For many women, Mother’s Day brings sadness. The infertile mourn the absence of children, others grieve the children they have lost through miscarriages, abortions, sickness, accidents and wars. Others, who had a difficult relationship with their mothers, or who were perhaps abandoned and abused, also have a hard time thinking of their mothers with gratitude. Or, they might have lost their mothers at a young age and grieve her absence. Women, who never found a spouse and thus missed the joys of motherhood, find this day difficult as well.
Does this mean we should not celebrate Mother’s Day? Of course not! However, there is a way of celebrating this day that pours salt into the wounds of those who are grieving. Unfortunately, I have found this to be very common. It is especially jarring when it happens during Mass. During the many years I was suffering from infertility, I tried to go to an early Mass on that day, hoping there would be no sermon; or I would find myself torn between stoically gritting my teeth through it or discretely leaving the building. Even once I had a child, the kinds of sermons I tended to hear still made me wince. Why? Because for some reason, pastors on that day often speak in highly sentimental ways about motherhood.
Sentimentality is always in poor taste, though that is not my reason for taking umbrage with it here. The problem is that it falsifies reality. It makes one look at the world through a soppy lens from which the Cross is excluded. When suffering is mentioned it is only for it to be idealized and make one still feel good about it somehow. The hero in second-rate, mushy literature, for example, might look all the more heroic for it, but his suffering has lost its sting to the reader. Though this may be a nice escape from reality (which explains its high selling-rate in books, music and movies), which one might indulge in now and then, it has no place in a sermon. Not only because the priest is not supposed to conjure up a world without suffering we can no longer find here since the Garden of Eden, but also because it is pastorally poisonous, especially for those who are suffering. The grieving are confronted with an unrealistic ideal, making them feel all the more lonely in their sorrow, since they are shut out from it.
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But doesn’t this kind of logic mean we cannot talk about anything anymore, given that every topic will in some shape or form be painful for someone out there? Wouldn’t this mean never speaking about the Holy Family since for those who have been raised in abusive and dysfunctional families, this might be a slap in the face? However, this is a completely different case. The Holy Family did not live in a sentimental world, nor did they romanticize their surroundings. We might be tempted to sentimentalize the stable, since we bracket out the rejection preceding it, as well as the poverty and difficulties surrounding Christ’s birth. Mary and Joseph were turned away in Bethlehem, then were persecuted by Herod, who massacred the Holy Innocents in Bethlehem, while they fled to Egypt. Theirs was not an easy life, and its earthly culmination ended on Golgotha. Even the Resurrection does not do away with the Cross – but a sentimental world does. Those who come to church with a heart full of grief can find solace in God’s love, in the examples of the Blessed Mother and all the saints. They too went through this valley of tears and the way their trials brought them closer to God can therefore be a consolation to others. God Himself became flesh to share our sufferings; nobody can therefore be closer to us in our sorrows than Him. Through the examples of Christ and the saints, we can experience a kind of love we missed and discover that we can carry our crosses with peace in our hearts, even if they remain painful. A sentimental lie, however, cannot bring any authentic comfort, and if it gives some relief through escapism, then it will only be of short duration.
Rather than trying to make us feel gratitude towards our mothers and those who have been like mothers to us by a clichéd depiction of motherhood, the sermon on that day should focus on a different kind of maternity. No matter what we have suffered as children and as mothers, as singles and as childless women, Mary is a mother to all of us. She went through the greatest suffering imaginable, seeing her son mocked and despised, and die a horrific death on the Cross. Her suffering can resonate with those suffering as mothers or simply those with broken hearts. Hers is a kind of motherhood which is timeless, for it is not limited by class, background and culture. The Virgin Mary was both spiritually as well as materially poor. Her life can therefore speak to all, since we are all broken and wounded. Of course, one can also sentimentalize her. No topic or model is immune to being romanticized, if one is sufficiently bent on doing so. But by focusing on her or other saints, one is less likely to fall into the trap of sentimentality.
Saints like St. Gianna Beretta Molla or Chiara Corbella speak to those who are suffering as mothers, for their motherhood became their Calvary. They heroically gave their lives for their children, while leaving a beloved husband and child(ren) behind. Their story transcends their time and culture, thus speaking to many people. Through their examples, one can grasp what motherhood is really about and why all women are called to it, whether they are single or married, childless or the mother of many: it is about the gift of self (which men are also called to live through spiritual fatherhood, at least). For most, this does not express itself in such an obviously heroic fashion. But if lived fully, it changes the everyday and turns the daily difficulties and sacrifices into expressions of this gift-of-self, which can be just as radical as that of Gianna or Chiara.
By showing their congregations that a radical gift-of-self is at the heart of motherhood, priests are more likely to arouse in the hearts of their parishioners real gratitude towards their mothers. Sentimentality is a brief, passing feeling; it is easily kindled, and falls to ashes just as easily. There is no real love behind it. Schmaltziness will not make me assist my mother through her declining years and painful sicknesses. But desiring to respond to her self-giving love by the same kind of love will; and if she failed to love me, then God’s love can inspire me to help her nonetheless. Through suffering, our hearts can be purified from their selfishness; real love can arise out of it. However, by denying the necessity of embracing the cross, sentimentality eliminates the very medicine we need to cure us from our hardness of heart. Ultimately, it is opposed to real love, just as it is opposed to authentic art. Let us not cheapen the Church’s rich currents of spirituality by sprinkling sentimentality on them. This syrupy sweetness will undermine their transforming force. It is tempting to deny the Cross by romanticizing it, but that won’t do anybody any good. The suffering need real food to nourish their souls, not marshmallow-spirituality, which will make them sick. Not a Hallmark, feel-good worldview, but Christ’s Cross and Resurrection is the answer. Hence Mother’s Day is the occasion to speak about the sword which pierces women’s hearts, about the Cross which we must all embrace so that it becomes a tree of life. Only radical love, the kind where one gives until it hurts will do, while sentimentality will at best be a Band-Aid covering a festering wound.