by Sr Anne Flanagan, FSP
This will be the sixth year I won’t be picking out a really special Mother’s Day card, or making that phone call to say thanks to the one whose love was first to welcome me to the world. Those words in the Creed, “I look forward to the resurrection of the dead,” mean a little more to me on Mother’s Day.
My mom had an incredible smile. Even at my sister’s wedding, the day after Dad’s funeral (he had insisted on his deathbed that we go forward with our plans), Mom smiled with genuine happiness over Jane’s improbable and providential meeting with her own Mr. Right. Looking at the pictures, it seems Mom’s smile on that day was even more radiant than on her own wedding, which had also been affected by a funeral. The mother of the bride had worn black, because her own mother had died and people had been pressuring the bride to do likewise since the date fell within two weeks of her grandmother’s death. So the wedding-day smile is there, but a bit strained.
In the rest of the photos we have, Mom’s smile is stunning.
Swiss theologian Hans Urs von Balthasar wrote about the tremendous importance of a mother’s smile. “In the mother’s smile, it dawns on [the child] that there is a world into which he is accepted and in which he is welcome, and it is in this primordial experience that he becomes aware of himself for the first time” (Mary: The Church at its Source). Having come into being “beneath the mother’s heart,” as St. John Paul II has said so beautifully, we find our existence affirmed in her smile.
A mother’s smile is life-giving.
That image reminds me of the miraculous healing St. Thérèse experienced as a piteously ill ten-year-old whose mother (St. Zelie) had long since died: “Finding no help on earth, poor little Thérèse had also turned toward the Mother of heaven, and prayed with all her heart that she take pity on her. All of a sudden the Blessed Virgin appeared beautiful to me…but what penetrated to the very depths of my soul was the ‘ravishing smile of the Blessed Virgin.’ At that instant, all my pain disappeared….” (Story of a Soul, Chapter 3).
A few weeks ago on Twitter I came across a theologian’s insight into the connection between motherhood and Mary that Catholics make in the month of May. Dr. Josh Madden (@DrJoshMadden), one of those scholarly worthies who reads the Greek New Testament as he sips his morning coffee, noticed something that we readers of English translations will never find. Here it comes. (And don’t you love that he put this on Twitter?)
In John’s narrative of the Crucifixion of Jesus, among the Seven Last Words of Jesus (Chapter 19, verses 25-27), the word mother is repeated three times. (Hint: threefold repetition means “pay attention.”)
Here is the English translation we use at Mass, with the verse numbers noted:
(25) Standing by the cross of Jesus were his mother and his mother’s sister, Mary the wife of Clopas, and Mary of Magdala. (26) When Jesus saw his mother and the disciple there whom he loved, he said to his mother, “Woman, behold, your son.” (27) Then he said to the disciple, “Behold, your mother.” And from that hour the disciple took her into his home.
In verse 25, the Greek says “his mother” (Jesus’). In the next verse (26), it reads “Jesus saw the mother” and “said to the mother, Woman…” In verse 27, speaking to John, Jesus says “your mother” (you in the singular, addressed to the beloved disciple).
Dr. Madden points out a real progression here: from his, Jesus’ own, mother, Mary becomes the universal mother (“the” mother; also the “woman,” like “the woman” of Genesis 2), so that she can become John’s mother, my mother, your mother.
Again we turn to Hans Urs von Balthasar. “After a mother has smiled at her child for many days and weeks, she finally receives her child’s smile in response. She has awakened love in the heart of her child” (Love Alone is Credible).
This Mother’s Day, I imagine my mom with her radiant smile directed, like a child’s, to the Heavenly Mother who awakened so much love in her, a love that she shared in turn with her children and grandchildren. Together we return the smile of Our Lady, the pained smile of acceptance with which she received the beloved disciple as her own son; the smile that mercifully healed the child Thérèse and gave her to the Church as the universal teacher of the “Little Way”… the smile with which she looks on each of us today.