Sermon: Fourth Sunday of Lent, 6 March 2016, St John the Divine

Readings  1 Samuel 1: 20-28; Colossians 3: 12-17; John 19: 25b-27

Preacher  The Revd Neil Summers

When it came to my own Mum, I used to scour the shops for a card which celebrated Mothering Sunday rather than its relatively more recent incarnation, Mother’s Day.  For today was never meant to be solely about mothers; its original meaning was more about mothering. The day itself grew out of the medieval tradition of visiting the mother-church and taking an offering for presentation at the altar there. The fact that this was done at the mid-point of Lent made it something of a break in the penitential season.  I’m not sure how many people fast in Lent nowadays, but, if you do, I hope you remember that Sundays don’t count!  That’s because every Sunday is a festival marking the day of Resurrection.  But Midlenting Day, as it was called, was a special day-off, and hence was also known as Refreshment Sunday (or Laetare Sunday, from the Latin word for ‘rejoice’). It was only in Victorian times that this was developed into the custom of sons and daughters who lived and worked away from home joining their families for the day, and bringing small gifts for their mothers.

So, today is a unique day in the year to give thanks for mothering itself, perhaps for ‘Mother Church’, and also for our own mothers.  But we have to acknowledge this is a day on which some people find coming to church at all very difficult.  For some women – and men too – this day underlines their silent, personal griefs and sorrows. Quiet tears will be shed by many today: tears for children who have died, or for children who have rejected their parents, or for the relationships that never happened, or for the children that never were.  There will also be tears for mothers who have loved and been loved, but are now sorely missed, and there will also be tears for some mothers who have may have loved too much and for some who have not loved at all. All in all, a day of mixed emotions. Which brings us to today’s Gospel, providing a counterbalance against the risk of over-sentimentalising this day.

Mary, Jesus’ mother, is often submerged by centuries of church tradition that can too easily overlook the fact she was a teenage girl, pregnant before marriage; forced onto a long journey on the back of a donkey in the last stages of that pregnancy; compelled to flee with her betrothed and the baby as refugees to a foreign land.  Hardly the stuff of chocolates and roses. And it is only a few short weeks ago that we celebrated Candlemas, when the old prophet Simeon told Mary that a sword would come to pierce her heart, a prophecy tragically fulfilled on that first Good Friday as Mary waited at the foot of the Cross and watched the terrible agony of her dying son. Surely this is where the iconic nature of Mary finds its truest expression, as her mother’s love becomes an icon for all our loving. She teaches us that love is vulnerable, that it suffers, that it takes risks. If we didn’t love, if we couldn’t love, then those painful realities that upset the equilibrium of our lives – rows, sickness, broken relationships, loss and death – all these would matter far less to us. But we do love, and so they hurt acutely.

Mothering Sunday, placed not long before Holy Week, reminds us that a relationship, any relationship, without pain is likely to be a relationship without love. In fact, if we love, then we put ourselves in the very path of pain and suffering. To love is to put yourself at risk, and your heart will sometimes be wrung out, as our Lent study book this year puts it, ‘close-to-cracking’, sometimes broken altogether. But we can’t wish it any other way, for we are made in the image of a God of love, and real love, costs – it is a very expensive commodity, and sometimes we may have to pay for it with the currency of our tears.

We who have hindsight, we who live this side of Easter, know that the Cross proved to be the place of victory, and that after the apparent defeat of death came the flowering of new life. So if we want resurrection, if we want new life in our own lives and our relationships, then we must be prepared for the way of the Cross, because resurrection, by definition, can come only by way of risk, pain and suffering, which the Cross represents. The love of Jesus and the love of Mary both teach us that the only sort of loving and the only sort of living worth having are those which will take risks, which will place themselves in the path of suffering, which will face piercing even to the heart.

Mothering Sunday is a day to honour and celebrate all those who have provided mothering – in its widest sense – in our lives. Even those people who may have had difficult relationships with their own mothers will nonetheless know those people – both women and men – who have been their companions, who have influenced, supported, nourished and guided them in their lives. Today’s very brief gospel brings together the themes of mothering and the passion of Jesus. It is an intensely moving episode as Jesus hangs on the cross, his mother and John, the beloved disciple, close by. John is the only male figure mentioned here; all the rest are women. The supposedly strong people – the men – had deserted him, and he was left with a handful of grieving women who, despite the awfulness of what they were witnessing, remained steadfast and faithful to the end. We can scarcely comprehend the emotional and psychological pain Mary must have felt as her son died before her eyes. Jesus takes this moment of agony to say something profoundly important.   To his mother he says, ‘Here is your son’, and to his close friend, ‘Here is your mother’. In other words, you have a responsibility to nourish and care for one another if you are to try to follow Jesus. What binds Jesus’s followers together more than just blood ties is the recognition of one another’s humanity and the need both to give and to receive love. This is a whole new way of relating to one another and it finds its origin and expression in the God whose very nature is love. It has been remarked that, in this moment, a new way of being family is born.

One last thought: in ancient religions, the idea of Mother God was very closely related to the idea of Mother Earth or Mother Nature. It seemed only natural and obvious that a God who gave birth to the world must have at least something in common with a woman who gives birth. In the Jewish and Christian traditions, in the scriptures as well as subsequently, there are many examples of feminine imagery used for God, though many of them were conveniently ‘lost’ or deliberately subsumed over the centuries. One that survived even the darkness of the Middle Ages was Mother Julian of Norwich, the English mystic, who 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.” I know we routinely refer to God as our Father, but today, of all days, I am more than happy to leave the final word to Julian of Norwich, who concluded, ‘Thus God is our Mother.’  Amen.

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