Mothers and Martyrs
Today is Mother’s Day, and perhaps I should write a sweet tribute. I would be careful to remember that stories about mothers are more complicated than the Hallmark cards admit. There are absent mothers and alcoholic mothers and abusive mothers. There are women who wanted to be mothers but who could not conceive or who remain single. There are mothers who lost their pregnancies, sometimes multiple times. There are also women who are foster mothers, godmothers, step-mothers, or who just step up and play the role of mother. Some of us have lost their mothers and still grieve. My own mother is still with us, and I am grateful for her love. Mothers of all sorts, at their best, remind us of God: life-giving, unconditionally loving, never giving up on us, and making sacrifices for our well-being. It is not a surprise that the Bible has feminine and maternal imagery for God, even though we default to the masculine. We are diminished when we do that.
I want to take this reflection in a difficult direction. I want to talk about mothers and martyrdom. Tertullian famously noted that “the blood of the martyrs is the seed of the Church.” Martyrs, then, are a kind of mother, and I want to use this Mother’s Day to honor the martyrs of our time.
Today’s first reading focuses on the martyrdom of St. Stephen. He is portrayed as Christ-like in his death, saying as they stoned him, “Lord Jesus, receive my spirit” and “Lord, do not hold this sin against them.” It is such a beautiful story of faith that I almost forget the violence.
His story comes alive, though, when we think about the martyrs whose deaths prompted Rome to light up the Trevi Fountain in red last week. We are living in the age of martyrs, and the violence is real and gut-wrenching. How do we hold onto our faith in the midst of such evil?
One suggestion is to look at the stories of mothers. I have been reading recent reports about the atrocities that ISIS has committed against Christians (here is a link, but be advised, the stories are exceedingly gruesome and painful to read). One mother in Mosul, for example, endured holding her dying daughter in her arms after ISIS set the house on fire, a horrid modern day Pietà. The girl’s last words were, “Forgive them.”
We hear something similar from the surviving nun at one of Mother Teresa’s homes in Yemen. Many of you will remember that four Missionaries of Charity were murdered: Sisters Judith, Reginette, Anselm, and Marguerite. What is less known is that Sr. Sally, the superior, escaped detection. So here we have another type of mother, another Pietà, and another witness to the faith. In response to the violence, Sr. Sally “said to pray that their blood will be the seeds for peace in the Middle East and to stop the ISIS.”
I am somewhat desensitized to the martyrdom story of St. Stephen, and perhaps even to the vicious brutality of the Cross; but stories of these modern martyrs make it all very real. Martyrdom is brutal and bloody and sickening. The evil is palpable. Those who murder and rape do not even seem human or worthy of our prayers. How can we possibly forgive the perpetrators of such evils? Yet, Christ did, and St. Stephen did, and that dying girl in Mosul did.
My mother, far removed from the violence of terrorism, has her own wisdom to share. She would jump in between her sons if we began to fight, saying, “Hit me! When you’re hitting your brother it’s hurting me, so go ahead, hit me!” The fighting always stopped (and no one ever dared hit her!) We are all brothers and sisters. To pray for the conversion of those who are fighting us, torturing us, raping and killing us, is a supreme act of love for our God, who, like my mother, is “hurt” by our violence. To forgive is to recognize God’s love even for the terrorist and to participate in that love for the sake of all that God holds dear. Like a perfect Mother, God wants peace among all her children. The violence should not provoke us to hatred and vengeance. Martyrs, like mothers, give life. Their words are forgiveness and peace. Despite the violence, their witness is not to death, for they have “wash[ed] their robes so as to have the right to the tree of life.” Have you been a mother in this way, bringing life and love, forgiveness and peace into the world? Happy Mother’s Day!