Early one morning 500 years ago, a Mexican Indian encountered a woman on his way home from church.
Motherhood is not easy. I watch my wife with our children and am simply amazed. She holds them on her lap for hours on end, nurses their wounds, and reads lengthy books while they crowd around. She gently traces the nape of our baby’s neck as she nurses, lost in the wonder of this little life in her arms.
I see the beauty of motherhood, but also the suffering. How my wife absorbs the tears of our son on the shoulder of her sweater as he recovers and skips away to play in the dirt. How they youngest ones demand her sleep, patience, and constant physical presence. She is a gently beating heart that smooths out the passage of time, as if the heartbeat is a medicine to ward away the reality that eventually children grow up and move on. For our kids, this notion has never crossed their mind, so deeply are they swaddled in their mother’s mantle. I see in all of this that even the sacrifices of motherhood are beautiful.
This is all reflected in the motherhood of Mary, to whom even non-religious people are often drawn. And one of the loveliest events to see this kind of motherhood in action is the strange and remarkable events that began on December 9, 1531, when a Mexican villager named Juan Diego walked home from church near what is now Mexico City. On a hill called Tepeyac a woman appeared and spoke to him, describing herself as the Mother of God. Over the course of the next few days, she continued to speak with Juan and give him instructions. Her words and actions unveil a depth of insight into the nature of motherhood and we can draw timeless lessons from them …
Failure doesn’t mean you’re a bad mother
Mary appeared to Juan Diego for a reason. She wanted to have a church built, so she sent him to the local bishop to gain his support. Juan goes, tells his story to the bishop, and asks for a new church, but the bishop says no. Disappointed, Juan returns, admits failure, and claims he can’t do it because he’s only a “beast of burden.” He begs her not to send him again. Mary accepts the failure in stride and sends him again anyway. Eventually, the bishop is provided with a sign – the miraculous image of the lady, called Our Lady of Guadalupe, mysteriously appears on Juan’s cloak. And with that, Juan, and Mary succeed. Millions of people still today visit the Cathedral in Mexico City to lay eyes on the incredible image, which mystifies scientists to this day.
When I was a child, my mother would tell me not to do something. I would nod my head in assent, and then … immediately do it. I always regretted it later, but my mother always saw failure as an opportunity for me to grow and eventually I got it right. Children make mistakes and struggle with growing up. A mother cannot remove these obstacles, but she provides a support far more valuable – steadfast love.
Motherhood goes beyond your own children
Mary tells Juan, “I am … Mother of all of you who live united in this land, and of all mankind.” She doesn’t want to be only Juan’s mother. She wants to be everyone’s mother. Eventually, she does indeed change the course of an entire culture and to this day is beloved in Mexico and around the world.
Moms are influential well beyond their own children. For instance, I remember the mothers of my friends also mothering me. They brought us chocolate chip cookies, dropped us off at basketball practice, and scolded me when I misbehaved. Today, as an adult and a (married) priest, there is a woman who acts as a spiritual mother to me and fiercely prays on my behalf.
Motherhood is a wide-ranging gift, and it doesn’t stop once the children leave the house.
Motherhood means suffering
Mary tells Juan that in the new church she will make a home, saying, “There I will listen to their cry, to their sadness, so as to curb all their different pains, their miseries and sorrow, to remedy and alleviate their sufferings.” Her plan is to comfort her children, to take their cares, misery, and struggles and make them her own.
Motherhood is joyful but also sorrowful because mothers feel the pain of their children as if it’s their own. The pain, though, is a sign that the bond of love is unbreakable, and in the sharing there is a genuine opportunity for unburdening and healing.
Mothers are genuine
Deborah McNamara, at Motherhood as Spiritual Art, writes about the meaning of Our Lady of Guadalupe and says, “For me it means to be real. To show up amidst chaos (or not) and hold the ground of love and compassion, even when it doesn’t look or feel ‘perfect.’”
Mary was present to the Mexican people at a messy and disastrous period in their history that was marked by Spanish conquest and the change from old rituals of human sacrifice. After her appearance, the entire nation was converted and changed course. Mothers, too, are present to their children even when life isn’t perfect. They’re a witness to the power of gentle persistence, forgiveness, and positive encouragement as powerful forces that can affect not only their own children but also the entire world.
The Oldest hymn to Mary Mother of God