Lent 4: Mothering Sunday
Readings: Exodus 2, 1-10; Ps 34; Col 3, 12-17; Luke 2 33-35
Hymns: 422 Tell out my soul; 57 My spirit longs for me; 56 Forty days and forty nights; The Servant King. .
In the Anglican and indeed the UK calendar, today is not Mother’s Day, a rather exclusive festival focussed on the role of women as mothers which leaves childless women and all males out on a lonely limb just remembering their own mother. Today is Mothering Sunday, with an active verb not a fixed noun, and therein lies the difference: mothering means caring for, nurturing, nourishing, consoling, and that is not just done by women who have given birth, but all Christians. Let’s unpack the word.
CS Lewis, in his book ‘The Great Divorce,’ has his narrator tour heaven, where he sees a beautiful lady followed by attendants. He assumes she is Mary Queen of Heaven, but learns she is Sara Smith from Golders Green in London. A nobody on earth, and we do not know if she bore children or not, Sara is exalted in heaven because ‘every boy who met her became her son and every girl her daughter and every beast and bird that came near her had its place in her love. In her, they became themselves.’ Intentionally placed in a traditionally Jewish suburb, Sara symbolises nurturing for growth, which is part of mothering.
And she nurtured: kith and kin, neighbour and relative, bird and beast. Miriam, most likely single at the time of the Exodus story or she’d not have been at home, was more concentrated in her mothering: she cared for her little brother Moses – not that he was called ‘drawn out of the water’ when his bed was made there. Whereas she took on her mothering role as female kin to the baby, Sara Smith and Pharaoh’s nameless daughter nurtured foe and friend, male and female. Later on, Miriam’s brother Aaron also nurtures Moses in his prophetic role, acting as an eloquent speaker for his stuttering brother.
So not only mothers, and women, nurture and nourish: men do too. And so does God, feeding us from his heavenly breast, as the Collect puts it, drawing not only on the Hebrew Bible, especially Isaiah, but also much Medieval Christian theology, a theology expressed in images of a Christ compassionately nourishing his people with blood from his breast, then equated with milk. In feeding, consoling and caring for us, God is mothering us. For some, that doesn’t make sense: how can God nourish us from his manly breast? Simple! No aspect of God in Trinity existing before time has attributes of either sex, being beyond mere bodily form even if our minds, and 3rd person singular pronouns in Indo-Aryan but rarely in other language families, insist on gendering each aspect. Jesus on earth, through whose life the nature but not the gender of God is revealed, was male: but the Christ mothering and indwelling in each person who accept Christ has no gender.
Remember, both males and females are made by God (Genesis 1.27) in the Image of God: we mirror God. And just as females and males are equally God’s children made in God’s Image, with the grace and mercy, joy and obligation, nourishment and consolation that entails, so too are males and females equally part of mothering. The fact that ‘men can’t bear or feed children,’ removes neither a general nor specific mothering role for them, given that making and breast feeding a child rarely takes more than 24 months, leaving decades of ideally joint mothering of children born from both – as those of us who are older with long-adult children will know!
For Sara Smith, and Miriam, and more, mothering is not just for one’s own children nor is it just about babies: but people, by all to all. The nouns used in Colossians, ‘compassion, kindness, humility, meekness and patience,’ are attributes commonly if perhaps unfairly associated with women, making things very hard for meek, humble patient men and, for that matter, for women uninterested in children, meekness or patience. But Paul is addressing each one of us, telling us all, each woman and each man, to be compassionate, kind, humble, meek and patient as we ‘clothe ourselves in love’ in the name of Jesus through whom we give thanks to our fathering and mothering Source and Creator in whom, as the Psalm says, we take refuge as a child takes refuge in its mother.
The immediate source for Jesus, and the one whom this break in Lent also honours, is Mary his Mother, which is why our first hymn was based on the Magnificat, the song of Mary. Anyone who is into clerical vestments would know that today can be pink instead of penitential purple, for Mary’s sake – but making a pink chasuble just for today and the third Sunday of Advent would be a step too far! In the Gospel, Simeon is either noting the special relationship of a child to its mother when he says just her soul will be pierced by her child, or he reckons Joseph, standing nearby, will be dead by then. Don’t get me wrong, in arguing for the mothering capacity of all, I am not negating the special link between a child and its mother, nurtured and fed by her body day and night in those exhausting early months, and thanks should be given today, in prayer or fact, by each child, each person, to his or her mother, however difficult relations between mother and child may have been or are. But that is not only what the mothering of Mary, there in stable, temple and cross, is about! Rather does it, and she, exemplify the mothering of God, and the mothering of every person.
Mothering is about caring, and caring is about serving. There are costs, yes, costs of weariness and an unclear job description, and there are risks. Yet if Jesus’ mothering, his caring for, nurturing, nourishing, and consoling, was his job description during his ministry, that mothering ended in his death that we might live.
Jesus’ gender imputed to God in such a way that half of God’s image was set aside has too often validated excluding women from taking their place as fully children of God in church life. Hard as that could be for individual women, it has also risked rigidly if not ruthlessly channelling and stereotyping men too, thereby diminishing the capacity and indeed the obligation of all to mother. The flowers which will just be given to women today neither exclude nor free men from living as mothering children of God. In remembering and honouring the mothers who bore us, let these flowers be a visible symbol and jolt for every person here to pick up the gift of life our mothers gave us, as we each mother others. In the words of the last hymn: ‘So let us learn how to serve, and in our lives enthrone him: each other’s needs to prefer, for it is Christ we’re serving.’ That is the point of Mothering Sunday.
Revd Elizabeth Koepping
Heidelberg 15th March 2015
Lent 4: Mothering Sunday