The gracious exploration of Avatar: The Last Airbender continues. Check out the introduction to the series here. Spoilers abound!

One of the unintuitive themes of Avatar: The Last Airbender is its choice to explore the power of the maternal in opposition to a world at war. At the risk of oversimplification, the power of the maternal is some combination of healing, comforting, defending, and empowering, all rolled up into one. Especially when juxtaposed with the aggressive, masculine power of the soldier, a mother’s love is (wrongly) viewed as weak or ineffective against the great dangers of this world. It’s the stuff schoolyard insults are made of: you too might have grown up around a slew of “yo’ mamma” jokes and the insults of “mama’s boy.” But ATLA poses the inverse question: what if the power of the maternal is key to the end of war and violence?

Let’s begin our exploration of gospel themes in Avatar: The Last Airbender with a look at the show’s leading lady, Katara of the Southern Water Tribe. She is introduced in the show’s first episode and forms the core of the show’s protagonist team, with airbender Aang and warrior brother Sokka.

At the outset of the series, Katara is stuck, growing into the mold of a domestic housewife instead of receiving the proper training to develop her latent waterbending skills. The great war with the Fire Nation was responsible for the death of her mother and the village’s men, including her father, left years ago to join in the fight. Raised by her grandmother, Katara has clear waterbending gifts, but the war has taken away the opportunity for her to train and forced her into the role of the domestic. 

When Katara and her brother discover the Avatar frozen in an iceberg, her call to adventure strengthens her deep-seated maternal power. Katara senses a duty to support the unfrozen Aang on his journey. How could he make it in the world without her guidance and protection? Throughout the series, Katara will realize that her waterbending powers grow as she embraces her maternal instinct. She wrestles with the “mother bear” instinct to save her “cubs” from all harm and learn to avoid enmeshment with the wounded men she partners with. She fights against sexism and partners with other expressions of womanhood that oppose and compliment her own maternal duties. When she completes her journey into womanhood, she will have a mature and thorough understanding of how to use her waterbending powers to defend and heal the broken around her.

In the show’s first of three seasons, Katara learns some of the innate dangers and faults that the maternal heart can gravitate towards. She tries to hide painful truths from Aang about his past as a mother might try to keep the terrors of the world away from her children. When the truths about Aang’s past are uncovered, Katara is able to temper Aang’s rage with that same caring instinct. She learns that the ideal love of the maternal cannot keep their children from pain, but soothes and heals the unavoidable pains of life. Also in the first season, Katara befriends and becomes smitten with freedom-fighter Jet, a tween Robin Hood figure who raids Fire Nation caravans. The attraction disappears, however, when she discovers that Jet and his bandits have no qualms with collateral damage, attacking soldiers and civilians alike. Her attraction to Jet made her blind to the clues that his woundedness was manifesting as revenge, and she learns how enmeshing herself with another is a danger to those wielding maternal power. 

Katara’s season one arc ends when she confronts waterbending master Paku, who refuses to teach his skills to women for the sake of “tradition.” Katara is enraged by the master’s sexism, challenging him to a duel that she eventually loses. In the loss, however, the duo discovers that Paku had once courted Katara’s grandmother, Katara’s surrogate mother. Even though he defeats Katara in their duel, Paku has an epiphany that his tradition is empty without love. Katara unlocks the wounds of Paku and opens him up to healing and change, a true manifestation of maternal power.

In her second season arc, Katara is paired with two new female foils, who each embody other expressions of femininity. Earthbender Toph flees her overprotective parents and joins the show’s core protagonists, and she models a femininity that is strong and empowered but decidedly not maternal. The two young women bicker across the season over dueling expressions of the feminine. Toph projects her mother’s overbearing nature onto Katara, which clarifies for Katara how the maternal instinct can backfire. Katara also projects onto Toph, confusing Toph’s independence for woundedness and cries for help. The duo eventually comes to a peace, recognizing that there are different ways to be a woman. Katara’s second foil is the team’s new antagonist, Prince Zuko’s firebending sister Azula. While Toph’s rejection of the maternal stems from a thoughtful rejection of her family system, Azula’s rejection of the maternal stems from deep and unhealed wounds. Azula came to believe her absent mother feared her firebending prowess, so she abandoned the family. If Katara embodies the maternal, and Toph thoughtfully abandons it, Azula loathes it. She seeks to destroy it in others and herself because she feels rejected by it. She embodies for us a heartbreaking question: What good is a mother’s love if you believe you cannot earn it?

By the third season, Katara seems to have learned how to thoughtfully seek out the power of the maternal, but her growth produces newfound temptations. Katara learns from the psychotic waterbender Hama how to bend the water in other people’s bodies, allowing her to control the physical motions of others. If the ideal mother protects and heals, then her opposite (to use Jungian language) consumes, controls, and smothers. When Katara is offered the opportunity for revenge on the man who killed her mother, a new and dark side of her personality emerges. On a mission for maternal revenge, she doesn’t hesitate to use this new “bloodbending” technique to torture information out of enemy solders, and she expressly rejects the idea of forgiveness. A “mother bear” instinct to protect can easily become a menace.

When the killer of Katara’s mother is indeed found, we discover him to be a hollow shell of a man, henpecked by his own mother and shamelessly weak. Katara is given the opportunity to kill the pathetic man, but at the last possible moment, she walks away from her opportunity for revenge. Neither extending mercy nor executing judgment, Katara chooses instead to retain her core maternal virtues: power in the service of protection and healing. Seeing this man is no longer a threat, she leaves him to his pathetic life with his own ill-tempered mother and returns to the team in peace.

In the show’s climactic final battle, Katara defeats Azula, the firebending prodigy who loathes everything maternal. Chained to a sewer grate in defeat, Azula is filled with rage and grief as the maternal ideal she tried to kill off has not only won the day, but spared her death. It turns out the maternal cannot be destroyed, as Azula had wished. Despite her firebending prowess, it is too strong for that.

Katara’s journey in the series is both beautiful and powerful. We are presented with a young woman learning how to love and embody the maternal ideal while navigating its complex dangers. She does not confuse the maternal with the domestic, because the maternal is too powerful to simply remain in the home. Nor does she confuse the maternal with overbearing control, which is really just a manifestation of fear. Instead, the maternal ideal is empowering and able to provide protection and safety to those in its orbit. It’s so powerful, in fact, that it played a key role in ending a century-long war.

I once officiated a funeral for a beloved mother. Though the family was not the churchgoing type, the mother had requested a Christian funeral before she passed. When I shared a list of traditional funeral readings from the scriptures, readings like the resurrection of Lazarus and Job’s insistence that he knows his Redeemer lives, the bereaved family requested something different. Did I have anything, a Bible passage or a set of prayers, that spoke to the love of a mother?

We discussed a number of possibilities, but nothing seemed to fit the bill. The family ended up deciding on a selection from Proverbs 31, an unexpected choice given how that passage has been a source of law-based frustration for many women within the church. During a time for eulogies, this mother’s three children each stood and spoke about her maternal ideal and love. As the passage says, a good mother’s children will “rise up and call her blessed.”

Katara’s powerful, maternal love is a reflection of the same love witnessed by attendees at this funeral, and it is a reflection of the maternal side of God’s love, who gathered his children together as a hen gathers her brood under her wings (Mt 23:37). In this series, Katara is a catalyst for freedom, comfort, and healing, all reflections of the divine love of a God who cares. The maternal love of God is not fully found in the domestic, though that can be one avenue for God’s love to manifest. Instead, the maternal power of God exists whenever God deals with the matters of the heart. The non-enmeshed, un-manipulative, one-way love of God to people who are wounded by life’s intrinsic suffering is reflected by the maternal ideal. Motherly love, as witnessed by Katara, is a true taste of heaven.

As Katara embodies the maternal ideal, her brother, Sokka, wrestles with the masculine ideal. The duo share the challenge of growing into adulthood with righteous but absent parents as their guides. In parallel to Katara, we’ll next look at Sokka’s story of deep humiliation, which in turn leads to his great exaltation.