Sunday 22 March 2009

Mothering Sunday

An address given on Sunday 22 March 2009, Lent 4, at Shinrone and Aghancon.

A Simnel cake - a traditional Mothering Sunday gift

Mothering Sunday is such a lovely opportunity for us to make a fuss of our Mothers, isn’t it?

And if they are no longer with us, to remember them, and to recall how much we owe them. We’ll all be doing so today, I’m sure, and it’s right that we should.

I want to start by reflecting a little on how much I owe my own mother:

  • I owe her my very life, of course, as we all do our mothers. She carried me safe in her body for 9 months, and nurtured me, from the time when I was just a bundle of cells until I arrived squalling into the world.

  • Then throughout my childhood she was there, to love me as only a mother can, to comfort me when I was hurt or frightened, to encourage me to be brave and to be ‘a useful engine’. And still she nurtured me – even when I was away at boarding school, every fortnight I received a fruit cake in a parcel through the post from her.

  • As I grew to adulthood she let me go, to make my own way in the world. But she was still always there to love, to comfort, to encourage, and, yes, to nurture me, whenever I needed it.

  • And it was she who taught me the first elements of her Christian faith. One of my earliest memories is of learning my first prayer at her knee: ‘Matthew, Mark, Luke and John, bless the bed that I lie on’.

  • I am very blessed to have had such a mother, and I give thanks to God for her. I expect you are too. But we need to remember that not all children are so blessed. And also that there are women who yearn for children who cannot have them.
In the rest of this address, I’m going to reflect a little on the origins of the Mothering Sunday tradition, and then focus on the mother themes in today’s OT and Gospel readings – the good compilers of the lectionary have of course carefully chosen ‘mother’ readings for the day that’s in it!

The Mothering Sunday Tradition

The 4th Sunday of Lent was not originally a celebration of motherhood. From at least the C16th in England, it was the day when people returned to make offerings in their “mother church”, the main church or cathedral of the area. Hence it came to be known as ‘Mothering Sunday’.

If children had moved to neighbouring towns and villages, this would be one of the few occasions when whole families could get together. Remember, not much more than 100 years ago, very many children would be sent away from home to work at no more than 10 or 12 years old.

According to historians, this was the origin of the English tradition that children and young people working away from home should be given the day off on Mothering Sunday, to visit their mothers. I’m not sure if this was an Irish tradition too - we may just have borrowed it from the Church of England!

I imagine that as the children walked along the country roads, the boys would stop and pick a bunch of violets or other flowers as a present for their mother. And equally the girls might bring their mother a present of a cake they had made. Hence the old traditions of bunches of flowers, and the delicious Simnel cake.

That was the ancient tradition, at least in England. Like so many other old traditions, it was just about extinct after WW1: killed off by social changes and industrialisation. But it got a new lease of life, under the impact of the American invention of ‘Mother’s Day’, which was designated by US President Woodrow Wilson in 1914 to be held on the 2nd Sunday of May. Mother's Day has now become something of a commercial opportunity, to sell cards and flowers and boxes of chocolates, but I think it’s rather nice that we have managed to retain the ancient traditional Church day for it, on this side of the Atlantic, and I cherish the old name Mothering Sunday.

The Mothering Sunday traditions, and the emotions they evoke, are warm and tender and comforting.

But in case we are in any danger of getting carried away by sentimentality, today’s readings from Exodus and John’s Gospel provide the antidote. They serve to remind us that being a mother is not just about flowers and cakes and loving hugs. It is also about heartbreak, and separation, and even death. Thank God that giving birth in Ireland today is not so dangerous for a woman as it once was, though a very few still do die in childbirth here. But in the 3rd World it remains frighteningly common for mothers to die in childbirth.

In the OT reading from Exodus, we heard the strange little tale of Moses in the Bulrushes.

The background to the story is that Pharaoh decreed that Hebrew boys should be drowned at birth in the Nile, because he feared the Hebrew minority becoming too strong in his kingdom. The girls were allowed to live: no doubt they would have been married off to Egyptian men, and their children would be Egyptian. A rather nasty ancient case of ethnic cleansing.

Moses’ mother saved him from this fate by hiding him, until he was too big to hide anymore, and then she made a little boat for him from a basket, and left him to be found in the rushes by the river-bank. He was found by Pharaoh’s daughter, who took pity on him, and decided to adopt him. Moses’ own mother was employed to nurse him, but when he was weaned, she had to give him up to Pharaoh’s daughter.

Two things strike me about this story:

  • 1st, how completely torn the emotions of Moses’ natural mother must have been, to be compelled to give away to another woman the child to whom she had given life, and whom she had saved and nurtured. But she knew that was the only way to show her love for him.

  • But 2nd, the strength of the love of Pharaoh’s daughter for this little Hebrew boy. She no doubt risked the wrath of the state to save his little life, even though he belonged to a hated minority. The love of a foster mother, or of an adoptive mother, is just as valuable in God’s eyes as the love of a natural mother.
In the Gospel reading we heard John’s poignant story about how Jesus, even in agony on the Cross, expressed his love for his mother, and the disciple he loved.

Public execution is an ugly thing, but the prolonged torture of crucifixion must have been particularly gut-wrenching to watch. Yet Mary his mother found the strength to stay close by Jesus in his agony. How torn she must have been, too: repelled by his ghastly death, yet drawn to be near her beloved son in his last hours. We see an image of the eternal love at the heart of motherhood in Mary at the Cross.

Mary the mother of Jesus was supported in her vigil by four others: her sister, Mary the wife of Clopas, and Mary Magdalene, as well as someone described as the ‘disciple whom Jesus loved’. It is an ancient tradition of the Church that this disciple was John, one of the sons of Zebedee and Mary’s sister Salome, and the author of St John’s Gospel. If so, this John too, like John the Baptist, would be Jesus’s cousin.

I find it very moving that on the brink of his death, Jesus should think to commit Mary to the care of his cousin John, and John to the care of his mother Mary, to look after each other, and to comfort each other in their loss. A truly practical example of the love of God at work in evil times.

So, to conclude, it is surely very right for us, on this Mothering Sunday, to thank God for our mothers and for their love for us, whether they are our natural mothers or our foster or adoptive mothers.

But let us also remember those mothers whose hearts are broken by death or separation from a child.

And let us not forget all those women who long to have a child but cannot, and all those children who for whatever reason cannot give thanks for a mother’s love.

Sunday 8 March 2009

Finding life by losing it

An address given at Templederry and Killodiernan on the 2nd Sunday of Lent, 8 March 2009

Get behind me, Satan! Get thee behind me, Satan!

What a shock it must have been for Peter to hear Jesus address him in these cutting words, as recorded by Mark (8:31-38) in the reading we have just heard.

Peter had been the first to say, ‘You are the Messiah’, when Jesus had asked ‘Who do you say that I am?’ But Mark tells us Jesus then ‘began to teach them that the Son of Man must undergo great suffering … and be killed’. Peter realised that Jesus was referring to himself, but he was quite unable to understand this teaching. Like most Jews of his day, he expected the promised Messiah to come as a great conqueror to destroy the gentiles – including the hated Romans - and to rule over a revived Kingdom of Israel. The Messiah would vanquish his foes, not be killed by them! So Peter remonstrates with Jesus: ‘Look here, Jesus, that can’t be right!’ he says - or words to that effect. Then Jesus turns on him and likens him to Satan – and he does so in front of all the others!

Why was Jesus so hard on Peter, his great friend and disciple? Jesus knew that God’s way was not the way of violent earthly conquest, but the way of self-sacrificing love. He needed to teach Peter and the other disciples to change their thinking. I feel sure Jesus didn’t want to die a painful death, but he surely realised this was the inevitable outcome of what God called him to do, and he was determined to face it bravely. But Peter tries to argue him out of it, in an echo of Jesus’s temptation in the wilderness.

Isn’t this often the way it is? When we have made up our minds what the right thing is to do, even though we know we will suffer for it, our friends and loved ones may try to talk us out of it. The tempter can be the very person dearest to us! Yet we must not allow even the pleading voice of love to stop us from doing God’s will. This surely is what Jesus felt that day – no wonder he responded as he did.

But Jesus immediately seized the moment to show the disciples his way, the way of the cross, how to find life by losing it. As usual, Mark has compressed Jesus’s teaching to a very few words, but it goes to the very heart of our Christian faith. I think it is worth reflecting on it sentence by sentence.

‘If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me.’

Jesus’s honesty is startling isn’t it? No one can ever say Jesus lured them to follow him on false pretences! He does not offer his disciples an easy life or a comfortable way to God. Like other great leaders, he calls us as Churchill did to ‘blood, toil, tears and sweat’. But again like a real leader, he does not call us to do anything more than he was prepared to do himself.

First Jesus calls us to ‘deny ourselves’, to say no to our own selfish instincts. We must do God’s will, not our own will, to the best of our ability, in all things.

The old tradition of giving something up for Lent is good practice for this, particularly if we turn it into something positive, like giving what we save to a good cause. It’s not too late to make a Lenten resolution if you haven’t done so already!

But more than simply practicing self-denial, Jesus tells us we must be prepared to take real risks – even to risk our very lives – if that is what God, through our conscience, tells us is right.

‘For those who want to save their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake, and for the sake of the gospel, will save it.’

Jesus focuses our attention with this great paradox: to save life is to lose it, and vice-versa.

The very essence of life, I think, is in risking it and spending it, not in saving it and hoarding it. If we live cautiously, always thinking first of our own profit, comfort and security, if we make no effort except for ourselves, we are losing life all the time. But if we spend life for others, if we follow Jesus’s way of loving self-sacrifice, we are winning life all the time.

The truth is that the only way in which we can find a life that matters is by losing it in the love of God and the love of our neighbours. That is the way of Jesus, that is the way of God, and that is the way of happiness too.

‘For what will it profit them to gain the whole world and forfeit their life? Indeed, what can they give in return for their life?’

I have no doubt that you, like me, can think of people who are outwardly hugely successful, but who in another sense are living a life that is not worth living. In business, they may have sacrificed honour for profit. In politics, they may have sacrificed principle for popularity. In their personal lives, they may have sacrificed their deepest relationships for their own ambitions or desires. Whatever the reason, such people are unlikely to be comfortable inside their own skin, and they often live to regret their bad choices.

It is a matter of values really, isn't it? Jesus is asking us where our values lie. As he says elsewhere, you should store up your treasures in heaven, not on earth, ‘for where your treasure is, there your heart will be also’. Our values should be God’s values, as Jesus reveals them to us, not the false values of worldly success.

‘Those who are ashamed of me and of my words in this adulterous and sinful generation, of them the Son of Man will also be ashamed when he comes in the glory of his Father with the holy angels.’

Jesus knew that many people around him were uncomfortable with what he said and how he behaved. He stood up for the poor, the despised and the rejected, and he was the friend of sinners. And the scribes and the Pharisees – the pious and the respectable - criticised him for it. With these words Jesus warns his disciples not to be ashamed to follow him publicly. For if they are ashamed, how can they expect to share with him and the holy angels in the glory of God’s kingdom?

These same words should also be a warning for us, I think. In Ireland - and in Europe generally - it is becoming rather unfashionable these days to own up to being a Christian. Even if we believe in our heart of hearts, many of us find it easier not to speak openly about it for fear of being mocked or thought less of. In fact, we behave as if we are ashamed of it.

It is a simple truth: we cannot expect to share with Jesus the joy of shaping the world into the place God means it to be, if we are not prepared to stand up and be counted for Jesus and for his message of loving self-sacrifice.

So to sum up, when I reflect on these words recorded by Mark, I hear Jesus’s voice urging me, down through the ages:

To do God’s will, not my own, and to be ready to risk all for it;

To find true life and happiness by losing my life in the service of God and others;

To live my life by God’s values, not the false values of worldly success;

To follow joyfully, fearlessly and without shame, Jesus’s path of loving self sacrifice.

Let us pray that we may all be encouraged to respond to that voice. In the words of St Igantius Loyola:
Teach us, Good Lord, to serve Thee as Thou deservest:
To give, and not to count the cost;
to fight, and not to heed the wounds;
to toil and not to seek for rest;
to labour and not to ask for any reward,
save that of knowing that we do Thy will.

Through Jesus Christ Our Lord,