Sometimes I come across someone else’s writing that so captures my own deep sense of what is true and noble that I cannot possibly improve on it. In fact, that happens quite often. On the occasion of this year’s Mother’s Day, I offer below Eileen DeFranco’s homily, a beautiful and poignant reflection on the “transubstantiation” that occurs mysteriously in every woman’s body as she is ushered into the vocation of biological motherhood, and always present in potential in every woman.
The words, “This is my body; this is my blood” are holy words. We need these words in order to become the Body of Christ. The People of God are made holy by these words. They are fed and strengthened in order to do the hard work of building up the Body in the world.
Several years ago, I read about a young mother who wrote of trying unsuccessfully to calm her crying infant during Mass. While carrying the baby out of the church, she heard the priest say the words, “This is my body, given up for you.” She looked down at her child and understood that she had given up her body for her baby.
Like the Eucharist, life and death are intermingled in birth. Many of us who were born prior to 1960 recall stories about relatives and neighbours who died while giving birth. With our current low rates of maternal mortality in the western world, it is almost unimaginable to think that in some places at some times, more mothers died than lived while giving birth.
Before the advent of asepsis, becoming pregnant in some parts of the world was a death sentence. Doctors would go from doing autopsies to attending women in childbirth without washing their hands. Only in recent history could childbirth practitioners manage anything beyond he most minor deviations in labor and delivery without harming mother or child or both. Many other women died in childbirth because they had too many children in too short a time and had to work too hard to keep them all alive. This was her body, given up for her child.
I never did learn why my great Aunt Helen died in September of 1924 while delivering twin girls who also died. My grandmother, also pregnant at the time, told me of how Helen fearlessly approached childbirth while my grandmother feared for her life. My grandmother delivered my aunt, a ten pound baby, a week after Aunt Helen’s funeral. Sixty-five years of living did not erase the picture of seventeen–year-old Helen lying in a coffin, her dead infant girls cradled in each arm. This was her body, given up for her children.
Some women never recover completely from childbirth. They never lose the weight they gained during pregnancy. Others might develop varicose veins, diabetes, or high blood pressure. Some develop permanent urinary tract or bowel problems from injuries sustained during childbirth. These are our young bodies, which we have offered up for our children.
Each time a woman goes into labour, she travels into the valley of the shadow of death, a place one cannot imagine if one has not given birth. One of my neighbours who gave birth was appalled by the fact that I didn’t use anesthesia during the births of my children. I told her I was more stupid than brave and truly believed that I was giving my children the best possible start in life by not using drugs. This was comfort for my body, which I was willing to give up for them.
Childbirth is always accompanied by a certain amount of blood. The shedding of blood during childbirth used to render a woman, “unclean,” a verdict Christianity inherited from Judaism. Until Vatican II, a post partum woman was supposed to be “churched,” a ceremony which “purified” the mother of childbirth, so that she could return to communion. However, without the shedding of the mother’s blood, there can be no birth and no life. Even Jesus, born of Mary came into this world purple, wet, and slippery, covered with his mother’s blood. Mary gave her holy body and blood to Jesus. This was her body and blood, given up for him.
Two women I know almost hemorrhaged to death after giving birth. After birth, the uterus is supposed to contract and clamp off all of the blood vessels that supplied the placenta and nourished the baby during pregnancy. If the uterus fails to contract, the blood vessels remain wide open and blood gushes out of the woman with each beat of her heart. Both women described lying in a state of suspended animation as their blood poured onto the floor, knowing what was happening to them, but too weak to rouse themselves to call for help.
One looks at blood, at the bright red bewilderment of it, with awe, for it is life itself. How many of our fore-mothers saw this blood, felt it leave their bodies, and understood what it meant to shed every last drop of blood in order to give life to another human being!
On this Mother’s Day, I invite you to image God, who is truly beyond whatever paltry picture we might imagine, as Mother God. Imagine God our Creator as the Mother clothed in the sun, stars in Her hair, groaning in hard labour as She tries to give birth to a new heaven and a new earth where all mothers are forever freed of the sins of patriarchal misconceptions and misogyny.
Today on Mother’s Day, we remember our mother. Honour all mothers in whom unborn babies once lived and moved and developed their very beings. This is our body; this is our blood, given for the life of the world. Happy Mother’s Day!
My own related reflection was published on this blog last year:
My Body, My Blood
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