Mothering Sunday - St Bride's: Reflection

St Bride's: Sermons

Mothering Sunday

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I was in the Greetings Cards section of W.H. Smith, next to a large stand containing a vast array of 'Mothers' Day' cards of every conceivable description. Tucked away right at the very bottom of the display, and very easily overlooked, were a couple of cards that were rather different from the rest - not only because they depicted religious symbolism: a cross covered in flowers and a church building - but also because, alone amongst the dozens and dozens of other cards on that particular theme, they bore the words: 'Mothering Sunday'. A young woman, who was browsing through the selection, picked up one of these religious cards, and said to her friend with disgust: 'Honestly! Why does the flipping Church have to try and muscle in on everything?' (I was just waiting for her to start complaining that the Church was even trying to get its hands on Easter these days, but she didn't actually go as far as that.)

But it's fascinating, isn't it, how the understanding of Mothering Sunday has evolved over time. Many centuries ago, on this, the Fourth Sunday of Lent, it was customary for one of the set Biblical readings to be a passage from St Paul's Letter to the Galatians, in which Paul refers to Jerusalem as 'the mother of us all.' For that reason, the Fourth Sunday of Lent came to be associated with a celebration of the Church as our mother - a spiritual mother who nurtures us in the faith.

As a consequence of that, the tradition developed that people would visit their own mother church on this particular day - their diocesan cathedral, or the main church in their area. The day came to be referred to as 'Refreshment Sunday', in which the burden of the Lenten fast was lightened, just for a day, and you were allowed to enjoy yourself a bit. And from that developed the custom that those who were living away from home, particularly those who were 'in service', would be allowed home to visit their mothers, often taking gifts of flowers, or cakes that they had baked.

So over the years, what had originally been a celebration of Mother Church started to become instead a celebration of Motherhood. And things have now reached the point where whole generations of people in this country seem completely unaware that what is now popularly referred to as 'Mothers' Day' has anything to do with religion at all.

Now, I should hasten to add that I am all in favour of celebrating motherhood, and being nice to your mums today - and not merely because I happen to be one. Because Motherhood is one of the most powerful and most formative experiences that any of us will ever have - regardless of whether the mothering that we ourselves received happened to be good, bad, or non-existent. Whatever the form it took, we have all been profoundly shaped by that experience - or lack of it. And similarly, our own experience of being parents - or of being denied that experience - or of actively choosing not to have that experience, will also have shaped the people we are in very significant ways.

And mothering, it has to be said, is neither easy nor glamorous. Shortly before the birth of my own first child, a friend of mine sent me a list of activities designed for those who were contemplating having children, in order to give them a foretaste of what the true reality of parenting would be like, so that they could make a properly informed decision. The list included amongst other things, the following inspired suggestions, and I quote:

Travel: Young children find long car journeys very tedious. Record for yourself a loop tape in which, every thirty seconds, a whining voice asks 'are we nearly there yet?', and play it every time you get into your car.

Household furnishings: young children can be rather messy. Mash together three fish fingers, a banana and some melted chocolate, and carefully spoon it down the back of your sofa. Check on its progress every six weeks.

Clothes: it can be very difficult trying to dress a reluctant young toddler. As useful practice, obtain for yourself a string bag and a live octopus. Put the octopus in the string bag, trying it ensure that you get all the legs in at the same time.

Supermarket shopping: young children can be quite a handful when you are trying to do the weekly shop. To prepare yourself for the experience, next time you go to the supermarket take with you a very large goat. If you intend to have more than one child, take more than one goat.

At the emotional, and personal, as well as the practical level, mothering can be immensely challenging; the parent-child relationship can be fraught with difficulty. I speak as one who had to live with another family in order to complete my schooling, because of what was going on in my own home, so I speak from the heart on this one.

Which is why today can be a day of quite complex emotions for some of us - whether because we are painfully reminded of the loss of a much-loved mother; or of the lack of a loving mother; or of the pain of childlessness; or of a state of alienation or disruption in the relationship between parent and child; or simply because we are aware of our failings as a son, or daughter, or parent. Simeon's closing words to Mary in our Gospel reading are chilling, when he warns her that, alongside the astonishing privilege of being called by God to give birth the Messiah, 'a sword will pierce your own soul too'.

But we also need to remember today that Mothering is something that exists outside the bounds of biology, as many of us know: we can both receive mothering, and give it, to those who are not necessarily linked to us by blood.

The remarkable power of motherly love - whether biological or adoptive - is exemplified in the story of the child Moses, which we heard as our first reading this morning. Following Pharaoh's order that all male Israelite children should be killed, Moses' mother, desperate to protect her child, conceals him for as long as she dares. Knowing that she can keep him hidden no longer, she faces a heart-breaking dilemma. If she attempts to keep him, he will be discovered and face certain death. So eventually she places him in a basket hidden in the reeds by the banks of the Nile: she surrenders him to his destiny, and she surrenders him to God. She can do nothing else.

But then a remarkable sequence of events unfolds: Pharaoh's daughter finds the child, is filled with pity and rescues him. Moses' sister, watching from nearby, offers to find her a Hebrew mother to nurse the child, to which Pharaoh's daughter readily agrees, resolving to bring up the child as her own. And so the glorious situation arises in which Moses' mother not only gets her own child back, but is actually paid for looking after him; and Moses ends up not an orphan without a mother, but a royal prince who has both a biological and adoptive mother. It is strange how sometimes, when we surrender that which is most precious to us to the care of God, what we receive back is far, far more than what we originally gave away.

The most enabling kind of mothering is that which offers infinite love, and boundless nurturing and acceptance, yet has little desire to possess or to control in any stifling or negative way. And despite being made up of frail and fallen human beings like ourselves, when it is functioning as it should, our Mother the Church can provide precisely this kind of nurturing.

Ours is a compassionate God who, in Christ, shared the experience of family life, and who draws us together now as the family of Christ: a family where all should feel welcome; a family where none need feel lost, or lonely, or rejected, or unloved; where all may find companionship, comfort and consolation during the joys and struggles of this life. It is a family that is neither inward-looking, possessive nor controlling, but is instead marked by generosity of heart, and readiness to rejoice in the good things of God. In the words of today's Collect:

Merciful God,
whose son Jesus Christ, the child of Mary,
shared the life of a home in Nazareth,
and on the cross drew the whole human family to himself:
strengthen us in our daily lives, that in our joys and in our sorrows
we may know your presence to bind together and to heal;
through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.

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