When I lived in Armenia in the late 1990s, there was one question people would ask me more than any other: “Which do you like better Armenia or America?” After dozens of attempts to answer this impossible question, it dawned on me that the best answer was another impossible question: “Who do you like better your mother or your father?” This reply changed the topic of conversation quickly, for who is bold enough to attempt an answer to such a question?
Well, it turns out that the third-century Saint-Cyprian of Carthage-was bold enough to attempt an answer; and not just about his earthly mother and father, but his heavenly ones as well. Trying to wrap his mind around the mystery of the almighty and transcendent God the Father, alongside the nurturing and imminent mother Church, Cyprian came up with this axiom; “He cannot have God as Father, who has not the Church as his Mother.”
In this season of Mother’s Day and Father’s Day in the United States, you probably will not find Cyprian’s quote on a hallmark card. But to fully experience these celebrations, we would do well to visit church on these days. For in church, we recall that fathers and mothers and families reflect something of the nature of Go and not the other way around. And following Cyprian’s quote, before we recognize Fathers and God The Father, we must start with Mothers and the church who is The Mother.
Mothers do indeed come first. That’s life. My kids learned to say ‘Ma-ma’ before they said ‘Da-da’. Mama is the first person any of us ever saw, and often continues to be the first to greet her child in the morning and tuck them in at night. And it is the same in our spiritual life. The first image we see in any Armenian church is Mary who is the “type” of the church. The first words that come out of our mouth in worship are to ask our mother Mary to speak well of us to The Father. The Church, with Mary at our lead, is our nurturer. We learn the ABC’s of the spiritual life from her in Sunday School and ACYOA. She is our comforter and nurturer, not only when we are little, but nurturing us throughout our lives when pastor and parishioner work together to care and counsel those who are in need. The mother church nurtures and loves her children unconditionally and always, there is nothing you can do to make her stop caring for you.
So mother and mother church are first, but in herself she is not enough. We must start with the love of our mothers, but are incomplete without the love of our Father. Can anyone point to where God the Father is depicted in the art and architecture of the Armenian Church? We very rarely depict Him. When you depict someone, they are close to you; on the same level. God the father is transcendent and imposing, beyond expression and depiction. But although you can’t see God the father, you should be able to hear him. He is the one who spoke in thunder on Mt. Sinai, giving the 10 commandments, telling us what we should and shouldn’t do to live a good life. His admonishing voice is heard through the prophets, and is summed up in Proverbs; “The fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom.” God is heard decisively through his beloved Son Jesus Christ, who says that his Father wishes us to be perfect as He himself is perfect.
Where the Mother Church’s instinct is to love and nurture, God the Father instructs and transforms. Where we have Mother’s love, no matter what we do and how we behave—Our Father asks more of us, holds us to something higher in terms of behavior, and challenges a child to become more than what they currently are. Fathers are givers of love, but are often also the giver of the law and enforcer of the rules in the family. Robert Frost said “You don’t have to deserve your mother’s love. You have to deserve your father’s. He’s more particular.”
So, who do you like better, your mother or your father? Well of course we love and need both in order to mature in all aspects of our life; physical, mental, emotional and spiritual. In the life of the church, as in our daily life, it is often Mother who builds us up, even as Father beckons us forward. As we celebrate the love and sacrifice of our earthly mothers and fathers in this summer season, let us deepen that celebration by paying a visit to mother church, giving thanks for her care and calling on God the Father to guide us in His paths of righteousness.