Canon Treasurer - Revd Canon Leanne Roberts
There are very few things that all human beings have in common, but having a mother – however known or unknown, happy or difficult – is one of them.
We all have, or had a mother. However, preaching on Mothering Sunday can be a bit of an elephant trap. It’s easy to get carried away with the really schmaltzy commercial secular stuff – pink cards, pink flowers, pink gin, all marketed for ‘Mothers’ Day’, all with gushing sentiments about ‘the best mum in the whole word’, or ‘mum, my best friend’. It can seem designed to make both mothers and children feel inadequate, or false, or just plain wretched.
We all have, or had a mother. But despite being a universal truth, it’s extremely complex and can lead to some of our deepest hurt as well as our greatest joy.
This is important for us as Christians, because our faith shows us more unflinchingly than the secular world how joy and sorrow are bound together tightly, and how this is an authentic part of the Christian life. In our Scriptures, motherhood is not ‘prettified’, nor is it sentimental, but carries a depth – which is as dark as it is light – that speaks to the very heart of God.
Our first reading shows us the sacrifice that Moses’ mother made just to keep him alive at a time when male Hebrew babies were being slaughtered – it is hard to imagine the terror she must have felt; and while she must have felt love, and relief that he was found, and that she was able to nurse him, she must also have felt pain at having to put her child at risk, and deny her real place in his life.
We might also wonder what effect her feelings had on her baby, and how this influenced him as he grew. A story, then, of light and dark in terms of the joys of parenthood.
Which leads us to our Gospel passage today, which is from the section we hear on the Feast of Candlemas, the joyful occasion of the baby Jesus being presented in the temple and recognized by Simeon as ‘the light to lighten the Gentiles, and the glory of the people Israel.’ We might imagine how his mother Mary’s heart must have swelled with joy and love, pride and confusion, when she heard this.
But today’s brief reading focuses on Simeon’s following words, which he addresses directly to her; he says, ‘This child is destined for the falling and the rising of many in Israel, and to be a sign that will be opposed so that the inner thoughts of many will revealed – and a sword will pierce your own soul too.’
These are words of foreboding, danger, mystery, and suffering. Again, light and dark, all bound up within love.
This shouldn’t, surely, come as a surprise to us? Here we are, in the middle of Lent, on a day where there is a brief respite, some refreshment in the midst of our time in the wilderness. As we approach Passiontide we see only too clearly in our Christian story how there is this dark side to love.
Yet despite the intensity and, in parts, the horror and violence of the Passion narrative, Christians are often not very good at acknowledging this. Which is a shame, because this is something immensely valuable that we have to offer a society that invests its hopes and dreams in some disneyfied version of love, which often means unrealistic expectations, shallow outworkings, and inevitable disappointment. Although there is a temptation for us to go along with this, to keep the idea of ‘love’ as something pink and glittery and sentimental, we need to be able to show that love is messy and confusing as well as healing and precious, and that this is all contained by God.
In fact, the life, and death, and resurrection of Jesus shows us that our lives are never meant to be neat and tidy, that redemption and wholeness are found in the pain and messiness of living. It was as much love that led to the terrible death of Christ as it was love that enabled his resurrection; and we miss the nastier bits of the passion narrative and skip onto the smiles of Easter Day at our peril. Because if we do so, we reduce this great story of love to something neat, and easy, and – yes – sentimental. Which can never transform us as deeply as it needs to, because our own experience of love is never quite so sanitised.
We are steeped in imagery and language of God as ‘Father’. This, of course, is how Jesus himself addresses God – as ‘Abba’, daddy, father. There is richness in this for us, and it teaches us a lot about the intimacy of relationship, the concern and care that is to be had from our encounters with the divine.
But what are we missing? We know that God is not gendered, unable to be limited to human descriptions, and yet is seems much harder for us to consistently think of God as mother. I wonder why? So many descriptions of God and his love for us are so ‘motherly’ (and I don’t mean female, necessarily – we know that mothering is not confined by gender): Scripture teaches us that our God is caring, attentive, tender, desirous of good for us, ever present, mindful of all our needs.
When we allow ourselves to stand unprotected before God, and bask in his loving regard, isn’t this essentially a perfect experience of ‘mothering’, which can heal our own experiences of less than perfect human relationships?
The Gospels teach us, through the words and actions – and, ultimately, death and resurrection – of Jesus that God is as much mother as father. With Christ as our pattern and our guide we are to inform our own caring and loving along the lines of his regard for each of us.
This is not always easy to do. We might reflect upon how we are shaped and determined by our own, unique experience of mothering, regardless of who provided that care. We might seek guidance to help us tell the difference between our giving to receive - or to make ourselves feel better, our to fulfil our own fantasies about our ‘goodness’ - and when we are truly acting with love towards others in the full knowledge that this will be costly, and often painful, but is life-giving, and holy, and required nonetheless.
We are all called to mothering of one kind or another, because we are created in the image of God who tends us as his beloved children.
As we set our face towards accompanying Jesus to the cross, let us pray for strength and grace to bear the darker, costly aspects of love as well as its delights.
While this might not work as a message on your average Mother’s Day card, it resonates more deeply and honestly with the rich and mysterious realities of motherhood, and our most intimate interdependencies, than all the flowers and greeting cards can ever do.