Thoughts on Mothering Sunday
Here we are then on this Sunday in the middle of Lent that rejoices in a wonderful variety of different names – actually, rejoice is a good word to start with. One name, Laetare Sunday, comes from the first word of the entrance song in the Missal and means rejoice [Rejoice in the Lord always – Philippians 4.4].
So, that’s an indication that the feel of this day is a bit different. Its traditional old English name was Midlenting Day and was a special day-off from the rigours of Lent; that got it another name, one I was certainly used to when I was young, Refreshment Sunday. Of course every Sunday is a festival, a Day of Resurrection, and is not part of Lent – do the count of 40 days and it only works if you don’t include Sundays!
Think of our church, it’s been here for hundreds of years and thousands on thousands of people have been baptised here into the Christian faith. That makes the place where we were christened the mother church for us in our Christian lives, where we started on the pilgrim journey that has taken us from there to………….. Well you can put in the details from your own life as you’ve moved around.
This is the origin of Mothering Sunday where, in a largely agricultural and non-mobile society, people went back to the church in which they were baptised and made a gift to it. It was only in Victorian times that this developed into the custom of children who now lived and worked away from home joining families for the day and bringing mother a gift. [And jumping on one of my hobby horses: Mother’s day is an invention of the American gift and card industry.]
So, today is a special day to give thanks for mothering itself, perhaps for Mother Church and for our own mothers. But it’s also a day that many people have found really difficult because it has so much that overloads it – life is not perfect. How many people on this day will be suffering their own private griefs and sorrows: for children, for families, for mothers who feel abandoned, for mothers or children who have died, for breakdowns in relationships? Many will be feeling sad today as coronavirus/COVID-19 means that families may not be able to gather, older mothers will have to be left, at least physically, distanced, when so much that is normal for us is totally changed. [It feels really odd for me to be writing this down – I haven’t done this for over 30 years.]
The Church gives us choice in our readings for this Sunday – I’d chosen our readings long before it looked as if we wouldn’t be together in Church – and here we have Jesus to speak to us today through Mary, his mother, and the disciple who was his closest friend, John.
Mary has been rather submerged by centuries of church tradition: we’ve seen her so often in sculpture and in paintings where what comes across is of rich clothing in the most expensive of renaissance paint, rather than the reality of a first century woman in Roman occupied Palestine. We stop seeing Mary and Joseph who both defy the customs of their day to go along with God’s plan: Mary’s yes to the angel and Joseph’s dream.
We see the birth of this child in Bethlehem and their going to present him in the Temple with Simeon’s prophecy of a sword piercing Mary’s soul too. The family flees to Egypt and then makes their home up north in Nazareth. We don’t see much of the hidden years but John’s gospel sets Jesus first sign in what seems to be a family occasion, a wedding in the town at the bottom of the hill on which Nazareth stands and Mary’s there too, worrying about the wine running low, and reacting as a mother – do something, son.
Then when she comes to see Jesus while he’s teaching he says no to her coming in and tells people that his family is all who are with him. Mary was known to the whole group and probably went around with them – why else would she be in Jerusalem when Jesus’ ministry is seemingly brought to its end on that Friday out at Golgotha? Was she at the Last Supper – she was certainly there in that Upper Room on the day of Pentecost?
It’s a very brief gospel we’ve read today but it brings together the themes of mothering and the passion of Jesus. What a moving and emotional moment it is as Jesus hangs in the torture and agony of the cross, his mother and John, the beloved disciple, close by. There too are Mary, the wife of Clopas [We’ll see Clopas and, presumably, Mary, on the Emmaus road on Easter day], and Mary Magdalen with the other women, but only one man. They remain faithful to the end. All the other men have deserted him and fled.
What must Mary have been going through as her son died, in that foulest of executions we’ve devised for each other, while she stood there and watched? Then, struggling to breathe, Jesus leans down and says to his mother, ‘This is now your son’ and then to John, ‘This is now your mother’. The gospel is showing Jesus speaking not just to the two people there beside him but to all of us who want to try to be his followers.
We have responsibility to nourish and care for one another. It is more than just blood ties that bind us together, important though they are on this day, but it is our common humanity that really matters. Now in these uncertain and rather frightening times we are living through that’s the message we need to hold on to really firmly. It’s the most important message that is being got out in our world. We all need to find ways to look out for everyone else.
Our road has got a WhatsApp group going – it can be a little frustrating but it is making all the neighbours aware of one another. The phone is a vital tool, especially for those who are not so techie minded. It is a very important demonstration of what we all know is central to our faith, that God is love and that humanity needs both to give and receive love as God does. Maybe we’ll all find a new way of being family.
The iconic nature of Mary finds itself most clearly in her mother’s love as an icon for all our loving: love is vulnerable, it suffers, it takes risks. If we didn’t love, if we couldn’t love, then those painful realities that so easily turn our lives into turmoil – rows, loss, broken relationships, sickness, death – would all matter far less to us. But they hurt acutely because we do love.
Julian of Norwich, in the late 14th century, wrote, “A kind, loving mother, who understands and knows the needs of her child will look after it tenderly because it is the nature of a mother to do so. As the child grows older, she changes her methods, not her love. This way of doings things is our Lord at work in those who do them. Thus God is our Mother.” That’s a thought to finish on today!