Mary and the meaning of Mother’s Day

Jenny Uebbing

I have celebrated eight Mother’s Days so far, being on the receiving end of not quite a decade of handmade cards and hinted-at gift suggestions from “the kids” (but perhaps purchased by daddy). I struggled early on with the fact that Mother’s Day, of all days and for all its charms, was not actually a day off for mother. That I was still needed for nursing, for disciplinary action, for snuggles and for diaper changes. I expect the first couple decades of motherhood to hold to a similar pattern. “Mommy, we made this for you. And we trashed the kitchen in so doing.”

The moment I started to enjoy my motherhood more deeply was the same moment I began to realize that it wasn’t actually about me. And it is a lesson I learn anew, over and over again. There is a battle that rages in my heart from the moment I wake up to someone’s early morning cries until the final stretch of bedtime chaos. I can loosely plan for little respites of relaxation and prayer with a cup of coffee or 20 minutes of stillness if all the nap times line up accordingly, but I cannot rely on it. In short: my days are not my own, and my time belongs to others.

In giving life, I have given my own life away.

Mary had a radically different experience of motherhood from the rest of us, at least on the surface. Only one baby, and what an exemplar model at that! A saintly husband who silently supported her decisions (she was perfect, after all), a child who never so much as rolled his eyes at her in sass, and God’s assurance that her domestic toils would merit an unfathomable heavenly reward.

Mary didn’t have to worry “am I doing this right?” or “will I mess him up?” And I bet she never felt like fleeing the house at Nazareth when Joseph came back from the wood shop at night.

And yet. I look at Mary’s history-altering fiat at the Annunciation and I see that her surrender was not death by a thousand diapers. Her consent to surrender immediate, it was immense, and it was ongoing. That fervent and fruitful yes at the very outset of her motherhood would encompass the remainder of her life on earth and chart the course for her role in eternity.

And in her surrender, she opened up the course of human events to a divine interruption such as the universe had never seen.

Mary’s heart was sufficiently open to receive the full power of the Holy Spirit’s love, a force so powerful that from her virgin womb, God the child would come forth nine months later. That’s the kind of love the world’s greatest mom is made of.

And her life with Jesus, however steeped in divinity, was not without heartache and toil. I think of the anxiety of the three days she and Joseph searched for tween Jesus, having lost sight of Him on a family road trip to Jerusalem; of the radical trust and courage it took to launch Him into His ministry at Cana, knowing full well the road to Jerusalem would dead end at Calvary. And of course, it is impossible to think of Mary without calling to mind an image of Michelangelo’s Pieta, a crushed and grieving mother holding the battered, lifeless body of her beloved Son.

In short, Mary saw it all. And that makes her the perfect model for us all, no matter how few or how numerous our children, and no matter how great or how hidden our crosses.

This Mother’s Day, let’s ask Mary to show us the radical power of surrender, and the beauty of a heart fully available to live one’s vocation.

COMING UP: A caveat on the great Tom Wolfe

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When the great Tom Wolfe died on May 14 — he of the white suits, the spats, and the prose style as exuberant as his wardrobe — I, like millions of others, remembered the many moments of pleasure I had gotten from his work.

My Wolfe-addiction began on a cross-country flight in 1979, shortly after The Right Stuff was published. Always an airplane and space nut, I was fascinated by Wolfe’s re-creation of the culture of America’s test pilots and astronauts at the height of the Cold War. And there was that extraordinarily vivid writing. At one point I burst out laughing, scaring the daylights of the elderly lady sitting next to me but not daring to show her the passage — it must have involved Pancho Barnes’ Happy Bottom Riding Club, a saloon outside Edwards Air Force Base — that set me off.

After The Right Stuff got me going on Tom Wolfe, it was impossible to stop. The first half of Radical Chic and Mau-Mauing the Flak Catchers — Wolfe’s scathing account of a reception thrown for the Black Panthers by Leonard and Felicia Bernstein — remains the quintessential smack-down of political correctness among the 1% cultural elites. From Bauhaus to Our House explains why anyone with an aesthetic sense thinks something is seriously wrong with modernist architecture, and does so in a way that makes you laugh rather than cry.

Then there was Wolfe’s first novel, The Bonfire of the Vanities. One of its chapters, “The Masque of the Red Death,” takes its title from Edgar Allan Poe and with mordant humor dissects the vacuity of Manhattanites consumed (and in some cases destroyed) by their grotesque, over-the-top consumerism. I recently re-read that stunning set-piece and the thought occurred, as it had before, that it was a far more effective polemic against materialism than anything ever issued by the Pontifical Council for Justice and Peace. Bonfire was also brilliant in skewering the destructiveness of New York’s race hustlers, the obtuseness of a values-free media, and the fecklessness of too many politicians.

Asked once by monks who run a prestigious prep school what they might do to disabuse parents of the notion that their sons were doomed if they didn’t get into Harvard, Duke, Stanford, and the like, I suggested giving a copy of I Am Charlotte Simmons to the parents of every incoming senior. Wolfe’s fictional tale of life on elite American university campuses in the 21st century is a sometimes-jarring exercise in the social realism practiced (a bit less brutally) by Dickens and Balzac. But Charlotte Simmons, like Wolfe’s other fiction, has a serious moral core and an important cultural message. The young innocent, the brightest girl in town who makes it to an elite university, gets corrupted by stages: and her moral corruption is preceded by intellectual corruption — the class in which she’s taught that there’s really nothing properly called “the truth.”

I do have one post-mortem caveat to register about Tom Wolfe’s oeuvre, which takes me back to The Right Stuff (and while we’re on that subject again, forget the inane movie). The central figure in Wolfe’s tale of aeronautical daring-do is Chuck Yeager, the man who first broke the “sound barrier” in the Bell X-1, and did so with a couple of broken ribs, which he managed in flight with the aid of a sawed-off broom handle. Yeager was an extraordinary figure who never became a national celebrity because of the (absurd) news blackout surrounding the X-1 project, and Wolfe clearly wanted to pay tribute to him as an unsung American hero.

To do so, however, Tom Wolfe seemed to think he needed a foil, and he cast astronaut Gus Grissom in that role: “L’il Gus,” the Hoosier grit lampooned as a bumbler to make Yeager look even better. And that was a grave disservice to the memory of Virgil I. Grissom, who did not mess up the second Mercury space flight (Wolfe’s account notwithstanding), and who gave his life for his country in the launch pad fire that consumed Apollo 1 — which Grissom knew to be a deeply flawed spacecraft and had urged NASA to improve.

So now that Tom Wolfe and Gus Grissom have both crossed what Wolfe once called the Halusian Gulp, I hope these two American patriots are reconciled. Both had the right stuff.