The mother, pillar of every family, beating heart and source of life for those who gravitate around her. Yet sometimes we take it for granted.
We should remember every day what it means to be a mother. But we just can’t. Only a mother can know the extent of the love that can be addressed only to those who have been carried in their womb for nine months and then generated uncontrollable joy with infinite pain.
“Individual” means “that one cannot divide”. Mothers, on the other hand, “divide”, starting when they host a child to give it to the world and make it grow.” These are the words of Pope Francis, and they define very clearly what a mother is: a person who renounces their own individuality, who assumes upon himself the commitment not only to generate a new life but also to take care of it, forever, with tenderness and dedication, making the joys and pains of another person his own. It requires so much, so much love, so much spirit of sacrifice, and that is why it breaks the heart to see abandoned mothers, taken for granted, forgotten by children who, too taken by their daily lives, forget to those who owe everything they have, everything they are.
Pope Francis recognises the value of mothers, of all mothers, starting with Mary, Mother of Jesus, the mother of all mothers, the centre of the life of the Church. The Supreme Pontiff affirms, among other things, that “a society without mothers would be an inhuman society, because mothers always know how to witness, even in the worst moments, tenderness, dedication, moral strength.”
Motherhood in the Sacred Texts
But, besides Mary, there are other figures of mother present in the sacred texts. We want to dwell on them, to understand how the concept of motherhood has developed over time, in the Christian sphere and beyond. Social changes, transformations linked to historical facts, have led to progressive emancipation of women, compared to the past, and a radical change in the perception of roles also within the family. However, there are aspects of being a woman and a mother that have never changed, others that have evolved, as it is inevitable that it will be.
In Jewish culture, motherhood represented the highest aspiration and full realisation for a woman. Being sterile was considered the most inconceivable misfortune. Mothers were respected and held in high regard. They took great care of their children, nursing them even for two, three or more years, and for their sake they knew how to impose themselves on their husbands, even opposing his will. Think of Sarah, Abraham’s wife and Isaac’s mother, who forced her husband to cast out the slave Hagar, from whom he had had a son when the latter had begun to treat his half-brother badly (Gen 21:8,9). The Bible tells us that God Himself took up the woman’s defence and commanded Abraham to do as she had asked.
In general, commands recommending respect and love due to the mother recur in all Sacred Scripture: “Honor thy father and thy mother” (Ex 20:12; cf. Dt 5:16); “He who strikes his father or mother must be put to death.” (Ex 21:15); “Do not despise your mother when she is old” (Pr 23:22); and so on.
But let us take a step back and examine some of the figures of a mother in the Holy Scriptures, beginning with Eve, the mother of all men.
Eve: mother of all living
Eve was the first woman created by God in Earthly Paradise. Born with him from the earth, or his rib, according to the two versions of Genesis, it was created to help him, support him and love him. Initially, it is called only ‘woman’ (‘iššhāh, female form of‘išh, ‘man’). After the original sin and the expulsion from the Garden of Eden, Adam will call her Eve, from hawwah, “living” or “raising life.” When she and Adam were cast out of Earthly Paradise, Eve was cursed by God: “I will multiply thy sorrows and thy pregnancies; with sorrow shalt thou bear children.” (Genesis 3: 16).
The curse of God concerns precisely pregnancy and being a mother. Even today, Jewish women try to repair Eve’s guilt with ritual gestures, such as lighting the lights before Shabbat.
Bathsheba: wife and mother of kings
Bathsheba was the wife of King David, to whom she gave three sons, including the great Solomon. The first son died as soon as he was born. The Bible says that David fell in love with Bathsheba when he saw her bathing naked. Although she was married to one of her officers, Uriah, the King seduced her. When the woman became pregnant, David first tried to make Uriah believe that the child to be born was his son; then, for fear of being discovered, he ordered the superior officer to send Uriah to fight in the front line, where he died.
God punished David’s evil deed by killing the son born of his relationship with Bathsheba, but then gave them two other sons, Solomon, one of the greatest kings of Israel, and Nathan. Solomon always took great account of his mother Bathsheba, so much so that he listened to her advice also for political matters. As when Adonijah, Solomon’s half-brother, who was also a pretender to the throne against him, asked Bathsheba to plead with her son at the hand of Abishag the Shunammite. Bathsheba went to her son to speak on his behalf. This is what happened: “Bathsheba came to King Solomon to speak to him on behalf of Adonijah. The king rose to greet her, bowed himself before her, sat on the throne and set up a throne for the king’s mother. And she sat him on the right hand, and said, I have a little favour to ask of thee; deny me not. And the king said, Say on, my mother, for I will not say, No, to you. (1Kings 2:19,20)
Iochebed: the brave mother of Moses
We said how important and precious motherhood was for Jewish women. So important that they were willing to risk everything to save their children from danger. Jochebed Amram’s wife was the mother of Moses, Aaron, and Miriam. When Pharaoh gave the order to drown all the male Jewish babies, Jochebed locked the little Moses of just three months in a basket sprinkled with bitumen and entrusted him to the Nile to save him. The child was then found by Princess Bithia who raised him as her son. But here we want to emphasise the desperate love of a mother who, to save her child, renounces him. The concern of Iochebed, who prepares the basket for the child so that he remains dry and sheltered, and makes sure that he is found by having it followed along the course of the river, is shattering. A symbol of all brave mothers, Iochebed is also an example of absolute sacrifice, as can only be the example of a mother.
Elizabeth: mother in adulthood
Elizabeth was one of Aaron’s daughters and was the wife of Saint Zechariah and the cousin of Mary. She was a devout woman, educated and belonged to the priestly caste, but unfortunately, she was infertile, and this condition was for her even more humiliating and intolerable precisely because she was the daughter and wife of priests. God granted her the miracle of a son, despite her infertility and advanced age.
And an angel came to Zechariah his husband and told him that his wife would bear a son and that his name would be John. Thus John the Baptist would have been born,
When Elizabeth was already six months pregnant, Mary, her cousin and still a virgin, also became pregnant. And when Mary went to visit her cousin, she and the child in her lap rejoiced, because they recognised Mary as the mother of the promised Messiah.
Mary: the chosen mother
And so we come to Mary, mother par excellence, the centre of the church according to the Pope. In her we find all the characteristics that we have indicated for a mother: tenderness, sacrifice, the ability to cancel out of love, to endure every pain to remain close to the Son until the end. Mary lived on her skin, in her own heart, the Passion of Jesus, every wound inflicted on him struck her, multiplied a thousand times by the love she felt for him, and yet it had not been enough to save him, to protect him from evil. Mary, who did not merely submit to God’s will, but chose to do His will, made herself available to be His instrument. More than anyone else Mary sacrificed her life to her mission, and her mission was her Son, in whose name she renounced everything else. This figure of a mother torn by the suffering inflicted on the flesh of her flesh, an extraordinary woman, symbol and incarnation of the hope of the Church, still today maintains her task as a merciful and infinitely loving Mother, who intercedes between men and God and watches over all her children in the most difficult moments.
“None of us is an orphan: we are children of the Church, of Our Lady, of our mothers.” With this phrase of Pope Francis, we close our roundup on the figure of the Mother in the Bible.