If a lamb loses its mother at birth, and a ewe her lamb, the two are brought together in the mothering pen, so the older can feed the little one who in turn brings contentment and healing to the ewe. Sometimes, though, the ewe mother doesn’t take to that particular lamb, and then the little scrap of soft wool is mothered by the farmer. Man or woman, that farmer will give milk to the lamb hour upon hour, coddling it, mothering it, into life. Jesus on the Cross, aware that both his mother and his closest disciple would be lost and lonely without him, made sure she had John as her son in God, and John Mary as his mother in God: two bereft people souls mothering and healing each other.
‘Mother’s Day,’ the later version of Mothering Sunday, is static, and exclusive, referring primarily or even only to our individual mother, whether the one now aged or dead who birthed us or the one who right now is still looking after or out for us. And it is important to honour and to support those legion unpaid unacknowledged hours of tedium, joy and sheer hard work women as mothers bring to the task. That’s why the Mothers’ Union makes this a ‘Make a Mother’s Day, by buying a Mothering Sunday gift to help transform a life,’ whether that is support for troubled families in Jamaica or the UK, or teaching financial skills to women in Rwanda through which the women plan their future: important transforming work which honours and supports mothers.
Mothering, unlike the static noun mother, is an active inclusive verb. As the farmer up half the night feeding guzzling orphan lambs knows all too well, mothering is practised when the other needs mothering, even when that frankly isn’t always convenient for or even welcome to the carer: mothering means watching, listening, being mindful however weary, even though outcomes are unsure, and it means answers to anxieties may not be obvious. Miriam mothered her brother, put into the river in a reed basket, saving his life and enabling her mother, suddenly bereft of her baby, her lamb, to be healed as she mothered him. She managed that, this young girl, by immediately exercising wisdom in working out what strategy to take, compassion for her mother and her new brother, faithful love, for she continued to care, and service.
If mothering illustrates the compassion, kindness, humility, meekness and patience, cited in Colossians as the fruits of the Spirit, the way of the Christ, then mothering is what we should all do, every day. It is not, to put it in modern jargon, a gender-specific term: we have only to look at the Bible, and at early theology. If we look further, back into the Bible, and to theology, we find this clearly expressed. What God is expressing in the psalm is mothering: being ‘near the broken hearted… keeping all their bones so not one of them is broken.’ Jesus clearly looked after us his chicks and God shelters us under God’s ample wings. But the lyrical writing of the eleventh century St Anselm of Canterbury – whose watch-word was ‘Faith seeking understanding’ – and of the fourteenth century Mother Julian of Norwich, will be my main offering, for each write of the mothering of Jesus, of the Spirit, of the Father.
Let me begin with Anselm, writing a thousand years ago, on what we would now call the gender of God- and were it in a recent publication some would dismiss as modern feminist nonsense:
‘I should now like to infer, if I can, that the Supreme Spirit is most truly father and the Word most truly son. Yet, I think I ought not to by-pass the question of which set of terms is more suitable for them – “father and son” or “mother and daughter” – for there is no sexual distinction in the Supreme Spirit and the Word.”
He puts that view into words as he lets (and how difficult is that for us all) himself be mothered by Christ: ‘Christ, my mother, you gather your chickens under your wings; this dead chicken of yours puts himself under those wings. For by your gentleness the badly frightened are comforted, by your sweet smell the despairing are revived, your warmth gives life to the dead, your touch justifies sinners. Mother, know again your dead son, both by the sign of your cross and the voice of his confession. Warm your chicken, give life to your dead man, justify your sinner. Let your terrified one be consoled by you. Despairing of himself, let him be comforted by you. And in your whole and unceasing grace let him be refashioned by you.’
Julian of Norwich, an anchorite who serves as confessor and consoler for men and women, wrote of Jesus: ‘Among the relations that the Lord Jesus has toward each human soul is that of Mother, modelling wisdom, compassion, faithful love or grace, and service. She continues: ‘the second person of the Trinity is our Mother in whom we are founded and rooted. And so our Mother is working on us in various ways, in whom our parts are kept undivided; for in our Mother Christ we profit and increase, and in mercy he reforms and restores us, and by the power of his Passion, his death and his Resurrection he unites us.’
Mothering in the limited sense of bearing a child within one’s body is a special kind of mothering done only by females, and it is vital and worthy of respect, as is feeding that baby from the breast. We will be giving flowers to all the women here as a symbol of mothering, but with the understanding that the mothering symbolised is a calling for every person here. Mothering in the biblical sense, in the Christian sense, is done by all who reach out to serve, to protect, to free, to console, to support, and that for all manner of people, in all times and places.
Revd Dr Elizabeth Koepping