The Bittersweet Nature of Motherhood

A sermon delivered by Rev. Dr. Randy Hammer, May 11, 2014

Luke 2:22-35 CEB

An astute contemporary philosopher—Forest Gump—put it best when he said, “Like my Mama always said, ‘Life is like a box of chocolates–you never know what you’re gonna’ get.'”  Certainly this is true when it comes to parenting in general and motherhood in particular. When you give birth to a child, you give birth to a mystery. You never know what you are going to get.

When a child is conceived and born, it can come with so much promise. What parent doesn’t have fantasies that their child will maybe find a cure for cancer, or contribute to world peace, or become a great leader, or grow up to become a famous artist of some kind?  I am not a big fan of Helen Steiner Rice’s pop poetry, but there are a few lines in her poem, “A Mother’s Love,” that speak to the point today.  One line notes that a mother’s love “believes beyond believing when the world around condemns.”  Generally speaking, a mother is in a unique position to see a child’s strengths, to believe in her child’s future, to hope for the very best that child can be.And when a child is born, there are visions of all the good times you will have with the child as he or she grows up—time spent reading books together before turning in at night, time to be spent together on the playground, time enjoying family vacations together, and so on.And there are future visions of seeing that child graduate from high school, hopefully college, and possibly graduate school.  Getting married to the perfect mate.  Having the first child of their own.

But along with the birth and promise also lies the possibility of pain.  It would be nice if, when a child is born, we could be promised nothing but sunshine and blessings; days filled with happiness and a childhood and life filled with joy. But we all know it is not so. We know from the get-go, on the day a child is born, there will be days of illness, and some sleepless nights. There will be bumped heads and skinned knees.  There likely will be a broken bone or two and a few stays in the hospital. And for a parent (or grandparent) who has a child admitted to a hospital it is always a serious affair. As parents, Mary Lou and I were fortunate that neither of our kids had an overnight stay in the hospital as children. But we have made up for it with our grandchildren. Two of our grandchildren have spent more nights in the hospital than we could ever hope to count. A parent or grandparent would much rather be the one who is sick and hospitalized than to see a child or grandchild sick or injured or hospitalized.And then there are the emotional pains we often have to watch our children go through, and the times we would like to do something to make things better, but we find ourselves to be helpless.  And we just have to let things take their course and support our children with our presence the best that we can.  Many a parent can relate to watching as a child deals with a relationship breakup from their first real love.  It is not easy to watch your child endure the emotional pain when his or her high school sweetheart and first real love breaks off the relationship to attend college out of state, and your child says to you through painful tears, “But Daddy, she or he was the one I wanted to marry!”And then for many, there is even greater pain when you watch your grown and now married child suffer through the breakup of a marriage and the grief of divorce.  Or when you try to support your child who has a baby that is born with severe disabilities, and they have to endure more trauma and suffering and sleepless nights than anyone should have to deal with in a lifetime.  Sometimes as a parent or grandparent you feel like a sword has pierced through your very soul.

Which brings me to the scripture passage I read from Luke.  This is an interesting passage.  I am not sure that we can take this passage to be 100% historically true.  After all, who was there to record the words of Simeon to Mary and Joseph?  And how might such words have been preserved?  Could it be that for Luke the story of the presentation of Jesus and prophecy of Simeon was not intended to be accepted as historical fact, but was meant to serve other purposes altogether?  By relating the story of Mary and Joseph dedicating the baby Jesus in the Temple, could Luke have been trying to make sure his readers understood that Jesus from the beginning was squarely steeped within the ancient Jewish traditions?  Through the prophet Simeon, could Luke have been authenticating Jesus’ place within the Jewish religion’s prophetic tradition?  Could Luke have been foreshadowing the death that Jesus would die in the end of his gospel story? Nevertheless, though the story might not be 100% historically and factually true in all its details, it is humanly, philosophically, and religiously true. Luke was right on target when he had Simeon say to Mary, “And a sword will pierce your innermost being too” (Luke 2:35 CEB).   Or as the traditional translations phrase it, “a sword will pierce through your own soul also” (ESV).  Of course, a sword would not literally pierce Mary’s body; but thirty years later, as she stood before the cross of Jesus, a sword surely would pierce her soul.  There is a saying that a parent ought not have to follow her child’s body to the cemetery.  It is not right; it is unnatural; that is not the way we want the world to be.  But sometimes such is the way it turns out to be.  And such is the way it would turn out to be with Mary, the mother of Jesus.  There are members of this United Church who know the sorrow and pain of losing a child before their appointed time.But a mother need not follow her child to the cemetery to have a sword pierce her soul.  Many are the swords of life that can pierce a mother’s heart and soul, as she witnesses the pain and suffering a child often has to endure, as a mother of any length of time surely knows.  But such is the way of life in general, is it not?  Life is a bittersweet mixture of joys and sorrows.In that Helen Steiner Rice poem that I quoted from earlier, she opens it by saying,

A Mother’s love is something

that no one can explain,

It is made of deep devotion

And of sacrifice and pain.

And so, the point being: Bittersweet is the nature of motherhood.  Such is the way it is, and such is the way it always has been!  Along with the joys of being a mother or parent there are the trials and tears as well.  What I have been trying to do in the course of this sermon is acknowledge the fact that for everyone being a mother or parent is not always easy.  Let’s not kid ourselves—parenthood is not always a fun-filled, warm and fuzzy endeavor.  Being a parent can have its real challenges, for some more than others.  And no one is exempt.

But along with the bitter, there is also the sweetness of being a mother.  And for the most part, the sweetness far outweighs the days of bitterness.  Parenthood brings it moments of joy; and days of celebration; and occasions for swelling pride.

So today, as we celebrate motherhood, may also we acknowledge and prayerfully remember mothers who have not, and do not, always have it easy.  But may we also celebrate with mothers the joys, the celebrations, and the sweetness that being a mother can bring.  Amen.


About randykhammer

Minister and writer
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