One year, long ago, I received a birthday card from my parents, who sent greetings from “the people who made you possible.” They were sensible enough to know that rather than having created me, they had only enabled me—but “only” in a very weighty sense: I would not be here without their faithful marriage and their openness to life.
In this month of May, inhabitants of northern climes enjoy the annual rebirth of nature; Americans keep Mother’s Day; Christians celebrate the fifty days of Easter; and Catholics honor Mary, Mother of the Lord. We celebrate new life and motherhood, both natural and supernatural.
Although of course we were all “made possible” by both our parents, our mothers bore a special part: Our lives began within them. For our first nine months of life our mothers were our dwelling-place, our home. That unique relationship gives mothers a special claim on the devotion of their children.
My own mother used to exert that claim on voicemail—a technology she didn’t approve of and never learned properly to use. In her messages, first she would call my name a few times; then she would say, “I know you’re there—I heard your voice”; finally, in peremptory tones, she would declare, “THIS IS YOUR MOTHER!”
On May 31, Catholics celebrate the Visitation of the Blessed Virgin Mary, the story of Mary’s joyful visit to her cousin Elizabeth, the mother of John the Baptist (Luke 1: 39-56). John leaped for joy in his mother’s womb when he felt the presence of Jesus in Mary’s womb: The two mothers share their joy as they “introduce” their unborn sons to one another.
It was our mothers’ privilege not just to give us our first home in the world but to introduce us to the world. So, in sacred art, nativity scenes show Mary (with Joseph in the background) displaying the child Jesus to adoring shepherds, angels, wise men, even animals. And many depictions of Madonna and Child, in icons and statuary, show Mary presenting Jesus to the world.
The season of Easter this year extends from April 17 (Easter Day) until June 5 (Pentecost). The gospels give us no account of Jesus meeting his mother after his resurrection, because Mary’s perfect faith already embraced her son’s rising from the dead. When from the cross Jesus gave Mary his disciple John to be her son, he was really giving her a new identity as Mother of all Christians: Each of us who are united to Christ in baptism receive Mary as our mother.
At Pentecost, the climax of the Easter season, we meet Mary, gathered with the apostles in the room where Jesus had celebrated his last supper, praying for the gift he had promised: that the same Holy Spirit who had overshadowed her at the Annunciation, giving human life to God the Son, would now give the friends of Jesus a share in his own divine life, so as to empower them to bring the gospel of salvation—new life—to the world.