I shouldn’t love Bruce Springsteen as much as I do. Most of my interests are more feminine in nature. I’m a professor of American women’s history. I practice a very female-oriented brand of spirituality. On the relatively rare occasions that I listen to music other than Bruce, it’s usually a female artist.
Bruce, an icon of modern masculinity, is one of the great loves of my life. He has based his entire career on exploring the questions and dilemmas of manhood, male friendship, and, of course, his relationship with his father. I’ve often wondered why he speaks so intensely to my heart and soul, given my inclination toward the feminine. I’ve never been able to figure it out. If I were to try to intellectualize it, I might say that his deep dives into the meaning of manhood appeal to my feminist, academic side. It’s rare to find such sensitive, critical examinations of masculinity in our popular culture. Or I might say that it’s because I come from a very similar background as he does – in fact, I’m from Youngstown, of all Bruce-related places. But none of that feels like the answer. Like the art, poetry, and spirit that Bruce conveys, there is no intellectualizing it. It just is.
Ironically, for all of his wrestling with masculinity, Bruce brings me back to a core feminine experience in “Jesus Was an Only Son.” In the lyrics of this gorgeous, devastating retelling of the crucifixion of Christ, Bruce has taught me a fundamental truth about motherhood.
The song is about Mary and Jesus on the night before his execution. In Bruce’s own words, he wanted to humanize the Virgin as a mother and to portray “Jesus as someone’s child.” Like Bruce, I was raised Catholic, but “escaped” much more definitively than he has. I don’t even consider myself a Christian. But this song connects me to that ancient story in a way that nothing else ever has. I’ve always found these lyrics heartbreaking, even before I had a child. But since my daughter was born, I can hardly listen to the song without coming apart. Once, I had to pull over on the side of the road because I was crying so hard after hearing it.
Bruce’s vision of the last hours of Christ have taught me what I now believe is the essence of motherly love. It’s an understanding that I would not have been able to articulate without this song.
The lyrics depict Mary beside her child as they anticipate his inevitable death the next day. On Christ’s final night, his mother offers this simple comfort:
A mother prays, “Sleep tight, my child, sleep well
For I’ll be at your side
That no shadow, no darkness, no tolling bell,
Shall pierce your dreams this night.”
This verse gets at the heart of Bruce’s lesson. It is an understanding of the most fundamental responsibility of motherhood, beyond love itself - the act of unconditional comfort. This mother, knowing she cannot save her child, thinks only of providing the one thing she can in grim circumstances – tenderness. She has nothing else to give. She cannot change his fate. Defying the reality of what is to come, Mary focuses only on the present moment, one of the last they will share. She sets aside her own anguish to offer solace to her son. In spite of the horror they will face with the dawning day, she draws her child’s attention to the last comfort she can give him, the last wish she can make for him - sweet dreams.
That wish seems impossible, knowing what they know. Her words are achingly selfless. Her simple, defiant act of creating space for peaceful, sweet sleep holds Jesus in his mother’s love hours before his end. It is all she can do. All they have is this one moment. As a universal icon of motherhood, especially at Christmastime, Mary – in Bruce’s creative hands – becomes real. His rendition of her caring resonates as the purest expression of the mother/child bond.
This heartbreaking scene crystalizes for me the essence of motherhood. No matter how dire the circumstances, when all else is gone, a mother still provides tenderness to her child. She makes him feel safe and loved, regardless of what is to come. Because of Bruce, I can now articulate this as a fundamental truth. This is the most basic responsibility of a mother.
So, despite his fifty-year quest to come to some understandings of manhood, Bruce’s empathy, his ability to inhabit his characters, and his intuition have created one of the most affecting versions of one of the oldest stories of womanhood. If I were to try to intellectualize my unending love of Bruce, I guess that is as good a reason as any.
This post originally appeared at Blogness On the Edge of Town.