Lent 4: Happy Mothering Sunday

Happy Mothering Sunday.

Whatever the circumstances or makeup of our own family there is one certainty, we all have or had a mother. It may not always be the one who gave birth to you, an adopted mother or care giver all have the same role to play in our lives.

As I wrote about in early February, the foundations of our language and relationships begin even before we are born. I wonder what your mother was like. Mine was loving, generous but demanding. What was Mary like? I think we can learn a great deal about her mothering skills from what we read throughout the gospels.

We know Mary loved God and trusted that he would protect her from the perils she would face as a single mum. So, then Mary was a trusting young woman. She would need that trait as Jesus grew. Many mothers today find it difficult to trust their children to God. We hear so many stories of our young ones being lured into gangs, crime and some injured or fatally wounded.

We know that Mary was family orientated because she went, quite soon after the Angel left her, to visit Elizabeth her cousin who was five months pregnant. Elizabeth was convinced that Mary’s child was from God, she had become pregnant herself in a miraculous way. During the past year it has been really heart breaking not to touch our loved ones who live in separate homes. But other ways to hold onto family have been found in zoom, facetime, and online events, we have had to be inventive.

Mary trusted Joseph to find safe lodgings as they travelled to Bethlehem, she was after all nine months pregnant, and due to give birth at any time. It must have been a frightening time to give birth away from home. We, especially mums, can only imagine what giving birth for her, may have felt like. There were only other women to help, no man would come near because of the laws around blood and cleanliness.

Quite soon afterward the shepherds arrived bringing amazing stories about many Angels and their wonderful message of peace for God’s people. We can only wonder what the Holy couple made of it all. But we are told that Mary pondered their words in her heart. A thoughtful woman who treasured her relationship with God.

She and Joseph were faithful and took their little boy to be circumcised as the Law of Moses demanded. And thirty days later the Holy family were fulfilling the law again, bringing Jesus to the temple to pay the price of redemption, to sacrifice what they could afford, to God. It was here that Simeon gave them the most jaw dropping news. Their little baby was going to turn the world and their faith upside down, he was going to bring and share their God with the Gentiles. This news came with a stark warning that he would not be popular, and Mary would be deeply hurt. Mothers across the world are suffering because their children are not popular, bullying is rife on the internet and in classrooms, made easier and more hidden in the privacy of the bedroom and laptop.

Having returned to Nazareth, next on the scene, according to Matthew, came the Maji, carrying enormously valuable gifts. These gifts came with risks for the child so great that God intervened. The Maji and Joseph having been warned in dreams swiftly changed travel plans. Mary had to trust Joseph, and trust God as they fled to Egypt. We have seen so many refugee families crossing continents to find safety and stability for their children. It is heart breaking to watch mothers on the media nursing underfed babies. Like Mary they are willing to risk all for their children.

Back in Nazareth the Holy family joined the wider family and friends to make their annual trip to the Temple in Jerusalem for the Passover. We can imagine the excitement of children and adults alike, donkeys laden with goods, food, and gifts. It was much like our own trips to Frinton, children running about ignoring the plea to stay close. Mary would have been comfortable that twelve-year-old Jesus was among friends. It was only on the way home that he was missed, and fear stepped in. Any mother of a lost child would be concerned, perhaps terrified something bad had happened. A child found would usually be severely reprimanded before being hugged. But Mary hearing the boy Jesus speaking of his heavenly father so confidently and reassuringly in his words did not, it seems, lose her temper, or rap his knuckles. She was temperate.

The next time we meet Mary is at the wedding in Cana. The wine had run out. We see an immensely proud mum pushing her son forward. Jesus can help, do anything he says. How pushy was your mum? Mine was, for her boy. She was a woman of her time, but Mary had been given an insight into what plans God had for her son. Perhaps she had forgotten Simeon’s warning and firmly encouraged Jesus in what was to become his ministry and teaching.

Now we come to the worst time in any mother’s life, the death of a child. The reading today does not spare us any detail.

In the first century it was customary for Roman soldiers to keep the clothing of people they had just executed. They divided Jesus’ garments as a prize among themselves. The tunic however was so well made that they thought it better not to tear it and share rags but to gamble for it. Surely, gambling for the clothes of the condemned Jesus constituted the final indignity for him who saw all this while slowly, helplessly, and painfully dying.

John’ in his gospel, viewed this as a fulfilment of Psalm 22 “My God, my God, why have you abandoned me” (Psalm 22:1). Evidently, this psalm played a major role in the early church’s understanding of the mission and ministry of Jesus. John’s reference tells us that fulfilment of the Old Testament was important in early Christianity way beyond Matthew’s church.

In this reading from John, Jesus showed a deep concern for his mother. In the first century, in Judaism, a woman was considered the ward (to put it politely) of her oldest, closest living male adult relative. This usually meant her husband, her father, or her oldest son. In some instances, it could mean a grandfather, uncle, brother, or cousin. It was believed that women needed to be protected and have someone to provide for their needs. It was now the son’s turn to be the carer.

It seems odd to our ears that Jesus addresses his mother as “Woman”. For those standing at the foot of the cross this would not have been disrespectful as it is for us today. As her oldest adult male relative, Jesus was both her protector and provider and could speak to her in this traditional manner.

John identifies four women at the cross as Jesus dies (slowly). Two are relatives and two are disciples. By being there, they risked being identified with him and opening themselves to arrest. Their presence shows their loyalty to, affection for, and piety toward Jesus. The only man mentioned, was the Beloved Disciple. His presence would have displayed the same degree of love, loyalty, and devotion as the women.

If this fact was in any doubt, it became clear when Jesus said to his mother, “Woman, behold, your son!” And he said to the Beloved Disciple, “Behold, your mother!” Jesus authorised the Beloved Disciple to take his place as the senior son, the provider and protector of his mother from that moment on. To the original readers this would have been a powerful sign that the Beloved Disciple was “the man,” the true successor to Jesus not only in Jesus’ biological family but also in the family of faith, Christianity’ and a very human thing to do. Jesus loved his mother so much that even as he was dying, he asked a worthy friend to take care of her for him. And he places that responsibility on us his church, to care for others too.

Where did that strong bond came from, it must have come from his mum. The traits Mary displayed from the beginning, every mother, carer, or church hopes to embody. Love, trust in God and in family, concern, encouragement, and always being ready to put their child and community first. Not much to live up to then. But with God’s help… Happy Mothering Sunday.

Amen.

The Rev'd Mo Lunn, St Mary Magdalene, Enfield, 14/03/2021