In the reading from Acts, Philip the Deacon, passionately enthusiastic to proclaim the “good news about Jesus”, which is God’s love, pursues and patiently helps a eunuch to come into the embrace of Jesus‘ love and to receive new life through baptism. This was a person explicitly excluded by the ancient laws of Deuteronomy from being “admitted to the assembly of the Lord”, one who came from Ethiopia, which people of that time considered the farthest edges of the earth, where the sun scorched people’s skin into blackness, a foreigner and an outcast. We know that region today as the Sudan.
In the Epistle, St. John redefines the meaning of love in terms of the Christ event. He was quite aware that the Greek language has not just one, but three words for love: 1) eros = meaning ordinary human, fleshly love: good in itself, but which, because of human weakness, can degenerate into mere lust, treating persons as things and objects; 2) philía = meaning familial love, “brotherly/sisterly” love, the love of friendship; and 3) agape = the sort of love which God has for us human beings, love which is willing to go out of itself, to sacrifice itself for the beloved. “In this is love,” says John, “...that God loved us and sent his Son...if we love one another, God lives in us, and his love is perfected in us.”
In his Gospel John continues explaining that only by Jesus “abiding” in us and we abiding in Him and, through Him with each other, that we experience real agape-love. He uses an agricultural metaphor, not lost on us here in Sonoma County: that of grapevines and branches. “I am the true vine...my Father is the vinegrower...you are the branches. Those who abide in me and I in them bear much fruit, because apart from me you can do nothing...” The fruit that we’re to bear is to make God’s glory, joy, and love visible to one another, to all in the world.
Women, mothers know a lot about abiding and self-giving love. Let’s never forget that Jesus got to us, was sent, through a woman and mother. Bearing and nurturing and, yes, losing that Son, letting him go, could only be done through the fullness of the Holy Spirit of love and faith. And that Son, Jesus of Nazareth, was the richest fruit ever born of a woman’s and mother’s self-giving, a fruit which abides forever.
Jesus’ healthy and integral attitude toward women, understandably, was reflective of his mother Mary’s influence. When the woman from Magdala was caught in the act of having sex with another woman’s husband, and other local men were eager to stone her according to the Law, Jesus was forgiving, compassionate, yet firm in his expectations of her. Another time, as he was preaching, a woman in the crowd cried out, quite bluntly: “Blessed is the womb that bore you and the breasts that nursed you.” Jesus, without embarrassment, replies, “Blessed, rather, are those who hear the Word of God and keep it.” Delicate situations, indeed: perhaps the kind in which most of us men might feel quite uncomfortable. But Jesus, secure in his mature manhood, treats these women with great ease and respect.
Womanhood, I believe, as depicted in the Gospel, and as I myself have been lucky enough to experience it, both in my own mother, now deceased, and in many women whom I’ve been privileged to know, stands as a unique symbol to humanity and to the Church: a sign speaking, somewhat paradoxically, of two things: motherhood and virginity.
First, woman is a sign of motherhood. In retreats for women over the years I’ve often asked this question: “Did you ever realize that you could have been the mother of Jesus?? As a woman you have everything that Mary had, everything essential, to have been his mother. Perhaps Jesus’ response to the woman in the crowd, mentioned earlier, was his way of saying: “You can be my mother,” not physically, of course, but in a different, yet no less real, way. Today there’s a worldwide hunger and poverty of spirit, of human beings crying out for the one thing so characteristic of a woman and mother: genuine compassion, caring, love, the kind of love found only in the abiding love of God.
Julian of Norwich, great 13th century anchorite and mystic whose feast day we celebrated just this past Friday, has left us with some astounding and mind-blowing thoughts in her book Revelations of Divine Love, about God/Love and motherhood.
God All Power is our natural Father,
and God All Wisdom, is our natural Mother,
with the Love and the Goodness of the Holy Spirit--
who is all one God, one Lord...
I beheld the action of all the blessed Trinity. In that sight I saw and understood these three aspects:
the aspect of the Fatherhood,
the aspect of the Motherhood,
and the aspect of the Lordhood,
in one God...
...the Second Person of the Trinity
is our Mother in human nature in our essential creation. In
Him we are grounded and rooted,
and He is our Mother in mercy, by taking on our fleshliness...
Thus Jesus Christ who does good against evil is our true Mother--we have our being from Him where the basis of motherhood begins, with all the sweet protection of love that accompanies it endlessly.
...as truly as God is our Father,
so truly God is our Mother.
Our Father wills,
our Mother acts,
our good Lord the Holy Spirit strengthens...
The mother can give her child suck from her milk, but our precious Mother Jesus can feed us with Himself;
and He does it most graciously and most tenderly with the Blessed Sacrament which is the Precious Food of true life.
And with all the sweet Sacraments He supports us most mercifully and graciously.
(And thus meant He in this blessed word where He said: “It
is I that Holy Church preaches to thee and teaches to thee”;
that is to say, “All the wholeness and life of Sacraments, all
the virtue and grace of my Word, all the goodness that is ordained in Holy Church for thee, it is I.”...
To the quality of motherhood belongs natural love, wisdom, and knowledge--and this is God;
for though it is true that our bodily birth is but little, lowly, and simple as compared to our spiritual birth,
yet it is He who does it within the created mothers by whom it is done.
The kindly, loving mother who is aware and knows the need of her child protects the child most tenderly as the nature and state of motherhood wills.
And as the child increases in age, she changes her method but not her love.
And when the child is increased further in age, she permits it to be chastised to break down vices, to cause the child to accept virtues and graces.
This nurturing of the child, with all that is fair and good, our Lord does in the mothers by whom it is done.
Thus He is our Mother in our human nature by the action of grace in the lower part, out of love for the higher part.
And He wishes us to know it; for He wishes to have all our love made fast to Him.
In this I saw that all our debt that we owe by God’s bidding to fatherhood and motherhood (because of God’s Fatherhood and Motherhood) is fulfilled in true loving of God which blessed love Christ works in us.”
Secondly, woman is a sign of virginity, i.e., a sign of the virginal commitment so obvious in the life of Mary, the mother of Jesus. Virginity can be a quality of a woman, whether she’s married or not, whether she’s a mother or not. The full understanding of virginity has much less to do with mere physical integrity, though it is that too, than with the ability which God gives a woman to be openhearted and self-giving: in other words, the ability to love. Being genuinely motherly and virginal means not filtering God’s Word, not turning it off as it comes to you from wherever in your life. It implies becoming an abiding presence of Jesus to and for others.
To be a woman and mother is, in Fr. Robert Capon’s words, “to be the sacrament of place,” to be “the very diagram of belonging”. She is the place where God who is love abides. She is, as Fr. Capon, says: “the where in whose vicinity we are fed and watered, and have our wounds bound up and our noses wiped. She is geography incarnate, with her breasts and her womb...and her hands reaching up to us the fruitfulness of the earth.” (from Bed and Board)
In his book The Grapes of Wrath, John Steinbeck’s character, Ma, observes: “Everything we do -- seems to me is aimed right at goin‘ on. Seems that way to me...Jus‘ try to live the day, jus‘ the day...”
“‘...Woman can change better’n a man,‘ Ma said soothingly. ‘Woman got all her life in her mind. Maybe -- well, maybe nex‘ year we can get a place.’
‘We got nothin’, now,‘ Pa said. ‘Comin‘ a long, long time -- no work, no crops. What we gonna do then? How we gonna git stuff to eat?...Git so I hate to think. Go diggin‘ back to a ol‘ time to keep from thinkin’. Seems like our life’s over an‘ done.’
‘No, it ain’t,‘ Ma smiled. ‘It ain’t, Pa. An‘ that’s one more thing a woman knows. I noticed that. Man, he lives in jerks -- baby born an‘ a man dies, an‘ that’s a jerk -- get a farm an‘ loses his farm, an‘ that’s a jerk. Woman, it’s all one flow, like a stream, little eddies, little waterfalls, but the river, it goes right on. Woman looks at it like that. We ain’t gonna die out. People is goin‘ on -- changin‘ a little, maybe, but goin‘ right on.’”