The Christian Vision of Motherhood24 August 2023
(Homily given at the Antiochian Orthodox Christian Archdiocese Convention in Phoenix Arizona – Wednesday July 26, 2023)
In the name of the Father, and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.
Your Beatitude, our Father and Patriarch JOHN, Your Eminence Metropolitan Saba,
Your Graces, Reverend Clergy, Brothers and Sisters in Christ.
This evening we celebrate the feast of Saint Paraskevi the Righteous martyr of Rome. What is interesting in her life is that the synaxarion emphasizes the role of her parents, her father Agathon and especially her mother Politeia, and how they raised her in piety and care. Yesterday, we celebrated the dormition feast of another parent, Saint Anna the Righteous who, with much prayer and devotion, gave birth to the Most-Holy Theotokos and Ever-Virgin Mary. How can we understand the role of Christian mothers today? Is their role about physical upbringing only? Into what image do mothers see their children born today?
Being a parish priest for the last 20 years, there is one motherhood story that struck me. I was looking at the parish’s baptismal records from the early last century, and I saw a name repeatedly mentioned as a godmother. I became interested to know why this woman became the godmother of many in Koura, Lebanon. After a long search, I discovered her story. Her name is mama Helen Dib. Her story goes back to the times of WWI, its famine and pandemic. In these harsh times her two sons were infected and died consecutively in 1918. She buried them in a well near their house. After this terrible incident, her husband decided that they should travel to the US in order to reconnect with their relatives working in the mines of Pittsburgh and to settle there. After two months of travelling by ship, Helen’s husband fell sick and died. Helen arrived alone to Ellis Island. After inspecting her papers, the immigration officers refused to give her an entry permit. They told her that her papers were not complete. They asked her to return to Lebanon. So, the poor woman returned to her village with nothing, no husband, no children, no money to make ends meet. But she had more than all these. She had a treasure which was given to her by her parents: her faith in Christ. She had an unconquerable hope and undying faith in the Risen Christ. So, she kneeled and prayed, with sobbing, asking God to help her out of her deep suffering. Her pain made her closer than ever to God. A few days later, a sudden opportunity opened up for her. She was asked by a relative if she would be willing to study midwifery at the American University of Beirut. She consented and worked hard to complete her studies in Beirut. When she returned to her village, she was the only professional midwife in the area. Being a very famous midwife, Helen did not limit her role to physical help or psychological support of pregnant women. She thought that begetting is not just physical, but also spiritual. Many saw her piety and love of Christ, and asked her to be a godmother for their children. So the devout Helen lost her two sons, but at the end of her life she had over fifty children. She was living in hell, but never despaired. In faith, she moved from death to life. Her motherhood was resurrectional.
This remarkable testimony of Helen’s life shows that motherhood is not just about physically and emotionally begetting children. Saint Sophrony of Essex mentions that there are two kinds of birth: one natural, according to the flesh, and another spiritual, according to the spirit, as Christ explained to Nicodemus. Saint Sophrony rightly clarifies that vision of motherhood: it “is not a matter of giving birth to beings for historical reality, but of giving birth to persons for the reality that transcends history, that they may enter Paradise.”
We are used to seeing motherhood as nurturing the body and emotions. In Christianity, motherhood is about nurturing the body and soul, so that Christ is conceived in children through faith (Gal. 3:26). In Psychology, the mother is the most essential figure of attachment in a child’s life, but also there is something that we need to remember: this natural attachment is for children to grow not only physically or emotionally, but also spiritually.
Indeed, motherhood is a uniquely essential vocation, in which a mother is many times a martyr, many times an ascetic, many times a suffering servant, and many times a teacher of the faith. She carries this awesome responsibility of bringing a new life into the world, nurturing, and guiding her child towards the Kingdom of God. Despite having all the crashing waves of life breaking upon her shore, her life ought to be a martyric life of unconditional love, invincible hope, and undying faith!
Nowadays, many women, however, lost this awareness, this vision of spiritual motherhood, of giving birth according to the spirit. They are content to give birth primarily according to the flesh, and seeing their children as images of them, and not of God. Deep down they see their child as an object with which to amuse themselves rather than as God’s creature that will become a full-fledged and balanced human being who will have a give-and-take directly with God. As a result, we have many children who are suffering because they fail to believe that they are images of the Eternal God. The vision of postmodernism muses on the idea that humans are born “in the image and likeness of the universe…” with no horizon, no outlook on afterlife… This mistaken vision leads many to grow up in an existential void leading to despair. Many suffer from the loss of faith in the certainty of the Resurrection. They perceive physical death as final, as annihilation. This did not happen to Helen.
We are challenged in this age of consumerism to find ways to explain and convince mothers to give birth to children, “That Christ may dwell in their hearts through faith“ (Eph. 3:17); to see their children as truly icons of Christ and places for the Divine Presence and Theophany. They ought to be spiritual mothers teaching their children how to grow on the likeness of God. By their selfless and devout example, they need to show the world that there is another life, a life in the Spirit, a spiritual life, with unconquered faith and hope in Christ and in the life eternal. As Saint Porphyrios of Kavsokalyvia asserts: “A child needs to be surrounded by people who pray and pray ardently.” And St. Sophrony explains: “If the mother Prays during the child’s conception, pregnancy and birth, she gives it Spiritual birth as well as physical birth – she gives birth to a Spiritual being.”
Beloved mothers, you are uniquely called today to take up your equal-to-the-Apostles ministry, to make disciples of Christ, perform the Christian upbringing of your children and grandchildren, reproducing the Orthodox Christian faith from generation to generation. May St. Paraskevi and St. Anna illumine all mothers to see their children as images of Divine Beauty and Glory. May the Theotokos be our model of motherhood. Amen.