I am sure that many of us have felt haunted by recent imagines of emotional goodbyes as mothers flee the conflict in Ukraine with their children. It’s easy in these days to become very tied up the continual round of news. I expect that the point at which this becomes unhelpful is when it leaves us feeling hopeless.
Sarah Sands, former editor of the Evening Standard and the Today programme has reflected in this in discussion of her book – interior silence, 10 lessons from monastic life. She refers to conversations with those in religious life realising that news reports are always at the surface of things. The spiritual life is not an escape to a more comfortable world but rather the discipline of seeking to maintain connection with what lies beneath, because all the world’s troubles and joys come from the same sources.
There is a natural bias in news towards negative stories but even in the most difficult situations there are positive signs. Last week I caught an interview on the radio 4 today programme which I found particularly heartening. It was with Mandy Arnold, a mother of three from Telford, who had registered to offer accommodation to Ukrainian refugees. It was hugely impressive and also, coincidentally, very relevant to the themes of Mother’s Day.
In a broad Scottish accent Mandy explained how she lives in Shropshire with her partner John and their children aged 9, 3 and 1. She noted that they are a busy family, there’s always something going on in the house and she looks forward to welcoming someone to enjoy that family environment. “This will teach my children how to appreciate another human”, she said, “and not even so much a stranger because…when I bring someone in my home they’re going to be a stranger for the first minute and they’ll be welcomed and part of the family. I’m well aware”, she said, “that it’s not going to be all fun and roses, particularly given what they have been through, they’ve been traumatised and the trauma, they’re gonna bring here. We just need to be patient and help them through and let them know that we are a place of safety. I just think that’s an amazing experience for me to be able to give back to someone else and for my kids to be able to give back to someone and for someone to just take away some of the love that we’ve got”.
For most people Mother’s Day is a purely secular event, the commercialised manifestation of older Church traditions. In this country the observance originated in the Middle Ages, when children who had left their families to work in domestic service were allowed to go to their home, or mother, church. The journey home morphed into a spring occasion for families to reunite, which eventually adopted the custom of children picking flowers on the way home as a gift to their mothers. It was also a day when the fasting rules of Lent were relaxed, earning the day the name of Refreshment Sunday or even Simnel Sunday, after the cakes traditionally baked on the day.
Regardless, it is a day that has much commend it. There are other days in the calendar, like international women’s day, that prompt more critical reflection on, and response to, women’s treatment in society. Today tends to have a more celebratory tone, recognising our mothers, our birth mothers and the women that have nurtured us. A useful prompt to give thanks or to remember those past.
Mandy Arnold I’m sure, is more than due a day of pampering and I very much hope that’s the case but her words point also to something deeper and which strongly resonate with our Gospel reading. “Now there stood by the cross of Jesus His mother, and His mother’s sister, Mary the wife of Clopas, and Mary Magdalene. When Jesus therefore saw His mother, and the disciple whom He loved standing by, He said to His mother, “Woman, behold your son!” Then He said to the disciple, “Behold your mother!” And from that hour that disciple took her to his own home”.
Note that Jesus speaks at the precise moment that the suffocating nature of the crucifixion weighs on his body. Perhaps the brief nature of Jesus’ sentences even reflect this, these are words that are necessarily snatched. The weight of the body pulling down on the arms makes breathing extremely difficult, forcing Jesus into an almost continual state of inhalation. He struggles for the last things he wants to say, the things that are too important to leave unsaid before he dies.
Sally Hitchiner, from St Martin-in-the-Fields, reflects that surely this is every mother’s worst nightmare. Standing helpless to intervene as your firstborn is dying in agony. The connection of someone you have carried in your body, carried in your heart, now experiencing everything Jesus is experiencing must be almost too much to bear. But she has refused to leave him and Jesus is present to her. He sees her, he acknowledges her, he listens. This doesn’t take the pain away of course but the sharing of pain helps us realise we are not alone. Even in his moment of deepest agony Jesus reaches out to stay connected to Mary. Mary finds that Jesus is with her and then she finds that there are others with her too. A seemingly random collection of friends and family. Perhaps not people she would have chosen but often in times of crisis this is the case. Jesus turns to her and says “Woman here is your son” indicating not to himself but to John, the beloved disciple. And he turns to the disciple and says “Behold your mother.”
What Jesus does with this conversation with his mother and John, at the turning point of all history starts something fundamentally new. It is not a rejection of family but is a reimagination of it. One that is inclusive, not limited to blood relation. This is more than a kind provision for his broken-hearted mother and friend. Jesus here is starting something that reimagines what family is all about. Mandy Arnold’s words reflected that same spirit – “When I bring someone in my home they’re going to be a stranger for the first minute and they’ll be welcomed and part of the family”.
While most of the disciples had scattered, like a mother hen, Jesus gathers those he loves together, under his wings.
Thanks be to God.