Not often some churches get today’s lucky coincidence of John’s Good Shepherd gospel with Mother’s Day. Never mind that shepherds say the critters they tend are stupid and smelly. Mothers just smile quietly. And no odd aromas nor slow wits deter Jesus. He simply says, “I know them,” placing no blame.
Jesus often acts like mother and shepherd: one of the best examples is the post resurrection narrative where he invites the disciples who’ve been fishing, “come and have breakfast.” He knows his friends have been on a boat all night and are probably woozy with hunger and fatigue. He doesn’t rehash gory details of Peter’s betrayal. Instead, he puts friends at ease, concerned whether they’ve caught anything to eat. (Feeding the sheep must be a big part of the job. As is mom’s job description.)
Calling them “children,” he touches the sweet, needy, vulnerable self beneath the polished or cantankerous surface. He looks on them fondly: dripping, bedraggled, dazed with grief and sleeplessness, sloppy, dear. They thought he’d died, but there he is, calmly placing bread on the grill, asking for more fish. Why do we make him so distant, perfect, unreachable and glorified, when he is as close and natural in his serving role as a waitress who’s refilled the coffee 97 times this morning?
No one developed the idea of God’s motherhood like Julian of Norwich, fourteenth century mystic, until the end of the twentieth century. Far ahead of her time, she saw gender fluidity in God. “As truly as God is our Father, so truly God is our Mother.” (Ch. 59, Showings) By creating us, Julian said, Jesus is our true Mother. Second, Jesus takes on human nature, the motherhood of grace. Then, by doing the vigorous, natural work of mothers, Jesus keeps us alive: motherhood in action. It’s not sentimentalized motherhood, but hard sacrifice and daily service.
Julian concludes that the Second Person of the Trinity, generally known as the Son, has to be female. Why? Because it is a mother’s nature to break herself open in childbirth and pour out everything for love of the child being born through her.
One more connection: The shrine of Our Lady of Aranzazu, Spain was built on the site where Rodrigo de Balzategui, a Basque shepherd, found a statue of the Virgin Mary nestled in a thorny bush with a cowbell in 1469. Stunned, he asked, “You? Among the thorns?” Exactly where a shepherd might seek the lost, in brambly wild places. St. Ignatius visited the shrine in 1522 on his way to Montserrat. Could it have influenced his signature quest for “finding God in all things?”
Shepherds and fisherfolk and mystics and thorns: what a fitting bouquet for Mother’s Day!