Sometimes I feel like a Motherless Child

There are plenty of images of disaster and heartbreak to occupy our field of vision these days.  Two stick in my mind:

The first is from a month ago in Christchurch, New Zealand.  A 15 year-old boy and his 18 year-old sister flank their father, all three in tears as they discover that there is no hope of finding the children’s mother alive after the collapse of a building during the earthquake in that beautiful city.  The children’s faces are red and pained, their eyes swollen with tears.  Their father has an arm around each child’s shoulder, his head bowed in grief between them.  They look to me just as ordinary as every teenage child I have ever seen, as every balding, middle-aged father that has ever walked the planet.  Except for their grief, which I would not even begin to try to describe.

The second image is of a pretty 24 year-old woman, named Taylor Anderson, you have probably heard of.  The photo I am looking at shows her smiling beside one of her students, a radiant young Japanese girl of maybe 6 or 7, I am guessing.  They are both wearing colorful kimonos.  Taylor looks like every good-hearted young woman I have ever seen.  She was the first American casualty identified in the earthquake/tsunami in Japan.  I don’t know what happened to the girl beside her in the picture.  I am afraid to find out.

There is an old spiritual that American slaves sang; they cannot have dreamt that it would sing about tragedy in New Zealand or Japan; they cannot have guessed a white boy in a Connecticut prep school would learn it and let it seep into his soul too.  But these things happen.  You have surely heard the old song:

Sometimes I feel like a motherless child.

Sometimes I feel like a motherless child. 

Sometimes I feel like a motherless child.

A long way from home.

I am not a motherless child.  But I look at those two kids in Christchurch, and I am guessing at the depth of their anguish, the emptiness in their hearts, the hollow ring of any words of comfort.  I am guessing what it feels like to be a motherless child.  Some of you, I am sure, do not have to guess.  Whether by tragedy or old age or estrangement, or who-knows-what, you are a motherless child too.  Maybe your sadness does not look like the sadness of those two children in New Zealand.  Maybe it is duller, more distant, better integrated into your life.  I hope so.  But you know.  Most of us will be there some day – a motherless child - as my own mother has been for more than ten years now.

Sometimes you feel like a motherless child.  Sometimes all seems lost, darkness has eclipsed light, hope is gone, and the sobs that seem to control your body are so relentless that you wonder if they will ever stop.  Is it for this simple reason that when God chose to send his Son into the world, he decided it would be the way every other child comes into it: from his mother’s womb, nursed at her breast, raised at her knee?  And is it for this reason that as he hung dying, one of Jesus’ last acts was to share his mother with his disciple, and I hope and believe, thereby to share her with us, too? 

Is Mary the surrogate mother for all motherless children?  Because God knows that sometimes we all feel like a motherless child, and sometimes that pain is as immediate as the tragic death of a mother – taken too soon from children who cannot really afford to lose her, who should not be asked to bear the loss.  If we are drawn to Mary, as Christ seems to draw us to her, is it for this – because sometimes I feel like a motherless child, sometimes you do? 

Shift your mind’s eye now to Taylor Anderson, who died in Japan and whose mother is now a childless mother – not without any children, but without that one.  If there is any grief to rival that of a motherless child, it is the grief of a childless mother.  I won’t rehearse the various scenarios that bring about this result – each of them its own brand of suffering, its own path through a darkness with so little oxygen it seems impossible to survive.  In this, too, are we linked to Mary – who took her child’s body in her arms as he was let down from the Cross: his blood and breath both drained from him.  And is this how God allows himself to be known to all childless mothers: in solidarity of grief and sorrow, by mingling Mary’s tears with theirs?

There are other griefs to be grieved, other sorrows to be known, other sufferings to endure, other tears to be shed in this world, God knows, a catalogue of them too grotesque to imagine.  But it may be one of the few bits of shorthand that actually says enough, that leaves nothing out - when we reflect on the sufferings of this world, the sufferings of those we love and care about, an on our own sufferings – perhaps it says enough when we say or sing, Sometimes I feel like a motherless child.

God knows that we feel this way – a motherless child, a childless mother.  And so he sent his angel Gabriel to a girl called Mary, who agreed to be the mother of God’s Son, and thereby to be the mother of us all.  Hail, Mary, full of grace, the Lord is with thee.


Preached by Fr. Sean Mullen

The Annunciation of Our Lord, 2011

Saint Mark’s Church, Philadelphia

Posted on March 27, 2011 .