8am, 10.45am Mothering Sunday 31/3/19
(Exodus 2.1-10) 2 Corinthians 1.3-7 John 19.25b-27
Today, some people will come to church because it is Mothering Sunday. And some people will stay away because it is Mothering Sunday. For some it will be a day for thanksgiving and remembrance, a chance to honour and celebrate mothers and the family bonds. But many will bring to the day their experience of having lost mothers or children, or of abuse, or of not being able to have children, and more. And for some of those people, today’s focus only adds pain.
It’s therefore very helpful that our Gospel doesn’t present us with a picture of ideal, comfortable family life. In fact, it would be hard to find that anywhere in the Bible. Instead we have brought before us a most distressing scene where a mother is losing her son to death by brutal execution. The holy family is being torn apart. And it is likely that Joseph has been dead for quite some time. Mary is at the point of being left destitute.
What will be left, and what Jesus establishes with his words from the cross is an unconventional home. John and Mary. Except that Jesus never really spent any time upholding the idea that convention or traditional values were what mattered in family life. I have listed before from this pulpit the many shocking words and actions of Jesus which repeatedly made clear that his kingdom was about something much bigger than the cosy family.
For all these reasons, the last thing we need here today is sentimentality or nostalgia. If this day is to offer anything of sustenance, if it is to be for everyone, it must provide for our healing rather than open wounds.
You may say, well let’s recover what it was all about originally, before it became Mother’s Day. That’s not so easy. We can’t go back in time, and the origins of both Mothering Sunday and Mother’s Day are mixed, complex, a little dull to dwell on, and they vary around the world.
I would just say that there is some irony in the American influence on the way today is marked in our nation. The driving force behind the US Mother’s Day was Anne Jarvis, for whom it mattered to recognize the sacrifices made by mothers. She fought for a national holiday, and achieved that, arguing that until then all the holidays seemed to honour male achievements. But when the day became commercialized and romanticized she was appalled and later fought to abolish it.
This is a day fraught with difficulty and if it is to remain of value as a Sunday in our Church Year we must face up to that. It seems to me that the Mothers’ Union has it right with their theme this year for Mothering Sunday: ‘Nurturing hope in a hurting world’.
That’s exactly what our Gospel is about. And while the epistle speaks of a God of compassion, it is saying, if you want to be brought into that place, with Christ, where you may share in God’s comfort, then you will also share in Christ’s sufferings. And the Old Testament (which was read at the 8 o’clock service) tells of the rescue of a baby in danger of death – the young Moses drawn from the water.
Nurturing hope in a hurting world. This is a day, and this is a place, where we need to be able to come with all the hard realities of our lives, and for God to hear us and understand us and promise us healing.
So our model of motherhood is Mary. For the Church, she is the archetype of faith and hope. She was told in her earliest days as a mother that a sword would pierce her soul. An intimation of the sacrifice that was to come.
And after she had conceived and met with Elizabeth she sang a song. Not a song about family bliss and decorating the nursery. It was a song of hope for the world. The Magnificat. Scattering the proud. Putting down the mighty. Exalting the humble and meek. Filling the hungry. Sending the rich away empty.
Mary was a young mother with a remarkably big vision and we should honour her, and be proud of our church’s dedication to her, and ask how we may follow her example. Of course, we may rightly wish to honour and remember our individual mothers today, but for the Church this day has always had a concern for the wider family into which God calls us. The Mothers’ Union therefore supports education programmes around the world in parenting, literacy, and finance, because such practical help is a source of hope. It is true to Mary’s song.
It is true to what happened near the cross of Jesus. There were five people standing there, but two in particular would be bereft. John was losing the closest of friends. Mary was losing a son.
And Jesus invites them to turn their gaze away from him and to see each other. ‘Woman, here is your son’. And to John, ‘Here is your mother’.
Actually that translation lets us down. The King James Version says, ‘Woman, behold your son’, and, ‘Behold your mother’. That’s more like it. Modern translators think ‘behold’ is a bit old-fashioned but it is still used today. I searched for a recent use of it and came across an article entitled, ‘Behold, the stunning all-screen iphone12 of your dreams’.
It’s an excellent translation and anything else flattens out that sense of being stopped, arrested, and brought to attention by the wonder, the surprise to be presented. It features through the whole story of salvation, from ‘Behold, I have given you every herb’ at the beginning of the Bible, to ‘Behold, I make all things new’ at the end. And many along the way including, ‘Behold, thou shalt conceive’ and ‘Behold, the Lamb of God’.
At the most basic level it’s like the notes on the tannoy in an airport or rail station to get your attention before the announcement. But it’s much more. It carries the sense that what follows needs more than a glance. You are not simply being prepared to receive a piece of information. Mary and John were being invited to a new way of seeing.
Behold. The word ‘hold’ in there means this is about something sustained. Yet the paradox is that while you are actively holding someone or something in view, when you behold, you are also letting go and giving yourself. You are being invited to be open to something which you do not yet fully know, which has the capacity for surprise. It’s a kind of death and resurrection. You are relinquishing control with the promise that in beholding you will be open to something new, a gift of life.
It’s a call to contemplation. There’s a tradition in the Church of beholding the consecrated bread and wine, and the elevation during the prayer of consecration is to allow people to behold the divine presence. There’s another tradition which says no, that’s a mistake, because God can be found anywhere. But the truth is in both. We take the matter of this world, bread and wine, and after giving thanks, we recognize the holiness. That’s not to limit God. It is to open our eyes to the potential to see the divine in all creation, not least in our brothers and sisters. The sacredness which we can so easily miss.
Mary and John were losing Jesus. But they were to find Christ in each other. Nurturing hope in a hurting world, in a divided nation and in torn families, is only going to be possible if we learn to behold. If people relate to each other with a recognition of the sacred in each other. We may disagree with someone but we can never disregard them. We’re called to behold, for the hope of the world will only ever be found in each other’s faces.