I grew up in an Anglo-Catholic Church, which means that we belonged to the Episcopal Church, but there was also a special “Mary altar” set off to the side of the main altar in our church. I never saw anyone venerate it or use it, but it was always there. Many of my classmates belonged to the Roman Catholic Church, and so saints seemed somewhat like an ever-present mystery in my childhood. I knew they were there, but I was never really sure how they fit into my faith life.
My confusion extends to adulthood, quite honestly. A few years ago, my family went to a local Tex-Mex restaurant for dinner, and it was decorated like a lot of restaurants in Houston: dim lighting, mariachi music piped in through the sound system, endless chips delivered to the table, and some vaguely Latin American decor on the wall, that might be ordered from the same catalog where they ordered the plastic water pitchers and menu covers. At our table that night, the wall decor included a young woman who looked a lot like Mary, the Mother of Jesus, to me. Some kids (not mine) had “decorated” her further with some crayon marks across her face. I thought, “Same, girl,” feeling very much the tired mom that led us to eat out that night instead of cooking at home. I snapped a photo and put it up on facebook with the words, “Hail mother of mercy, full of crayon, Salve Crayola.” I thought it was funny, in the kind of way that I was relating to Mary as a tired, possibly worn-down mother. One of my family members did not think it was funny and immediately blocked me. Oops.
So, when reflecting on the life of Mary, I have to be careful. I understand that she is venerated above all women in some faith traditions. And I also understand that the Bible itself tells us that she left Jesus behind in the Temple. For A WHILE. Can these two things exist together? Sure, they can! And they have, for centuries. We can honor someone and also recognize their humanity. Or at least, I think we can. I hope we can. The traditions about Mary seem to lean more toward the veneration end and less toward the “same, girl” end. I understand. And yet, I still look for ways to relate.
My “salve crayola” came from trying to relate to Mary as a mother. As a mother of young kids myself, I’m almost always looking to relate to someone as a fellow parent. But lately, I understand more how people might be looking to Mary as a reflection of the love of God. These people might be looking for a mother’s love. And who doesn’t need more of a mother’s love?
My own mom lost her mother suddenly when my mom was just twelve years old. Having a twelve-year-old myself, I can’t even imagine the pain and the grief of that loss. I’ve lived with the knowledge of that loss my whole life, and I still can’t imagine how wrenching that must have been. When I was a child, I remember asking my mom whether she believed in ghosts. She was ambiguous in her answer, but her answer was still comforting. She said, “If there were ghosts, I wish my mother would haunt my house.” Why, we wanted to know. “Because she would leave it a little bit nicer. She’d probably make the beds, and fold some laundry, and maybe empty the dishwasher and get started on making supper.” This was revolutionary to my young mind. A ghost mom? Tidying up? It was comforting, if a bit strange.
And so, I can understand why people would crave the love of a mother, and look for it in the Mother of Jesus. For some of us, that’s tidying up and taking care. For others, it might be the kind of warm hug they haven’t felt since childhood. People who are traumatized or dying cry out for their mothers, even when they haven’t seen their mothers for years. It is completely understandable to seek out the love of God in the form of the love of a mother. And there’s nothing like the events of the past several months to make me think that we need more mom love than we ever have before.
This might be why people see images of the Virgin in toast or on mountainsides. They want so badly to feel the love of God through the love of his mother. They want so bad to venerate that love and honor the woman that brought us the love of God through Jesus.
Today on the Feast of the Blessed Virgin Mary, I offer gratitude for all of the motherly love that’s been shown to me, in the name of Jesus and otherwise. My own mom and mother-in-law love me like nobody else can, and my husband and I have been the grateful recipients of the “strong mom energy” that has filled our lives since we met, through a series of church women who took us under their wings in different ways. I’ll continue to look to Mary to relate, and to try to imagine the kind of love that says “yes” to mothering Jesus, even through the Cross.