Mother of God: No easy job

Today’s Feast of the Epiphany marks (in the Western Church) the revelation of God in human form–Jesus–to the world, through the symbol of the Magi, the Wise Men or Kings from the East who come to the manger bearing gifts. It is also the end of the Christmas season, and in a sense is the beginning of everything that came after–and that includes the next thirty years of Jesus’ life, about which we know almost nothing.
The chief problem with that, of course, is that we go directly from the sweet Nativity scenes (think of the happy delivery room fotos you send out in bleary-eyed joy after a birth) to the adult Jesus looking after his mother, going with her to the wedding at Cana and even bailing out the party by turning water into wine, his first recorded miracle. And what of dirty diapers and temper tantrums and, God help us, adolesence? Nada.
Mary spanking Jesus--Ernst.jpg And that contributes to the unreal sense of perfect domestic bliss, a saintly child growing up in a saintly family. Early on some tried to fill in the gaps with bizarre apocryphal “gospels” that had Jesus using comic book super powers for evil, killing his playmates and flying about. I’m not sure what the impetus for that vision was, but it inspired many later legends. Still, if Jesus wasn’t the neighborhood bully, was he a real little kid who needed a firm hand? The German surrealist Max Ernst memorably captured this idea in his 1926 painting, “The Blessed Virgin Chastises the Infant Jesus Before Three Witnesses.” It was shown in the Cologne cathedral and created a furor, and the archbishop publicly excommunicated Ernst.
Alas. But I was put in mind of that thought-provoking work (which was shown a few years ago at the Metroplitan Museum here in New York, from whence this image comes) by the Feast of the Epiphany and what it heralds, and this story in Books & Culture about our modern “sacralization” of family life. It is a review of a book by Leslie Leyland Fields, “Parenting Is Your Highest Calling: And Eight Other Myths That Trap Us in Worry and Guilt.”

She opens her newest book with an idyllic scene: her husband and six children grouped around her, reading from the Scriptures, ending their day in prayer. “But if I’m honest,” she writes, “I have to tell of other moments.” She then goes on to paint an entirely different picture, children fighting, tempers flaring, chaos. On one particularly difficult day, Leyland Fields writes, a nagging series of questions kept running through her mind: “Why wasn’t I a more joyful and loving mother? Why were my children so lacking? Why did I always feel like a failure? And how could I pray honestly about all this to God? He’s never been a mother or a parent!”


I can certainly testify to the enormous struggle to keep a sense of spiritual balance as a married father of a young child, as opposed to the wholly different struggles as a single man. I was likely more self-involved then, but moments and even stretches of spiritual immersion and practice came much more easily. Now I’m a scattered mess. Reviewer Elrena Evans gets at this sense of guilt:

In a time when many feel the family is increasingly under attack, it becomes all too easy to elevate family above the status God intended–what Carla Barnhill referred to in her 2004 book The Myth of the Perfect Mother: Rethinking the Spirituality of Women as “the cult of the family.” But when we are led to believe that parenting is indeed our highest calling, where does this leave us when we feel like parenting failures? “None of us–no matter the depth of our faith, the extent of our research, or the number of nieces and nephews we have–truly knew all that would be required of us when our first child came through our doors,” Leyland Fields writes. “No words, in fact, could ever ready a man and woman for the lifelong work of parenting.” So when parents encounter the inevitable difficulties, we turn elsewhere for help, looking outside ourselves for guidance. The first place we look is the Bible. But what does the Bible actually have to say about raising children?
This is a question to which most Christian parents probably feel they already know the answer, but Leyland Fields challenges us to look beyond our preconceptions, beyond what many Christian parenting experts have interpreted from Scripture, and return to the heart of God’s word ourselves–much as she did. It is through an in-depth examination of the character and actions of God as depicted in the Old Testament that Leyland Fields finds truths to counter the myths in her book.


My principal difficulty here is the template of the Old Testament God as parent, and God solely as Father. Not to engage the range of feminist debates on patriarchal images, but mothering is an integral part of God’s nature and the Church’s, as manifested by Mary. Indeed, the one example we have from the Gospels of Jesus as a child is in Luke, when the young Jesus ditches his family as they return from a visit to the Temple in Jerusalem. They only find him three days later–three days!–back kibbitzing with the Temple sages. Mary is beside herself, I think it’s safe to say: “Son, why have you done this to us? Your father and I have been looking for you with great anxiety.”
Now I wouldn’t have been that calm, but methinks Luke was cleaning it up a bit. In any case, here’s to Mary–and the virtually invsible Joseph–and parents everywhere.
PS: Also very much worth checking out is this NCR story by Karen O’Brien about an Irish tradition in which mothers get to kick back and relax on Jan 6:

I found my interest in Epiphany renewed when I got married. My husband, who was born and raised in Ireland, introduced me to Nollaig na Mban (pronounced noh-LIG’ na MAHN’), which in Irish literally translates “The Women’s Christmas.” It’s celebrated on Jan. 6, and it is a day when women kick back and rest after what can often be a grueling holiday season. The men of the house take over the domestic responsibilities and treat the women in their lives to a day of rest with tea and goodies. Many Irish women also go out with their girlfriends on this day for a last bit of holiday cheer, and increasingly, Irish charities are making an appeal to celebrate this day, when the three kings gave presents to the infant Jesus, by giving to the poor and disadvantaged.

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Astrid Flores

posted January 6, 2009 at 11:01 am

Just a few words to mention that for those of us that we were raised on Spanish culture today January 6th is the greatest day on Christmas time. Today we celebrate those Three Wise Men that followed a Star based on revelations knowing that a King was born to save us.
If you want more information on this regard, please search on Internet for Puerto Rico and watch the biggest celebration held today.

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David Gibson

posted January 6, 2009 at 2:11 pm

Astrid, very good point–my wife was just taking her Spanish class out to Lexington Ave for the Three Kings parade and sent back pictures of camels making there way down the Upper East Side. Fantastic!

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Paul in the GNW

posted January 6, 2009 at 3:06 pm

I think I get your overall point that we need to have some perspective about parenting. However, it sounds to me like you are going beyond that somewhat. Are you saying that the role of the family needs to be diminished in society? Or that as Catholics we should be more interested in our careers and less interested in our families?
As a struggling professional, work at home father of 3 I can tell you that there isn’t a lot of “personal fulfillment” in parenting. That doesn’t mean its not the most important thing I do every day, and in life. Unfortunately, I can’t figure out where Jesus (or any of the Saints) said I have a right to feel “fulfilled” as a person. Personally, that’s why I need God.
God Bless
Paul in the GNW

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John Wilson

posted January 6, 2009 at 6:55 pm

David, thanks for the link to Elrena Evans’ review of the book by Leslie Leyland Fields. Much appreciated. But the review didn’t appear in _Christianity Today_ magazine; it appeared on the website of _Books & Culture,_ a sister publication of _CT._

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David Gibson

posted January 6, 2009 at 8:15 pm

Whoops, thanks for the catch, John. Dumb oversight–will fix now.

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Connie Allen M.A.

posted January 7, 2009 at 1:36 pm

David, thanks for your thoughtful post about bringing our spiritual desires to parenting. In my experience, many parents have an idealistic, often unrealistic perspective of what family life should be like. Yet most struggle with the challenges and the unexpected events of parenting.
I have found that being a parent is a very human experience to which we can bring our internalized spiritual awareness and development. It is from this very human relationship that both parents and children can experience profound levels of joy and love with one another. First parents need to learn the human skills and principles to base this relationship on emotional and spiritual wholeness for both parent and child. Loving, trusting relationship is the key to the joy we all seek with our children.

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