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Mothering Sunday - charming day and cause of endless lunches - is a late and American invention, which could so easily divert us from the serious business of Lent - watching with Jesus in the Wilderness, contemplating his ministry and preparing for the Passion. That said today has always been a 'Refreshment' or Laetare Sunday - a chance to rest from the more severe rigours of Lenten observance, although I hazard that such relief was from abstinence few of us would embrace. Today however there may be more than a few of our more advanced Anglo-Catholic parishes in London, where the clergy will be wearing pink vestments, (pink for Refreshment and not for the Marriage (Same Gender) Act). More likely it serves as a warning that, if we don't do something about it now, the opportunities of Lent - of community observance - will pass us by and we shall enter Holy Week with empty hearts and imaginations, and soft hands. But happily today we can both keep Lent and recall our mother Mary, symbol of compassion.
At St Mary-le-Bow, certainly one the last City churches to be rebuilt after the war (fifty years ago this year), one of the images chosen for the engraved glass screen and the sumptuous main altar frontal was one which I guess may have had an historic association with the church. It is quite simply a heart (of a slightly cheesy Valentine's Day shape) - a winged heart actually, with a whacking great sword running all the way through it. In one particular ancient devotion there are adumbrated in meditation the seven sorrows of Mary and this is sometimes depicted as her heart pierced by seven more or less large daggers. I find it faintly disturbing and when the frontal collapsed some years ago, the church council happily petitioned that the device should be omitted.
Yet these devotions rest upon the prophecy of Simeon at Candlemas, when Mary and Joseph brought the infant Jesus into the Temple at Jerusalem. Simeon predicted that a sword would pierce Mary's own heart (or soul), just as Jesus was set for the fall and rising of many. Whatever Mary made of that prophecy at the time, in the days of Jesus' Passion we sense that for her it was coming true. The Stations of the Cross make this especially plain. The Stations were set up along the road which Jesus walked in Jerusalem from the place of judgement to the place of execution and later became popular in churches to enable those who could not afford or manage to go on pilgrimage to Jerusalem to walk with Jesus on his final journey and to feel and hear the terrible clamour of the streets.
In the fourth of these stations Jesus meets his mother on the way to the cross. Although the Gospel tells us that his mother was present, we don't know that she was actually a bystander on the road; yet piety and sense suggests that she was. It is reasonable to assume that Jesus learnt what it was like to love, as we also learn, on his mother's knee - and yet equally he knew that you can't always fulfil the demands of human love if there is a conflicting loyalty, a calling from God. Remember that on one occasion Jesus was talking to some disciples and followers and was told that his mother and brothers and sisters were outside, and he replied that it was those who would do the will of God who were his mother and sister and brother. What Alan Bennett describes as 'on one occasion I recall he was downright shirty with [his mother]'.
And for Mary, this cruel tragedy of watching her innocent son dragged to his end, must have made her aware that to love someone properly you have to be prepared to let them go. The force of the Gospel narrative is that there is a certain inevitability about the execution of Jesus; as if human evil (and not Jewish evil, note well) must out, in destroying the human God.
I gather from someone who saw the Mel Gibson film of the Passion of Christ, that such is contemporary ignorance of the story of Jesus, that one New Yorker was heard to say half way through of Jesus, ' If that guy doesn't watch out, he's going get killed'. And the silence of Jesus before his accusers, which once struck me as painfully passive and submissive, speaks to me now and eloquently of a refusal to become embroiled in the human provisionalities of argument, beseeching and compromise. You cannot be saved by a God who is sent to an open prison for five years having persuaded the judge of mitigating circumstances. The death of Jesus describes the full gamut of human invented evil. The watching of Mary describes the birth of compassion - never learned and always arising from our own suffering.
There is perhaps a model here of the ministry of Christian service. First it must be compassionate, and perhaps often silent. It is unacceptable to attach any requirement of conviction or personal alteration to acts which seek to comfort or protect the weak. I am very out of sympathy with the Street Homeless policy operated in the City which insists that it is best for people on the streets to change their way of life.
Equally a social project run by a church needs to be about something more than problem solving. And although there is plenty of room for advocacy for the poor, for campaigning and strategic positioning, Christian service is - as Sam Wells reminds us - marked less by being for others than being with them. Knowing a homeless person's name may be more powerful than a letter to my MP. Christian service is with others, reflects the fact that, to quote Wells, God made a decision never to be except to be with us.
When my mother died, full of years and very diseased, having experienced many decades of indifferent health, I was to my surprise knocked for six! The grief was profound - as I should have known from ministering with too little compassion to families over thirty years. What had been withdrawn I guess was the unconditionality of a mother's love - she did not always applaud me (and I was not always good to her), but she never held back. Of course such a loss was redolent for incomplete faith and for my real needs which God's compassion answers.
Thus, St Anselm, 'Jesus, as a mother you gather your people to you, you are gentle with us, as a mother with her children...You comfort us in sorrow and bind up our wounds, in sickness you nurse us and with pure milk you feed us. Jesus, by your dying, we are born to new life; by your anguish and labour, we come forth to joy.'