Some Mother’s Day thoughts on faith, hope and love

COFFEE WITH WARREN, with Warren Harbeck
Cochrane Eagle, May 7, 2008


Now faith, hope, and love abide, these three; and the greatest of these is love.” —The Bible, 1 Corinthians 13:13

Every year when Mother’s Day rolls around, we are treated to a treasure chest of great quotations about the special bond between mother and child.

There is a line from the French poet/novelist Victor Hugo, for instance: “A mother’s arms are made of tenderness and children sleep soundly in them.”

And of course, who can overlook the words by Helen Steiner Rice, “the poet laureate of inspirational verse”?

“A mother’s love is . . . patient and forgiving / when all others are forsaking, / And it never fails or falters / even though the heart is breaking . . . .”

In a similar vein to these two quotes, I’d like to add another, one I believe is especially appropriate for Mother’s Day:

“Now faith, hope, and love abide, these three; and the greatest of these is love.”

It’s the final line of the biblical passage on “the more excellent way” of love found in St. Paul’s First Letter to the Corinthians, chapter 13.

The passage begins with those timeless words: “If I speak in the tongues of mortals and of angels, but do not have love, I am a noisy gong or a clanging cymbal.”

At the heart of the passage is a reading popular at weddings and the likely inspiration for Rice’s verse. It is a description of what this kind of love (frequently referred to by the Greek word, agape) is like:

“Love is patient; love is kind; love is not envious or boastful or arrogant or rude. It does not insist on its own way; it is not irritable or resentful; it does not rejoice in wrongdoing, but rejoices in the truth. It bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things. Love never ends.”

These words should apply to all our interpersonal relationships, of course, and not just the mother-child relationship.

But there is a special maternal meaning I want to explore in the concluding reference to faith, hope and love. My comments will be based on my own faith journey and reflections as a Christian.

Faith, hope and love are sometimes referred to as “the theological virtues,” because they flow from God, predispose people to live in relationship with God, and underlie all other virtues.

Faith, in this sense, is the longing toward and trust in God which, when nurtured by teaching and example, grows in the knowledge of what it means to be a true human being made in the divine image.

Hope, in part, is that confident expectation that flows from faith; it is also a way of speaking about the object of one’s faith and trust.

Love, in this context at least, is that unifying bond of affection – that oneness of hearts – that, when given the possibility and opportunity, acts in the best interests of the other, often sacrificially. (This kind of love is not to be confused with modern culture’s caricature of romance, or with exploitative, obsessive, or other dysfunctional relationships.)

Relating all this to motherhood, I think the 19th-century English novelist George Eliot may have come close to this meaning of love in the line: “Life began with waking up and loving my mother’s face.”

In fact, it seems to me that, at the moment of birth and in the days soon thereafter, far from having a separation of faith, hope and love, we have a union – a singularity – of the three. (Adulthood, with its cares and fears, may well be the greatest threat to this beautiful singularity.) The newborn, in its innocence, instinctively longs for the face, arms and breasts of its mother, the unquestioned hope for the new phase of life it has just entered. Faith embraces hope. Love is that awesome bond that invites – and increases within – the embrace of faith and hope.

Another way of saying this is that love finds its expression and satisfaction in faith and hope. Thus, “the greatest of these is love.”

St. Augustine captured well the spiritual significance of this relationship when he said, "Thou hast made us for Thyself, O Lord; and our heart is restless until it rests in Thee."

Applied to the sacred symbolism in mother and child, we return full circle to Victor Hugo’s words: “A mother’s arms are made of tenderness and children sleep soundly in them.”

Thank you, mothers, for receiving us tenderly into your arms. And thank you, newborns, for reminding us in your innocence what faith, hope and love are truly all about.

© 2008 Warren Harbeck

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