A Reflection for Mothering Sunday by Archbishop Michael Jackson
Gospel: St Luke 2.33–35
When last we heard this reading, we were probably in a more joyous mood. It was on the Feast of The Presentation of Jesus in The Temple in Jerusalem. Mary and Joseph and Jesus go from their village home to the capital city to fulfil what was required of them under the law of religious ritual. What happens next is that Jesus is recognized by two faithful, attentive and patient servants of God, Simeon and Anna, as The Messiah. This may seem to us to be a Selfie–moment. We may even be thinking that St Luke is spoiling the party – our party – in what we hear today. What we are told here is properly disturbing. Old Simeon has waited long to bless and to prophesy. The two words are important for us at this half–way point of The Season of Lent. We need to hold them together and to grapple with the fact that his prophecy is a blessing and not a curse even though the words carry layer upon layer of sadness that nobody would wish on any child.
As St Luke tells the story, he draws us into that story because it is our story. We are told that Luke was both a doctor and a painter. It gives him new and nuanced perspectives. Even though the future was then far off, we are told that Mary kept these words close to her heart and pondered them. She was told the truth as it was going to unfold. God does not patronize:
This child is destined for the falling and the rising of many in Israel, and to be a sign that will be opposed so that the inner thoughts of many will be revealed – and a sword will pierce your own soul too. (St Luke 2.34–35)
Today is The Fourth Sunday in Lent and also Mothering Sunday. The church focus and the secular focus have long ago been uneasy bedfellows for the purists, but we now have no option other than to get on with it and to make a go of it. Cards have been on sale for weeks; prompts have been appearing on ‘phones and on computers for weeks also. Breakfasts have been prepared by conscientious children and carried precariously along hallways and up a flight of stairs to lightly sleeping mothers the world over. Even within the Scriptures selected for today, the focus has changed from where it used to be, that is on the church as Jerusalem that is above, free and the mother of us all, to more obvious pictures of motherhood and the church’s maternal role. But survival necessitates change. Everybody wants mothers and children to enjoy today and all it has to offer. That’s good.
The Gospel rightly centres on the life and the person of Jesus Christ the Messiah. We, who have been following the pathway of Jesus through The Season of Lent need to enjoy today as a time of refreshment. We need to dig deep and see something of the motherhood of the church in what is happening. It is to be found in the gift of service to God and in the loyalty to her son through thick and thin that we see in the young mother who all too quickly becomes the bereaved mother losing her adult child out of time and ahead of time. So, perhaps on Mothering Sunday, we can ask what today’s Gospel tells us about ourselves and the church through the examples of Mary and of Jesus at this mid–point of Lent where we need the encouragement of spiritual reality and of human realism.
Mary shows us, as do many women and mothers, that she can assimilate the reality of what is happening with a deep sense of care, pragmatism and adaptation – and without sentimentality. Mary shows us that, having opened herself to the will of God, she will undertake and undergo whatever God gives her. And so, from her we learn that reality is what happens and how we respond to it; it is not a fixed or even a negotiable thing; rather it is an interactive experience of gift and response. Our understanding of ‘a gift’ is not a great help to us here. A gift is not what in fact we want or even what we like. A gift is what we get. What Mary gets is the assurance of the purpose of God unfolding in and through the person of her son. A young woman is called upon by God to face loss and suffering, death and degradation as the stuff of life. In such a way as this, we can travel with Mary just as Mary has already travelled our way in life: from Bethlehem to Calvary.
From Jesus we learn that we do not, nor can we, as human beings, know what lies ahead of us. We do not want to deny to Jesus the Messiah a regular human childhood. We want him to be happy with his parents and with his siblings. But, like all children born and yet to be born, he has no option but to grow up into adulthood if God spares him. Unlike other children, he always carries the old rugged cross when he is learning Joseph’s woodcraft in the workshop and playing in the back yard with the wooden toys he makes – and his mother looking out the kitchen window, worrying for him in his pellucid innocence. And: worrying about what? Worrying that he might not live to fulfil the task God had given him, the task into the heart of which God had called her – worrying that he might not live long enough to die on the cross for the purpose of salvation. She remembered that she had been given a blessing and not a curse and she wanted to see that blessing shared with all. She was, after all, a mother. In Jesus’s case, God does spare him because God needs him – for the redemption of the world, for the re–creation of humanity and for the gift of grace. His mother carries the pain, often in her specific maternal observation of a happy child, as he learns to deal with being both human and divine all in one. In God’s time, the human has to bow to the divine. This is the will of God. This is the gift of God prophesied and blessed by Simeon. For this we celebrate Mothering Sunday at the heart of the Season of Lent.
Before we leave the pages of Scripture and the security of church, and turn to face the world, let us be real in another way. The world is densely populated with mothers and children who carry pain and suffering, who juggle as best they can what they cannot possibly control. They may be misused and abused; they may be sold and trafficked for obscene amusement; they may be refugees and displaced persons fleeing for what remains of their lives and negotiating terrain entirely unknown to them; they may silently be distressed and defeated by life itself and its cloud of unknowing; they may, shockingly, already be the dead living. Mary is their patron. Jesus is their sibling. The Christian Church – whatever their faith and culture – needs to be their mother.
Galatians 4.26: But the heavenly Jerusalem is a free woman; she is our mother.