Today is Mothering Sunday. In spite of the face to face contact that has been curtailed by the Corona Virus I am sure that many people today will be on the phone to their mothers in gratitude for their love for them and all they have done for them.
This celebration of motherhood has an ecclesiastical origin in the 16th century practice of visiting your mother church on the fourth Sunday in Lent. The expression ‘mother church’ is used to this day by the Christian church to affirm the church as the provider of nourishment and protection to the believer. It can also be the primary church of a Christian denomination or diocese; for example a cathedral. The fourth Sunday because this Sunday is ‘Laetare’ Sunday which is the Sunday in Lent that allows for a day in which to drawn breath within Lenten austerity. So young apprentices and young women were released by their masters for this weekend of worship.
In the early twentieth century one Anna Jarvis in the USA led a movement to commemorate her mother’s death. This became known as ‘Mothers Day’ which gradually became commercialised – not something approved of by Anna. It does though give people much pleasure to choose gifts and cards for their mothers as tokens of appreciation. In any event many churches today hold on to
a holy significance for Mothering Sunday, with attention paid to Mary, mother of Jesus. We here at St Mark’s have a service in which we venerate the Virgin and in the Roman Catholic church there is ‘Virgin Mary Day’.
What attention, though, did Jesus pay to his mother? John’s Gospel does not provide us with an account of the childhood of Jesus but if we look at Luke’s Gospel he does and we find that the boy Jesus at 12 years old stayed behind in Jerusalem to learn from the teachers without his parents knowing. When they eventually find him in the Temple after frantic searching they question his behaviour. He replies: ‘why were you searching for me? Did you not know that I must be in my Father’s house?’ I do not believe that this was a rejection of his parents but puzzlement that they had not grasped where he ultimately needed to be, which was in the company of his heavenly Father. We know too, from that particular Gospel passage, that Jesus then went obediently with his parents to Nazareth and that in spite of his independent journey to the Temple his mother ‘treasured all these things in her heart’.
So in this early stage of his life we find maternal devotion to Jesus. It is believed to be a life time devotion and I find this devotion profoundly expressed in the sculpture by Michelangelo known as the ‘Pieta’ with the body of the crucified Jesus draped over Mary’s lap. We also find a boy who, though obedient to his parents, knows from the outset that his heavenly Father takes precedence.
Did this precedence leave Jesus with a coldness towards his mother? Or was it not so much coldness as ‘otherness’? That is to say he was, as the Son of God, on a journey from cradle to grave that was unique and driven by the Holy Spirit in such a way that it distanced him from family ties.
The distancing that began in the Temple in his childhood gradually escalates. In chapter 8 of Luke’s Gospel Jesus says: ‘my mother and brothers are those who hear the Word of God and do it’. These are his ‘True Kindred’. In chapter 12 Jesus says he will be the cause of division in families not peace. Fathers, sons, mothers, daughters, mothers-in-law and daughters-in-law will be divided. This remoteness from family ties culminates in today’s Gospel reading when Jesus dying on the Cross does not even call his mother ‘mother’ but ‘woman’. He gives his mother to the ‘beloved disciple’ saying: ‘Woman, here is your son’ and he says to the disciple ‘here is your mother’.
This is a farewell by Jesus to earthly family ties that could never be fully expressed in his lifetime because of his unique position as the Son of God. Yet in his last words to his mother and the ‘beloved disciple’ there is an acknowledgement of family ties. In giving his mother the ‘beloved disciple’ as her son it was the best that he could offer as the ‘beloved disciple’ was so dear to him. Scholars dispute who the ‘beloved disciple’ was but according to John’s Gospel he was superior to Peter who was the shepherd commissioned by the Risen Lord and he was the only disciple present at the Cross. Jesus then was perpetuating the family tie through him.
In this creating by Jesus of a mother/son relationship between two unrelated people we can, I believe, find something bigger than the nuclear family which is the small unit that forms part of a community. We are looking at what was once a tribal society made up of an organisation of families united by kinship bonds and ancient lineage being transformed into a community of faith that is not necessarily dependent upon family relationship but upon being children of God. Thus in the first chapter of John’s Gospel, we learn of Jesus that: ‘his own people did not accept him: but all who receive him ‘had power to become children of God’. ‘Not born of the flesh or blood or the will of man but of God’. This is expressed at the very beginning of John’s Gospel, with Jesus himself as the one who was ‘the human expression of the creative purpose of God’. That is God’s ‘Word’. As William Neil writes in his Bible Commentary ‘the stage is set by the Word made flesh’. The stage is set for us to be children of God.
The family unit is important but the Bible gives us the bigger picture of the community being transformed into a community of faith. This transformation is not by any means an easy one. There are those who reject Jesus and condemn him to death on the Cross and those who were close to him then betraying him. The disciples did not always grasp the full meaning of the symbolic discourses of Jesus. Yet the community of faith begins in the Bible and continues in our time in our daily worship. Never has our community of faith been more needed than now in this time of fear, uncertainty and financial hardship generated by COVID-19. We must be beacons of hope in our common life of worship.
So let us then honour motherhood today for bringing new life into the world or adopting new life to nourish and guide it on its way but let us also be mindful of the community of faith in which it set so that we may all grow in faith and trust in God’s loving purpose for us all.