An Early Mothers' Day: Bethlehem Reflections from Hester and Sandy

The Reverend Sandy Webb and the Reverend Hester Mathes both wrote at the end of a challenging day in and around Bethlehem on Monday, each of them reflecting on Biblical mothers memorialized in these sacred spaces, on land that is marked by conflict as well as by faith:

Mothers' Day
The Reverend Sandy Webb

Mothers' Day came early for us this year. 

We started Monday with a visit to the place where the Blessed Virgin Mary is said to have visited her sister, Elizabeth, while they were both pregnant. We continued on to Bethlehem, where Mary delivered Jesus. And, we finished up at the tomb of Rachel, Jacob’s favorite wife. 

All of the holy places that we visited today had something to do with motherhood, but none of these mothers had an easy life: Elizabeth delivered St. John the Baptist, who lived his life on the margins of society, and who was ultimately beheaded for running afoul of Herod Antipas’ wife and daughter. Mary suffered the shame of an extramarital pregnancy, and also watched her son die at the hands of the Roman Empire. Rachel had to wait fourteen years to marry Jacob, and then she died in childbirth.

The current condition of these holy sites is no easier than the lives of the women they commemorate:

Elizabeth’s hometown is high on a mountain. The Roman Catholics have built a church there with impressive mosaics and a lovely garden. Engraved on the twenty-foot wall in the garden is Mary’s “magnificat” translated into the many languages of the world. I felt for a moment that I had returned to Eden, but then I looked up and saw barbed wire along the top of the wall, a reminder of the ambient level of violence that surrounds us here.

Bethlehem is in “Zone A,” an area completely controlled by the Palestinian Authority – we had to pass through a checkpoint in Israel’s security wall to get there. The security wall is made of reinforced concrete at least a foot thick and at least thirty feet tall. There is razor wire along the top and guard towers no farther apart than a soldier’s line of sight. Life is different on the Palestinian side; the water is no longer drinkable, and the signs of poverty and unemployment abound.

Rachel’s tomb has been encircled by Israel’s security wall such that it cannot be accessed from the Palestinian side. The backdrop of our prayers for Rachel was the graffiti art that has been sprayed along the wall. 

Our day was supposed to a remembrance of the holy mothers in our spiritual heritage. It became a reflection on struggles both ancient and modern, on broken dreams, on lives that were not what I would have wanted them to be. 

Metaphors of mothers and fathers carry with them a great deal of emotional baggage, but they also carry with them a sense of love, accountability and hopefulness. My prayer at the end of a somber day is that these constructive attributes of motherhood will find their way into all of our hearts whenever and wherever the reality of our world is something less than what God wants it to be for us.  

Unfathomable Forgiveness
The Reverend Hester Mathes

The story of Joseph from Genesis was a formative story for me from a very young age. I fell in love with the musical and watched it performed both at Calvary Episcopal Church and Playhouse on the Square in Memphis many times. Beyond being dazzled by Joseph’s coat of many colors, I remember being just as dazzled by the unfathomable act of forgiveness he showed his brothers. Many years after the brothers’ plot landed him in slavery, Joseph finds it in himself to welcome them not only into his abundance in Egypt, but also into his heart.  

Today we celebrated the mother of Joseph and Benjamin, Jacob’s beloved Rachel, by visiting her tomb… almost.  We were on the other side of the dividing wall that cuts through Bethlehem, divided from Rachel’s tomb by a concrete wall. From our side we remembered the story of Rachel’s family as we read Genesis 35:16-21 and Ephesians 2:12-22, and prayed for peace and reconciliation in Israel. 

Prayer by the Dividing Wall Near Rachel’s Tomb 
written by the Reverend Hester Mathes and the Reverend Susan Prinz

Holy God, help us to be the Rachels in this world, giving birth to the sons of mercy and reconciliation, and the covenant of promise that brings peace to all.

Help us to be as Rachel’s firstborn, Joseph, who welcomes back all of his brothers with mercy, nurture and hope, to be reconciled to one another, and no longer strangers to the covenant of promise.

Help us to be as Benjamin, whose love of his father becomes the genesis of reconciliation.

As the living stones of God, help us to reach beyond justice for mercy, to imagine and work for abundance for all, to eliminate the dividing walls of hostility, and to proclaim the peace of God that passes all understanding. 


Posted by Cara Modisett at 9:00 AM
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