, created as a 'unity of the two' in their common humanity, are called to live in a communion of love, and in this way to mirror in the world the communion of love that is God, through which the Three Persons love each other in the intimate mystery of the one divine life'(MD n.7).

As we celebrate Mother's Day let us all examine carefully the way we relate to our mothers, and to all the women in our life. The Pope recognises the obvious historical fact of the domination of women by men. He sees this, as does the Bible, as sinful. The struggle of grace against this sin is by no means over. One of the effects of sin is described in the Book of Genesis when God says to Eve: 'Your desire shall be for your husband, and he shall rule over you'(Genesis 3:16). Because of the sin that is part of our human condition and that is handed on through the defects in our cultures, women can be trapped in their desires, and can be pressured into accepting male domination. This is wrong.

The Pope adds: 'The woman cannot become the 'object' of 'domination' and male 'possession''.
He then quotes the words from Genesis which we have just mentioned - 'Your desire shall be for your husband, and he shall rule over you'(Genesis 3:16) - and declares: 'These words of Genesis refer indirectly to the situations in which the woman remains disadvantaged or discriminated against by the fact of being a woman'(MD n.10).

The Pope also reminds us of the ways in which Paul's words 'Wives be subject to your husbands'(Ephesians 5:22) have been abused. He reminds us that in the Letter to the Ephesians, these words are understood: 'in terms of mutual subjection out of reverence for Christ (cf Ephesians 5:21). Whereas in the relationship between Christ and the Church the subjection is only on the part of the Church, in the relationship between husband and wife the 'subjection' is not one-sided but mutual'(MD n.24).

The sin of male domination is so much part of many cultures that we can easily overlook it. Let us men acknowledge our sin, and today let us pray for the grace to deepen our respect for the feminine and to treat the women in our lives with the sacred love which they deserve, created as they are in the image of God.

I conclude with the words of the Holy Father:

'The Church gives thanks for each and every woman: for mothers, for sisters, for wives; for women consecrated to God in virginity; for women dedicated to the many human beings who await the gratuitous love of another person; for women who watch over the human persons in the family, which is the fundamental sign of the human community; for women who work professionally, and who at times are burdened by a great social responsibility; for 'perfect' women and for 'weak' women - for all women as they have come forth from the heart of God in all the beauty and richness of their femininity; as they have been embraced by his eternal love; as, together with men, they are pilgrims on this earth, which is the temporal 'homeland' of all people and is transformed sometimes into a 'valley of tears'; as they assume, together with men, a common responsibility for the destiny of humanity according to daily necessities and according to that definitive destiny which the human family has in God himself, in the bosom of the ineffable Trinity. The Church gives thanks for all the manifestations of the feminine 'genius' which have appeared in the course of history, in the midst of all peoples and nations. She gives thanks for all the charisms which the Holy Spirit distributes to women in the history of the People of God, for all the victories which she owes to their faith, hope and charity: she gives thanks for all the fruits of feminine holiness'(MD n.31).

As a postscript we might reflect on Pope John Paul's appeal to women towards the end of his Encyclical 'The Gospel of Life':

'In transforming culture so that it supports life, women occupy a place in thought and action which is unique and decisive. It depends on them to promote a 'new feminism' which rejects the temptation of imitating models of 'male domination', in order to acknowledge and affirm the true genius of women in every aspect of the life of society, and overcome all discrimination, violence and exploitation. Making my own the words of the concluding message of the Second Vatican Council, I address to women this urgent appeal: 'Reconcile people with life' (8th December 1965). You are called to bear witness to the genuine meaning of human love, of that gift of self and of that acceptance of others which are present in a special way in the relationship of husband and wife, but which ought also to be at the heart of every other interpersonal relationship. The experience of motherhood makes you acutely aware of the other person and, at the same time, confers on you a particular task: 'Motherhood involves a special communion with the mystery of life, as it develops in the woman's womb … This unique contact with the new human being developing within her gives rise to an attitude towards human beings - not only towards her own child, but towards every human being - which profoundly marks the woman's personality'(MD n.18). A mother welcomes and carries within herself another human being, enabling it to grow inside her, giving it room, respecting it in its otherness. Women first learn and then teach others that human relations are authentic if they are open to accepting the other person: a person who is recognised and loved because of the dignity which comes from being a person and not from other considerations, such as usefulness, strength, intelligence, beauty or health. This is the fundamental contribution which the Church and humanity expect from women. And it is the indispensable pre-requisite for an authentic cultural change'(Evangelium Vitae, 1995, n.99).