Only once in so many years, the 13th of May falls on a sunday. Those sundays are memorable in cosy Maastricht, no matter how bad the wheather might be… and most of the time, the wheather is bad.
Popular belief has a simple explanation for this. In the old popular faith of Western Europe, the cold days that repeatingly came in the beginning of May were attributed to the “Eisheiligen”, the “Ice Saints”, whose holidays are celebrated May 11th, 12th and 13th: St Mamertus, St Pancras (the patron of my hometown) and St Servatus. The latter happens to be patron of the city of Maastricht and holds a very important place in the identity and faith of the Maastrichtenaar. Servatus, the bishop of Tongeren, predicted the attack of the Huns in the 5th century, the legend has it, due to a vision he had of St Peter, who warned him and told him to go back and save the diocese. Tongeren, Peter said to Servatus, was bound to be destroyed by the Huns as a punishment for the sinful lifestyles of its inhabitants, much like the ancient Sodom and Ghomorra were punished by God’s wrath. Furthermore, Peter gave Servatus the keys to the Gates of Heaven, enabling him to forgive sins and open the Gates for sinners who otherwise would have been locked out of God’s kingdom. Servatus rushed back to Tongeren and moved the bishop’s seat to Maastricht, a city far better protected and able to defend the church against Attila’s heathen attacks. He’s been protector and saint of the city ever since, and people have been turning to him in prayer for ages. His reliquiae rest in the ancient Dome, the Sint Servaaskerk, on Maastricht’s main square. And while the legend can under no circumstances be regarded as a historic fact, it proves one very important thing: faith carries people through the roughest times in life, gives them strength and encourages them to keep their head up in times of struggle.
In this respect, the figure of St Servatus has given me hope as well. About a year ago, my parents were visiting an exhibition in the Roemer&Pelizaeus, Hildesheim. Medieval art was portrayed, especially from the Limburg area, including – of course – Maastricht. In their parental love, my parents got me a silver clip of the famous key of Sint Servaas – the key to the Gates of Heaven, the key to forgive sins, the symbol of St Servatus, a symbol of hope for this town and this region since 500 AD. I’m holding it in my hands right now, trying to figure out the importance this key stil has for so many people, including myself. Who doesn’t want to be near the keys to the Kingdom of Heaven? The tool to forgive? To start over and look back without hard feelings?
I for sure do.
And I bet my mother does as well. Only once in so many years, the second sunday in May falls on the 13th, on St Servatus’ day. Mother’s Day. A day artificially created by a religion very different than Christianity, but a day – so it seems – many of us needed to remember the gift they’ve been given by God in their mothers. But what about those who didn’t? Those who grew up without mothers, or at least without the love of a mother? My grandmother is a good person. A lovely old woman who is strong in faith and lives on the love of her family and community. However, she’s had a rough time – world wars, flight, hatred, the early loss of her husband – the ugly face of life. At some point, all that unhuman pressure must have muted that capability of motherly love inside of her so much that she struggled to pass it along. From what I know, my mother’s childhood was not characterized by warm lunches after school, a good-bye kiss in the morning and a good-night kiss in the evening. I have closed my eyes to this while I was boy, not being able to understand why my mother would cry on Mother’s day after calling Grandma. Today I understand a lot more, and I know I can never show enough grace and love to pay back the gift my mother’s given to me – even though she never got it herself. I know how troubled she must be again today. I called her a while ago and didn’t dare asking about Grandma. She’ll have to deal with it herself – it is in those moments that my mother is a daughter again, a child if you want, and all me and Dad can do for her is letting her know how much we love her.
I don’t know if my mother has managed to forgive Grandma for her childhood experiences. But as her son, there’s nothing I would wish for more. To know the troubling memories don’t hurt anymore. To know that she found peace with her mother, who – after all and despite everything – is still her mother, a person she will always have a unique bond with. It is today that I will pray to St Servatus. I will ask him to lend his key to Mum – to enable her to forgive and unlock God’s Kingdom of peace and happiness for the both of them. Please, Sint Servaas – give strength to my mother.
This moment, the sun breaks through.
Hoffnung means hope…