Wednesday, March 05, 2008

Mothering Sunday

Readings: Luke 2: 34-35 + 1 Sam 1: 20-28

Here we are again. Another year has turned, the daffodils are peeking up through the soil, and children all over the country are either presenting their mothers with breakfast in bed… or, right now, rushing down to the newsagents in a last minute attempt to find a card or some flowers!

Motherhood is of course something that most people have to grow into. It’s a road that is paved with all sorts of good intentions…many of which get thrown out of the window the first time that your darling little baby turns to you and says ‘No…I won’t!’. Motherhood – and for that matter fatherhood – sort of creeps up on us. Here are five signs which conclusively prove that you have become a mother – which I found on the internet:

  • You start spending regular half hours in the bathroom…just to be alone!
  • You start hoping that tomato ketchup is a vegetable, since it’s the only one that your child eats.
  • You find that, without thinking about it, you’ve cut the crusts of your husband’s sandwiches
  • You hear your own Mother’s voice coming out of your mouth when you say “NOT in your best clothes!”

And finally…the most telling sign of all…

  • You use your own spit to clean your child’s face.

This morning’s readings invite us to consider something of both the joy and the pain of motherhood. In our first reading, from the 1st Book of Samuel, we see Hannah, Samuel’s mother, celebrating the birth of her long-awaited son. She is so grateful to God for the gift of a child, that she offers him back to the Lord – to serve in the Temple under Eli the Priest.

That’s a passage that has particular resonance for me – if I might be allowed to share a personal story. A few hours after I was born, it was discovered that I had a life-threatening condition, in which my tummy was twisted 360 degrees – so that no food would pass down my pipe. I was rushed to the Bristol Children’s Hospital, and while I went through very invasive surgery to correct the problem, my own mother prayed and prayed for her first child.

Obviously I survived. And around 35 years later, I went to visit my parents, to tell them of my decision to offer myself for ordained ministry. My mother was deeply touched by the whole event – because, as she explained, when she had been praying for me all those years before, she had said to God “If you let my son live, I will offer him to you!”. Like Hannah, my mother had decided to give her son back to the Lord. And as with Samuel, the Lord honoured the gift.

I’m just lucky that I didn’t end up being called Samuel myself!

In the chapter immediately after the passage we heard, Hannah celebrates the gift of her son with words that sound very similar to the Magnificat of Jesus’ mother Mary: “My heart rejoices in the Lord; in the Lord my horn is lifted high. My mouth boasts over my enemies, for I delight in your deliverance” (1Sam2:1). Later in the same song she sings of the Lord that “He raises the poor from the dust and lifts the needy from the ash heap” – very much a pre-echo of Mary’s exaltation, from Luke chapter 1, that “He puts down the mighty from their seat and exalts the humble and meek”.

This is typical Biblical imagery about what God does – about what the Kingdom of Heaven is like. The Kingdom is a topsy turvey place – in which all of our human perceptions of what life should be like are turned on their head. It’s a theme that we see repeated in our second reading.

When Mary and Joseph presented their new son Jesus to the Lord at the Temple, Simeon prophesied over the child – whom he recognised by divine light to be the promised Messiah. And his prophecy contained some strange words – topsy turvey words: “This child is destined to cause the rising and falling of many in Israel…” (Luke 2:34)

When we look at the subsequent story of Jesus, we can see what Simeon meant. Jesus would take simple, poor folk – fishermen, labourers, civil servants – and transform them into leaders of what would become a world-wide church. The great and powerful of the day, however, would have a different fate. The High Priests of Israel would be hated throughout the millennia for their part in Jesus’ downfall. The Temple itself would be destroyed in AD 70. Pilate would become the epitome of the distant ruler who washes his hands of his own responsibilities – and the mighty Roman Empire itself would ultimately fall…while the Kingdom of God advanced down the centuries. The kingdom of God was not advanced by political leaders, Caesars and Herods, but by simple everyday folk – like you and me. Later in his life, Jesus would pick up on these themes – especially in what are known as the Beatitudes: “Blessed are you who are poor, for yours is the Kingdom of God…” (Luke 6:20)

Both Mary and Hannah exalted at this prospect. There was real joy in the gift of motherhood they had been given, because they glimpsed something of the potential of the child they had borne.

But there is a darker edge to the prophecy of Simeon too. At the end of his promises about all that Jesus would achieve, there is a dark foreboding in his final line: “And a sword will pierce your own soul too” (Lk 2:35).

Simeon knows his Scriptures. He knows, for example, that Isaiah had prophesied that the Messiah would have to die to achieve his ultimate goal of saving the Earth. He knows that the path Jesus must tread is going to a difficult one. Perhaps he also knows that Jesus must out-grow the earthly human family of Mary and Joseph – and move to embrace all those who love God. There is the occasion when the boy Jesus stays in Jerusalem to discuss theology with the priests – rather than returning home with his parents…(which is the very next story in Luke’s gospel). And do you remember the occasion that Jesus was told of his mother and brothers being outside – when he responded that his mother and brothers were now all those who hear and act on God’s words? (Lk 8:21)

And that is something that many mothers – and fathers too – must experience. As children leave the nest, and make their own way in the world – there can be pain at their passing. There is a sense in which all parents are called to give back the gift of their child to the God who created them…just as my mother, and Hannah, and Mary did.

And there is worse pain still at the moment of losing a child…as many do. It is right, I think, that we should remember this morning the parents of Madeleine McCann, and now, in this latest week, the parents of little Shannon Matthews. Awful pain. Wretched. And their pain is repeated over and over again in the hearts of mothers and fathers of children – sick children, dying children, abducted children, abused children – throughout the whole world.

There is something for us to ponder here. Can it be that, in acknowledging the reality of this kind of pain, the Bible is warning us, all of us, not to hold too tightly on to the things of this world – even the relationships with which we are blessed?

God knows the kind of pain that human beings are capable of inflicting on each other. Whether that pain is caused by the evil actions of a few individuals – the child abductors and abusers. Or whether it is caused by the failure of the entire human race to stop killing each other, and to focus our efforts instead of finding cures for sickness, and starvation, and death. Can it be that by enlarging the scope of his own family to include all those who hear and obey God’s words, Jesus is inviting us to do the same? Can it be that Jesus is saying that he knows what a rotten place we humans have made this world. But here, in the Church, is a place where the topsy turvy Kingdom of God can at least offer a different way of being…a more collective way, a more community –based way. A way of mutual support – of holding one another up through all the pain of life, and yes of Motherhood.

Perhaps we would do well to remind ourselves of the original meaning of Mothering Sunday – the day when people returned to the church in which they were brought up…to their ‘mother church’…to remind themselves that we are not only given the blood-relations with whom we are blessed…but the whole of God’s people…all the brothers and sisters, and fathers and mothers in Christ that we share.


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