By Fr. George H. Shalhoub
This Sunday, people throughout the United States and many places around the world will gather to honor their mothers. Many mothers will receive flowers, breakfast in bed, dinners and other acts of affection. For those who may be away from their children, they will have to be content with a phone call or a card in the mail. But, no matter how admirable this day has become for us in today’s society, honoring one’s mother should not be reduced to a one day activity, because mothers provide the foundation upon which we build our lives.
God gives every created human being a mother here on earth because He loves us. And even after our earthy mother precede us to Heaven, we still have our eternal mother (the Virgin Mary) who always keeps us in the shelter of her wings. As the late Mikhail Naimy stated, “Love is the law of God. You live that you may learn to love. You love that you may learn to live. No other lesson is required of Man.”
It is a well-known fact that Christian scripture states that the role of instructing children belongs to their father. (Eph. 6:4) However, for many of us, especially those of us who come from the Middle East, this duty belongs to the mother.
What do mothers contribute to their children? Since God is the founder of the first family and every family on the face of this earth, the family is obligated to worship, praise and honor Him and keep His commandments. Therefore, the mother and father are an image of God to their children, and each has a different function, role and duty within the life of the family.
St. Paul stated in Ephesians, Chapter 5, that women are to be like the Holy Church: blameless and without reproach; and husbands are to be the image of Christ: serving and giving of his life to the Church. We do not enter into a debate of who is more important, more educated or makes more money. No one is greater than the other. Both were crowned, in the Sacrament of Marriage, with glory and honor and are, in God’s eyes, equal in creation.
Women of faith, in Holy Scripture, are considered to be “pillars of support” (Proverbs 9:1) and “faithful”. (I Tim 3:11) This equality is well put in the mouth of St. Paul, when he said, “Nevertheless, in the Lord woman is not independent of man, nor is man independent of woman. For as woman came from man, so also man is born of woman. But everything comes from God.” (I Cor. 11:11-12) Since St. Paul gives this profound image of husbands and wives to be like Christ and the Church and the wife is to be like the Holy Church without distinction, Blessed Augustine once wrote, “He who does not have the church as his mother, does not have God as his father.”
I can only speak to what my own mother contributed to my life and the lives of my siblings. I vividly recall that by the age of two, any time the church bells rang to signal a service, my mother would take me to church with her. I confess that being so young, I didn’t understand what the worship was all about, and despite being disruptive during the service, as young children are apt to be, I still felt secure and happy within the boundaries of the church. This experience left a longstanding impression on me that caused me to learn a lifetime of lessons as a son, a young man, a husband, a father, a grandfather and of course as a priest.
The lessons instilled by a mother are those emphasized in 2 Peter that says that the seeds which are implanted in our hearts, minds and souls can produce virtues or thorns. A mother’s words can either heal or scar her children. They can encourage or defeat. They can raise up, or put down. These virtues, whether good or bad determine what a child will be like as an adult, as unique individuals. We are a reflection of our parents’ attitudes, yet we bear on ourselves God’s image and likeness. Though we inherit genetics from our parents, we are original and individual in God’s eyes. All the schooling we acquire and the careers we undertake hinge on the lessons we received from our mother. She is the scale which balances life’s experiences. We either love or hate, are generous or greedy based on lessons we learn as children. Even though my mother was illiterate, she taught me the prayers of the Church which she knew by heart. I could summarize what the gospel teaches, what St. Peter insists makes a good life, and about being dedicated as a Christian based on things I learned from my mother, not through her words, but through her actions. She personified this idea from 2 Peter 1:5 “But also, for this very reason, giving all diligence, add to your faith virtue, to virtue knowledge, to knowledge self-control, to self-control perseverance, to perseverance godliness, godliness to brotherly kindness, and to brotherly kindness love.”
The calling of mothers is of self-giving for the sake of the family. St. John Chrysostom states, “A mother experiences more than one death, even though she herself will only die once. She fears for her husband; she fears for her children; again she fears for the women and children who belong to her children....For each of these, whether for loss of possessions, bodily illness or undesired misfortune, she mourns and grieves no less than those who suffer.” Our image of mothers in the Holy Church is the Virgin Mary. John of Damascus describes her calling to motherhood, “O Mother of God! If I place my confidence in thee, I shall be saved; if I am under thy protection, I have nothing to fear; for the fact of being thy client is a possession of a certainty of salvation which God grants only to those whom He intends to save.” This should be the mission of every mother.
The Bible, and especially Proverbs 6:20-23, advises us in this way, "My child, keep your father's command and do not forsake your mother's teaching. Bind them always on your heart; fasten them around your neck. When you walk, they will guide you; when you sleep, they will watch over you; when you awake, they will speak to you. For this command is a lamp, this teaching is a light and correction and instruction are the way to life." An old Arab proverb says that "Heaven bows before a mother's feet. The Book of Proverbs 31:1 also states, "Who can find a virtuous mother, she is more precious than jewels." As Henry Ward Beecher stated, "The mother's heart is the child's first school room."
Today, we are in need of the Church to raise women of faith. Who would take a bullet for you? Or catch a hand grenade? Or step in front of a train for you? Or pray that God will take her instead of her child, but a mother? “A mother’s love is something that no one can explain. It is made of deep devotion and of sacrifice and pain. It is endless and unselfish and enduring come what may, for nothing can destroy it or take that love away.” (Helen Steiner Rice)
As an adult, a man learns how to love his wife and children through the way he loves his mother and the way his mother loves him. A woman learns from the sacrifices of her mother. No one can teach decency, character and dignity but a mother. As children, our bodies are nourished through our mother’s milk and as we grow, our souls are nourished in the same way through the kindness, compassion and generosity she feeds us.
We are dealing with a new reality of moms and dads both working to meet life’s demands and needs. The question to be asked, “Who can teach decency and respect, form character and dignity, but a mother?
A virtuous mother is so needed to instill in her children the faith we received from the saints. As Gibran Kahlil Gibran wrote, “The mother is everything - she is our consolation in sorrow, our hope in misery, and our strength in weakness. She is the source of love, mercy, sympathy, and forgiveness. He who loses his mother loses a pure soul who blesses and guards him constantly.”
On this Mother’s Day, we salute all mothers and those who are in heaven, we ask for their intercession. For those still on earth, we pray that God gives them a long and healthy life. If your mother has blessed you much, thank her. And if your mother has failed you, the best Mother’s Day gift you can give is to forgive her.
Father George Shalhoub is priest at The Antiochian Orthodox Basilica of St. Mary in Livonia, Michigan.