My Life for Yours

I worry to my priest friend occasionally that perhaps I’m letting myself off the hook too easily when it comes to the spiritual life. I can’t think now what makes this occur to me, but it’s happened more than once.

Always his answer has been the same, and when he gives it I swear behind his compassion and wisdom he’s almost laughing at me: “You are a mother. That will sanctify you. You don’t even have to try.”

I was glad to get to share this encouragement last week with a weary friend of mine who is adjusting to life with two kids, and yesterday it came back to me again. It’s comfort for a class of us who don’t get much of it.

Yesterday morning found me simultaneously studying Bach’s St. John Passion and nursing my daughter through an unrelenting stomach flu. I’d woken before dawn in a fog typical for me lately. My first thought was gladness that it was Sunday because I am particularly in need of the re-orientation of the Liturgy.

With the house still silent I took up my score and my colored pens again, tracing themes through the St. John Passion in preparation for a performance I’m involved in a week from now.

It was less than thirty minutes before I heard her begin to cry. I knew exactly what kind of cry it was. There wasn’t even room for questioning how the day would play out: My daughter was throwing up; I was not going to church.

This is motherhood, and this is what my priest friend meant.

I have another dear friend who remarked to me one day that he could never do what I do. He does precisely what he wants to do at every moment of his day, he observed. Sure, he’s a responsible adult and faithfully fulfills a whole realm of duties. But he does it in his own way, on his own time. Relatively speaking, he is autonomous. Then he comes over to my house and sees what I do around the clock. There are very few moments of my day that aren’t given to someone else. Even the sandwich I was eating yesterday got partially reallocated to the ravenous stomach of a child who’s finished throwing up.

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Yesterday motherhood meant sharing the sandwich I really didn’t want to share. It meant relinquishing my intention to be strengthened by the sacrament and cleaning up puke instead. It meant exchanging the sound of Bach chorales for Princess Sophia on Netflix. It meant pausing a dozen times in the midst of writing a letter to console a two-year-old who thinks he’s a kitty, to coach a six-year-old through big feelings regarding the laws of physics, to hold the sick one again whenever she threw up.

This is motherhood, and this is what my priest friend meant.

It’s not necessarily automatic, and this is where love comes in again. The same set of relinquished intentions can rot a heart as easily as sanctify it, and I’m familiar with this, too. Love is hard and it is costly.

But the gospel story was working on me yesterday, and the themes Bach drew from it in the St. John Passion were my sanctifying filter for the day.

The chorus of the Passion serves to connect the present to the past, not only as the voice of the people in the narrative but as the voice of the congregation now. Bach inserts familiar stanzas from his own tradition’s repertoire into the flow of the story.

The first of these follows Jesus’ courageous love expressed in his demand that, since he was the one the soldiers were seeking, they ought to let his friends go free. The chorus sings “O great love! O love beyond all measure! I lived with delight and joy and you had to suffer.”

Immediately following the betrayal and arrest in the garden, after Jesus heals the soldier whose ear met Peter’s sword, the chorus sings a stanza from Martin Luther’s paraphrase of the Lord’s Prayer. “Your will be done, on earth as in heaven.”

The centerpiece of the whole work is another stanza from the incredible hymn literature of the early Lutheran tradition: “Through your prison, Son of God, must freedom come to us; your jail cell is our throne of grace: the freedom of the faithful.”

Perhaps for me the climactic moment comes once Jesus bows his head and dies. Bach weaves an aria and a chorale together. Arias are highly decorative, soloistic art songs). They are the sacred poetry that draws the audience even deeper and more personally into the narrative than the hymns sung by the chorus. The soloist sings this audacious question and then supplies the answer: “My precious Savior, let me ask (now that you have been nailed to the cross and have said yourself ‘It is finished’): Am I made free from death? Can I, through your pain and death, inherit the kingdom of heaven? Has the redemption of the whole world arrived? You cannot, from pain, say anything; yet you bow your head and say silently: Yes!'”

Finally, when the work is all but concluded, the chorus sings again: “The grave which is yours and encloses no more suffering, opens heaven for me and closes off hell.”

Laying aside for the present the whole subject of Christ’s crucifixion and redemption, Bach’s masterpiece is an exploration of “My life for yours.” If motherhood isn’t the most convenient way of being held to the practice of the image of Christ, I don’t know what is.

These were the resources I needed yesterday: submission to God’s will, self-giving love, and most of all a recognition of my participation in the way of the cross.

Fr. Raymond may be on to something…

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