Mothering Love: Betrayal and Grace

Today, being Mother’s Day, of course our scripture readings center around Judas, Jesus’ betrayer. I swear, sometimes it feels like the international committee that selects the texts for Sundays is just having fun at the preachers’ expense. I say that jokingly, because I think there may be some wisdom afoot in holding together Judas and Mother’s day. Hear me out. Religion and Hallmark holidays both have a tendency to slip into sentimentalism, and we should be careful with sentimentalism. It’s hard to be sentimental about Judas Iscariot.

A Story about Judas:

I’m going to take a cue from the rabbis this morning, and tell you a story. It’s not one you’ll find in scripture, but the rabbis wouldn’t mind. This morning, I want to take up a very traditional image from the church, the idea that holds that St. Peter stands outside the gates of heaven, greeting those who have died. Like I said, not scriptural, but go with me.

If that tradition has a grain of truth, we can imagine a particularly difficult encounter for St. Peter, the day that Judas arrived. Now, don’t get caught up wondering about whether Peter would have been there when Judas arrived, since Judas died before Peter. Our sense of time doesn’t work well with questions of eternity and wisdom teaching. Imagine Peter, standing there, outside the pearly gates. He sees Judas coming, and he crosses his arms.

Peter was there at the last supper. He heard Jesus say that one of the disciples was to betray Jesus. He was there in the garden when Judas kissed Jesus, and the guards came and arrested the savior. Peter, in the Book of Acts, in the few verses omitted from our reading today told the disciples that Judas had bought himself a field with the pieces of silver he received for betraying Jesus, but he tripped on his newly acquired property and “falling headlong, he burst open in the middle and all his bowels gushed out.” Peter tells the disciples that from that day the field was known as the “Field of Blood.” Peter pronounced these words with no remorse. Judas got what he deserved. 

But then what? What happens to Judas. After his death, following tradition, Judas would have faced Peter, the keeper of the keys, at the gates of heaven. How would Peter respond to the betrayer? How would Peter ever, ever, be able to speak to this man, this one who caused so much pain?

Through the history of the Church, Judas has been shorthand for Betrayal. As recently as the early 2000s, in the Movie Frida Selma Hayek plays the famous Mexican painter. She tells her husband, Diego Rivera she wants to be cremated when she dies: “burn this Judas of a body.” Burn this disabled body that has betrayed me, she says. The word Judas simply has stood in for betrayal.

Some of the shorthand has been problematic. For centuries “Judas” was treated as a stand in for the Jewish people. Judas was a given reason for Anti-semitism, as if the other disciples, and Jesus himself, weren’t Jews. When I was in seminary, one of the windows in our chapel was removed for several months to remake an image of Judas that had featured a crooked nose and green skin, caricatures prominent in anti-Semitic propaganda. In the popular imagination for centuries, Judas was to blame for Jesus’ death. So too were the Jews, guilty, in the popular teaching of the church. A great deal of persecution, even slaughter, was supported by this view. Judas was shorthand for the blame Christians placed on the Jewish people for the death of Jesus.

Mother’s Day

These are such light topics for Mothers’ Day, betrayal, anti-Semitism, prejudice. I know. But they are also somehow fitting. To talk about Mothers, to talk about motherhood, is to deal with dirty laundry. To discuss such an intimate relationship as the one between parent and child, without over-sentimentalizing, means we sometimes have to cut through the Hallmark propaganda.

Before I go further, I want to say I have an exceptional mother.  I’m not just saying that because she his here. I know, even when she’s not here to remind me, that I am blessed. When I talk about mothers and motherhood, I know that I am speaking from a particular experience. And I know it’s a little funny to have my preach on Mothers’ Day. I invited my mom to preach, and she said “No, your Mothers’ Day present can be that YOU will preach.” I know I am blessed. I know your experience may be different. 

Overall my mother has taught me that I am loved, I am valued, and that was a great gift. When I was a little kid, prone to late night nosebleeds, she once sat me on the counter (I remember this well, because in my house we were not allowed to sit on counters). I had a cold washcloth on my nose. This had been a bad bleed, and it was the early morning. I was scared and tired. She said to me, exhausted herself, “we’re a team.” And we always have been. We both even ended up in the same profession. I’m one of the first generation of priest’s kids who had a mother for a priest. I’m of the first generation of priest kid preachers who are able to get revenge in the pulpit for all the stories she told on me in sermons.

We are close, and I know that both of us, at times, have let the other down. Even the closest relationships involve a certain amount of failure, a certain amount of betrayal. While my mother often refers to herself, tongue in cheek, as “Mary Poppins: Practically perfect” she says that with a degree of sarcasm because part of what makes our relationship good is that we can admit we both make mistakes.

Incidentally, this is true in all relationships. While religion can be prone to sentimentality, I am grateful that liturgy often works to push us in the opposite direction. I often point out to couples who are being married a phrase that we say just after the exchange of rings in the Book of Common Prayer. Usually the bride, or the groom, or one of the brides or one of the grooms is a little teary at this point. They’ve just said their vows. They’ve just promised to love, honor, protect, and keep one another. And then we say the prayers.

In this particular prayer, we say “Give them grace, when they hurt each other, to recognize and acknowledge their fault.” I say to couples “Notice, it doesn’t say IF they hurt each other, but WHEN.” As I said, liturgy often resists sentimentalization. Prayer works best when it is honest and blunt. 

We hurt the people we are closest to. This is true between spouses, between siblings, between parents and children. Even those of us who like to imagine we are practically perfect, we don’t always get it right. We need to pray for a little grace from God, from one another, from ourselves. We could all use a little grace.

I wish that grace was present in all of our relationships with mothers. I know some relationships are more complicated, more fraught, but there is an ideal of grace that comes along with the ideal of motherhood which is bigger than all of the sentimental greeting cards. Jesus even names this great grace of Motherhood at one point in Scripture. Using feminine language Jesus said of the holy city:  “Jerusalem, Jerusalem…how often I have longed to gather your children together as a mother hen gathers her brood under her wings.” There is a certain protectiveness, a certain spaciousness, a certain sacrifice of self and body involved in “Mothering Love.”

In her new book, “This is My Body: Embracing the Messiness of Faith and Motherhood,” Hannah Shanks speaks about this Mothering side of love, ours and God’s. Her book is honest, funny, and profoundly theological. She notes that nothing and no one is born without a breaking, without pain. This is what mothers, and those of any gender expression who practice mothering love know: Mothering requires honesty, openness, and an ability to work through pain. Listen to Hannah’s words:

Learning to break, to die, to give, and to let our whole worlds give way to something new and unknown is an unavoidable part of life—unavoidable but often hidden. We gloss over the pain and dysphoria of birth and postpartum life. We mourn silently when others assume we’re “dragging our feet” about having children when in reality we’re in the throes of fertility treatments and multiple miscarriages. We often do not speak about the devastation of divorce or the loss at the center of adoption. Somewhere along the way we lose the ability to name pain, death, and suffering for what they are. And when we cannot name them, we struggle to own our experiences as we go through them. Our breaking is inevitable, but, thankfully, so is our resurrection. As we practice breaking, we practice birthing. We practice the process that leads us to life.

Our patriarchal world still wants us to behave as if we were invulnerable, as if we could avoid pain, avoid breaking, avoid blood, and tears, and death. Hannah names so many ways mothers, and children, and parents are taught to keep quiet about pain. Our world wants us to pretend, but Jesus says we are not made for this kind of make-believe world. We are meant for honesty, for vulnerability, for grace. This graceful work can bring new life.

Motherhood is hard. So is childhood. So are all kinds of parenting and relationship. We all face loss. We all come to being and continue to cause suffering. We betray one another. 

And yet, and yet, there are moments of grace between us, moments  of connection, words of affirmation when someone chooses to nurture, when we are told we are loved, we are valued, we matter. Sometimes, by God’s grace these come from our biological parents, and sometimes others, chosen friends and family mother us as well. There are moments when we know that mothering love Jesus hoped for his people, gathered together under the maternal wings.

Back to the Story of Judas and Peter

Strangely that image of mothering brings me back to my story of Peter and Judas, back to those pearly gates. As we hear in Acts, in life Peter was angry with his friend who betrayed the teacher. But I wonder if there at the gates of heaven Peter was able to stay mad.

After all, there is some poetry in this encounter for Judas Iscariot. Of all the disciples, maybe Peter could best understand Judas in the end. It was Peter who, on the night Jesus was betrayed, stood in the courtyard of the high priest, and though he said he would never leave Jesus, denied that he knew him three times. It was Peter who heard that cock crow. 

I can imagine Peter facing Judas, his eyes wet with tears. Both of them knowing that in life they had royally messed up, fallen short, both of them having betrayed their teacher, betrayed their values. I wonder if Peter, like the best of mothers, was able to look at Judas and see a child of God who was scared and in need of forgiveness. It it divine poetry that in eternity is up to Peter to say to Judas, “this grace which I received also belongs to you?” 

As I said, my story isn’t Scriptural. I made it up. Take from it what you will. I believe the best prayers are honest. They cut through the sentimentality. The best relationships openly admit that each of us is capable of both betrayal and grace. Loving means knowing we will need forgiveness. Love always includes knowing we will have to forgive. The mothers among us, and all of those in our lives who have practiced mothering love, who have sacrificed to nurture us, may be our best teachers. This Mother’s Day, may you know, a little more fully, God’s grace.

Published by Mike Angell

The Rev. Mike Angell is rector of The Episcopal Church of the Holy Communion in St. Louis.

2 thoughts on “Mothering Love: Betrayal and Grace

  1. Thank you, Mike, for this. Especially “…liturgy often works best when it resists sentimentalization.”

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