There is a bridge in the town where we live that crosses the river flowing through the center of the town. Since we walk everywhere in our little mission base, and since we must cross the bridge to get to just about anywhere, it has become quite familiar to all of us. But when we first arrived, I was quite terrified every time we set foot on that bridge. My two littlest boys would, as boys do, take with abandon, running to its edges to peer over at the flowing rover or toss rocks into it. The railing on that bridge is only a handrail. Their toes tipped precariously over the edge every time they came near it. And the twenty foot drop to the river below made my heart beat hard and fast.
I quickly made a rule that they must hold my hand or walk in the center of the bridge when we crossed it. No going to the edge to look at the river. No throwing rocks. That rule was quickly overturned when I remembered that cars cross that bridge and being in the center of it may well be a more dangerous proposition than tiptoeing at its edge.
Each time we crossed that bridge my voice would grow shrill with fear as I called out for them to be careful and hurried my steps to follow behind them more closely than normal.
One day not long ago, as I meditated on the mysteries of the Rosary, I was struck with new insight into the Blessed Mother’s heart at the Finding in the Temple. It has always touched my heart that this mystery and the Presentation in the Temple are called Joyful Mysteries but are also included in the Seven Sorrows of Mary. For me, the paradox epitomizes her life and the life of every mother. In that moment when in the temple, Simeon recognized in her little baby the divine presence of the Almighty God and confirmed what she had heretofore shared with only very few people, Mary must have found great relief and joy. Someone else knew; someone else understood the journey she had been walking. But in that moment also came the announcement of something else I think she always knew – that this Son was not hers alone and that she would have to let Him go long before she would like.
Isn’t that the great paradox all mothers face? We are given these tiny, fragile beings who depend on us for their very survival. We feed them, shelter them, defend them, protect them with our very lives. And they spend the rest of their days preparing to leave us, venturing further and further outside of us, pushing the boundaries. And even when we manage to let them go, the voice inside us grows shrill with fear, calling to them from deep within, “Come back. Hold my hand. Don’t go too close to the edge. Watch out. It’s dangerous out there.”
When Jesus made his way to the temple as a young boy, He was doing exactly what He was born to do. He knew that. And in her perfection of virtue, I’m sure His mother knew as well that wherever He was, He was doing the work of His Father. But she also carried in her heart that piercing sword, the knowledge that one day He would leave her and not return to her side, cross the bridge without her for the final time. In that moment on the crowded streets of Jerusalem when she realized Jesus was no longer at her side, her mother’s heart ached. She looked intently for Him for three days. She burst open with relief when she found Him, admitting the great anxiety that had pierced her heart when she knew not what had happened to Him.
I have thought long and hard about that anxiety. Mary was perfect in virtue. It could not have been an anxiety borne of fear or lack of faith. She did not have the capacity for either of those. I think it must have been that sword that had pierced her heart all those years back in that temple, that sword that pierces every mother’s heart. I think maybe as Mary hurried her steps through the caravan of her relatives and friends asking for her Jesus, as she returned to Jerusalem heart pounding fast and hard, that she wondered if this was the moment: the moment that He would leave her and not return, His time to cross the bridge. And she knew that when He did, His life would be in danger. And that sword made her ache right through to its core.
As mothers, we all know that ache. There are very real physical dangers that threaten our children as they venture out in to the great wide world. But even more so, the world clamors for their souls. The risks are great. And each time they leave us, we wonder if we have done enough to prepare them, to protect them, to strengthen them to face the danger. We wonder if they will know when they are too close to the edge of the bridge, when they are in danger of slipping. And we pray mightily that they will choose to back away, stand firmly on safe ground, rather than to teeter on the edge, or worse yet, to jump right in. And we cry out in our hearts for them to cross with care, to stay safe. And always there is the fear that this could be the one time they cross over into the great big world and don’t look back, head of on their own and not look back.
As mothers, we don’t have the assurance that Mary did that with each and every departure, her Son went off to the work of His Father. We must carry the burden of brokenness that we have passed on to our children. We can only hope and pray that they will choose His will, His work, that they will discover His great purpose for them and pursue it with all their hearts. And that sword pierces hardest of all.
But even without perfect children, we are called to imitate the virtue of our Blessed Mother. We are called to let them go. We are called to recognize that they were not meant to hold our hands forever, that He has work for them to do, that He has work to do in them that we cannot do. And we must stand at the other end of the bridge and watch them cross. And like our Mother, each time we find them safely on the other side, we can sigh with the great relief of it all, turn the sorrow to joy. And we can pray together that when we do find them, they will be about their Father’s work.
As the days pass here, I am less fearful of that bridge in the center of town. I don’t demand their hands any more. I let those little men walk to the edge and look over the side. Occasionally, I even let them throw a rock or two. I walk a few steps behind. I walk in the knowledge that someday they will cross without me at their side, and I pray that I can give them all they need to make it safely to the place where they will be about His work. But for now, I sigh with the relief that this crossing is not that one, that today, I will follow them there and find them and bring them home. I sigh with the relief of the heart of my Heavenly Mother and I beg her to help me walk in the grace that she did each time her Son crossed that bridge.