Friday, January 21, 2011

motherhood: sacrament & icon

Perhaps its due to the particular brand of hermeneutics training I've received (which is rather minimal, to be honest), but one thing I generally disprefer is taking something out of context, recontextualizing it, and appropriating it for personal use. When such activity occurs in writing, it is often the case that something is innocently misunderstood or, rather sinisterly, the author is being blatantly deceptive. So, my apologies at the outset for transgressing my own rules, but this is a noble cause, and I hope I will be found guilty of neither ignorance nor deception. What I would like to do is mildly invoke the concepts of sacrament and icon in order to, as the title indicates, view motherhood as sacrament and icon. Or, to put it another way that is weaker and does not entail strict theological commitments, I would like to contemplate motherhood in a sacramental and iconic manner.

With that in mind, I offer the following from Dr. Alexander Schmemann as a "working definition" of sorts for what I mean by the term "sacrament." We'll start here and see how far it takes us (or what trouble it gets us into):
[A] "sacrament" [...] implies necessarily the idea of transformation, refers to the ultimate event of Christ's death and resurrection, and is always a sacrament of the Kingdom. (Schmemann 1973[1963]: 81)
This may seem simple and straightforward enough, but we have a lot of work to do in a little space, and as of yet no explicit reason to entertain such a venture in the first place. So let me step back a bit, provide some context, and clarify my motive.

Had I been writing in an earlier period, say in the heyday of treatises and discourses with lavish and glorious subtitles, mine would have looked like the following:
Motherhood: Sacrament & Icon
A Short Discourse in Honor of My Loving Wife on the Event of Her Weaning Our Child
Such a title would have at least trended toward the grandeur of the circumstance, although we might not readily consider weaning such. And (to some degree ) understandably so, for it has the characteristics of being quite mundane, commonplace, and uneventful. But, we all too frequently miss the point of liturgy on account of its regularity, and so much the worse for us.

My wife has, and I'm sure always will, exhibited a beautiful mysteriousness. Motherhood, in a sense, compounds the mystery and increases my adoration. For it is utterly clear that, while not demonstrating a distinction in quality, our ministries are different. And even though I can come along side her to encourage her ministry, I will surely never be able to appreciate it fully for lack of direct experience (still, I intend to appreciate every aspect that I can grasp). From the moment our child was conceived, we entered onto an irreversible path, but I as a bystander, while she entered with the entirety of her being as a sacrifice for another. This is not to say that I was aloof or distant, but even the greatest extent to which I can possibly love, care, sympathize, help, provide, encourage, and support cannot truly match my wife giving of her body for the life of our child.

Now, with sacrificial giving at the fore, perhaps the invocation of sacrament and icon is not as ridiculous as it seemed at the outset. But how does motherhood, to return to Schmemann's conceptualization of "sacrament," genuinely imply transformation, and refer to Christ's death and resurrection? Moreover, how is motherhood in any way a sacrament of the Kingdom? Before I begin to touch upon the answers to these questions (for what single blog post could do the justice required?), allow me to introduce two more concepts. First, as the Reverend Peter Stravinskas notes with regard to the Roman Catholic understanding of the sacrament of Holy Orders, "Just as Jesus was the icon (image) of the Father, so is the priest to be an icon of Jesus" (Stravinskas 1997:84). Accordingly, "the priest, [as] an icon of Jesus Christ, sacrifices his own life for the people's sake" (75). Second, sacraments always have some material element about them, which points to something beyond themselves (because the physical aspects are not ends in themselves). Thus, as Abbot Anscar Vonier once wrote (though principally dealing with the Eucharist in his work), "the use of external things, of the sacramental signs, [...] links us up with Christ, historically as well as actually" (Vonier 2003[1925]:28). And with these concepts in place, with timidity we can consider motherhood sacramentally and iconically.

I don't mean to exalt my wife above due measure, but I can't really say that I would have come to the same conclusions about motherhood from experiencing it with just any woman (in actuality, however, I do exalt the God who has worked through her and shown His love in her actions). Much of what I learned from her derives from the stance that, by God's grace, she takes and has taken toward motherhood, being mindful to keep what we Christians sometimes say as an "eternal perspective" continually in focus. In the proper sense, parenthood (as far as the Church is concerned, within the purview of marriage) generally, and motherhood specifically, takes on a much wider meaning and is imbued with sacramental essence when it transcends the local relationship in order to become a manifestation of the divine love. Through the grace of God, motherhood takes on sacramentality because the mother is invited to, repeatedly and continually, die to herself and her own self-sufficiency, so "that it may point beyond itself" (Schmemann 1973[1963]:90) to the sacrificial love of Jesus Christ and the nature of the Kingdom which He inaugurates and fills with His eternal presence. In the Christian context (and, really, in any context) of motherhood, He is to be the essence and the goal of the relationship between mother and child. This transforms the nature of motherhood by making it into the image of God's Self-sacrificial love for humankind. Motherhood is especially fitting in this regard because it involves sacrifice at the level of the entire person. Her body is given for the life of the child (even after delivery, such as nursing every three hours [start to start!] for weeks without good sleep); every thought and action is undertaken with selfless consideration. She, in a sense, lays down her life for the child, serving the child and thus tangibly exhibiting profound characteristics of the Kingdom of God (Matthew 19:14; 20:16-18; Mark 10:45). Thus, the mother becomes a sort of icon of Jesus Christ, pointing beyond herself to His glory and His divine love.

If you haven't been offended at my use of sacrament and icon up to this point (and it is certainly not my hope to offend, especially since I don't propose this in any rigid theological sense of the terms), perhaps what I have stated sounds a bit child-centric - living for the purpose of the child. But this objection misses the point: sacramental motherhood is not living for the child, but living for God by manifesting His Kingdom and its ethos, with both the glory of God and the good of the child in mind. Again relating it to the Person and work of Jesus Christ, it is my belief that the glory of God was the chief end to which He became incarnate, suffered, died, rose again, ascended into heaven, does reign and will reign for ever and ever. However, He never viewed humanity as an obstacle to His "real will." Instead, He chose to have compassion, and was crucified for our sake as well as for the Father's good pleasure. He sought and obtained the glory of God precisely by engaging humanity with the principles of His own divine love, filling earth with heaven. Christ's work had both a divine and a human side to it; His sacrifice was both propitiation and redemption. With this in mind, then, sacramental and iconic motherhood does not enthrone the child, but neither does it view the child as an obstacle to some greater will or purpose. It is instead through the act of loving the child to the glory of God that parenthood, generally, and motherhood, specifically, declares the Kingdom within this aspect of marriage, and the mother becomes the image of Christ's sacrificial love.

Schmemann, Alexander. (1973). For the Life of the World: Sacraments and Orthodoxy. Crestwood, NY: St. Vladimir's Seminary Press. (Original work published 1963)

Stravinskas, Peter M. J. (1997). Understanding the Sacraments: A Guide for Prayer and Study. San Francisco, CA: Ignatius.

Vonier, Anscar. (2003). A Key to the Doctrine of the Eucharist. Bethesda, MD: Zaccheus Press. (Original work published 1925)

1 comment:

  1. Thanks hubs! I think some of the best mothers are able to love their children selflessly because they are being loved selflessly by their husbands! I am eternally thankfully that God gave me you!