Christopher Smith reflects on the importance of motherhood
Between last month’s column and this, I have had surgery to replace my painful, arthritic left hip with something more useful made of titanium. Having got to my fifties without ever having had a night in hospital, I was nervous of the prospect, and frankly terrified when I found myself losing blood from my colon a couple of weeks afterwards, resulting in three more nights in a different hospital. But I am on the mend, and glad to have had it done. I have felt very prayed-for, which has been hugely important, and people have been fantastic. I went into hospital only two days after welcoming my new priest-colleague, his arrival having been delayed through no fault of his own, so he found himself in at the deep end, and he and others have been immeasurably kind.
And present through all this has been my mother, who, in spite of being old enough to know better, came to care for me after both hospitalisations. Indeed, it was apparent early in the negotiations that she was coming, and there was no point in my resisting.
I mention this because it has been a useful reminder to me of the power of a mother’s love. There is, perhaps, nothing quite like it, and I have been reflecting that it is perhaps the most extraordinary mistake which post-war society has made, to downgrade the importance of motherhood, and treat it as nothing more than a nuisance that is unfairly inflicted on half the population, a problem to be circumnavigated rather than a privilege which the other half of the population cannot enjoy.
My predecessor as author of this column, Dr Kirk, would sometimes suggest that one of the unintended consequences of feminism was that no one person earning an average (or indeed significantly higher than average) income could afford to buy a house any more. It has come to be considered axiomatic in a modern society that women should go out to work, and so house prices have risen to meet the two-income threshold. And this is difficult territory through which to navigate if one is not to be accused of being a bigot who wants to chain women back to the kitchen sink, reminding them on the way of their subservient place in relation to their lords and masters. That is not what I am trying to say here, but I would agree with Dr Kirk that there have been unintended consequences from the absolute prioritisation of fulfilment through external work over fulfilment within the domestic arena. And perhaps the role that has taken the greatest drop in esteem has been motherhood.
And yet we are a society shaped by the Christian faith and, until recently, immersed in its narrative. Within the life of the Church, we know very well that maleness and femaleness are important not just because they are part of our God-given prelapsarian created nature, but also because they have distinct and special roles within the redemptive action of God. Indeed, as Advent progresses, we shall be more and more attuned to those roles.
In the house at Nazareth and in the stable at Bethlehem, the Blessed Virgin Mary was not, in a functionalist way, bringing a son into the world who would be open to forming a kind of double-act with the Son of God; she is, in fact, the Mother of God, in that she is the Mother from whom the Incarnate Son of God takes his human nature. The Word was made flesh and dwelt among us. So the relationship between that particular Mother and her Son was radically different from the relationship between any other mother and child in human history, but all the normal things of human motherhood still needed to be done for that fully human Jesus.
The long history of the Jewish race was the gradual preparation of a setting in which it would be possible and fitting for the Son of God to become incarnate in human nature in order that the human race might be recreated and renewed. Mary, then — Mary the Mother — is the climax of God’s working within the history of the human race. His choice of the Jewish people and the whole process of the Old Testament culminated in the birth of a girl of whom it could be said that God had chosen her to be the mother of his Son. ‘Our tainted nature’s solitary boast’, Wordsworth called her.
That, then, is the perspective from which we should view motherhood. The Son of God took male human nature to unite to his divine person, and he took it from a female person, in which her dignity, as a woman, is exalted ‘higher than the Cherubim’ and ‘more glorious than the Seraphim’. Perhaps, in half a century’s time, we will look back in horror at the devaluing of motherhood as a tedious and unjust nuisance, and begin to see it once again as a wonderful privilege, the power to bear within one’s body and bring into the world a new human being, a new person made in the image of God, and all of the instincts that go with motherhood rightly exercised will once again be celebrated by the community. Perhaps our future selves will be scandalised by the thought that we sent mothers back to earn more mortgage-money before our children were even weaned.
And it was Mary who stood at the foot of the cross with the beloved disciple and was given to be his mother too, the Mother of all of us who are the brothers and sisters of Jesus Christ in his Church, in the Body of Christ, nourished by the Body of Christ, so that we can say in a wholly different way from Adam, ‘The woman gave me, and I did eat’. How can we ever dismiss the importance of motherhood?