Sunday 14 March 2010

Mothering Sunday - Hannah & Samuel, Simeon & Mary

Address given on 14th March 2010, the 4th Sunday of Lent, Mothering Sunday, at Templederry & Puckane

Mothering Sunday is not just a secular celebration of motherhood but one of the best loved festivals of the Church year, though not a particularly ancient one.
But what does it mean for you and me?
  • Is it a time to show our mothers how grateful we are for all they have done for us?
  • Is it a time to remember them with love, if they are no longer with us?
  • Is it a time for soppy cards and flowers and gifts?
  • For the cynical, is it just another excuse to make money by selling us over-priced, themed merchandise?
  • Or is it a lovely excuse for families to get together and celebrate their shared stories?
  • If you are particularly pious, it might it be a time to give thanks for ‘mother church’ which nurtures us in our Christian faith.
It is, I suppose, all these things … and a lot more too. It is a day when as Christians we are invited to reflect on many different aspects of motherhood. Today’s readings focus our minds on one, darker aspect: children can bring heartbreak as well as joy to mothers.

Let’s look at the story of Hannah and her baby boy Samuel (1 Samuel 1:20-28).
If you feel the reading was a bit odd, it may be because it is only the middle part of a longer story. The good compilers of the lectionary have an unfortunate habit of setting small parts of stories to be read - when you get back home you might like to take down your bible and look at the very start of the 1st book of Samuel to read the whole story. Here is asummary of it.

In the first part, which we didn’t hear, we learn that Hannah is the wife of Elkanah, a man with two wives. Every year Elkanah takes his whole household to the shrine at Shiloh to sacrifice to the Lord. His second wife, Peninnah, provokes and mocks Hannah because Peninnah has children, but Hannah doesn’t. Elkanah loves Hannah, we are told, but perhaps he had taken a second wife because Hannah could not give him children. How hard it is for people who long for children but can’t have them! Hannah is desperate. She longs for a child - she prays for a child in the shrine at Shiloh - and she offers God a deal in exchange for a child. She bargains with God! The bargain is along these lines: “God, if you give me a son, then I will give him back to serve you for the rest of his life.” Eli the priest notices her unhappiness as she prays silently. She is so distressed that he thinks she is drunk and chides her, but Hannah with great dignity explains she isn’t drunk, but has a lot of troubles to pray about.

In the passage we heard today, God has answered Hannah's prayer. She conceives, gives birth to a son and calls him Samuel. When Samuel is old enough, perhaps barely more than a toddler, she takes him with her on the annual trip to Shiloh, and leaves him there with Eli. ‘For this child I prayed,’ she tells Eli; ‘and the Lord has granted me the petition that I made him. Therefore I have lent him to the Lord; as long as he lives, he is given to the Lord.’

In the last part of the story, we are told that every year Hannah makes a little robe for Samuel and brings it to him in Shiloh, when she goes there with her husband Elkanah for the sacrifice. Every year Eli blesses them for her gift to the Lord. And over the years the Lord blesses Hannah with three more sons and two daughters.

What sort of a mother is Hannah?
Your initial reaction, like mine, might be to think she isn’t a very good one. How could a good mother abandon her baby at the gates of a religious institution, as Hannah did Samuel at the House of the Lord at Shiloh?

It would surely be a mistake to judge Hannah by the standards of our own time - we must apply the standards of her own society, not ours. But we should not forget that until quite recently many women in Ireland chose, or felt obliged, to give their children over to the care of religious institutions. Many privileged women still send their children away to Prep schools as boarders when not much older than Samuel was when Hannah left him with Eli. And we all expect the State to take children into care when their mothers cannot care for them as they need and deserve.

Hannah must have felt her heart breaking as she left Samuel behind to be fostered by Eli. But by doing so she ensured that he had a fine education and a good home. She was able to visit him, to give him presents, and Eli looked after him well. Fostering has been an honourable tradition in many societies – it was in Gaelic Ireland – and it still is for people in Nigeria for instance, which regularly causes misunderstandings with our immigration authorities.

Living in the shrine at Shiloh, Samuel learned to know and serve God. He grew up to be a great prophet - and eventually the leader of his people. It was Samuel who anointed Saul to be the first King of Israel, and David to be their greatest King ... and when Samuel died as an old man, the whole nation of Israel gathered to mourn him.

The fact is, by leaving Samuel with Eli, Hannah allowed him to grow up to be what God called him to be - a prophet, and a leader. Her sacrifice was good for Samuel, and turned out well for all.

Perhaps she wasn’t such a bad mother after all!

There is a lesson here, not just for mothers, I think, but for all parents: to know when to let our children go. Our real job as parents, surely, is to do all that we can to enable our children to become all that they can be - what God intends them to be. That means we must be prepared to let them go. Even though that breaks our hearts.

A mother’s heartbreak is at the centre of Simeon’s words to Mary too (Luke 2:33-35).

‘A sword will pierce your own soul too’, says Simeon to Mary, when she and Joseph brought their baby Jesus to the Temple for the purification required by Jewish law, after he had taken Jesus in his arms and praised God in the words we now call the Nunc Dimittis – ‘Lord now letest thou thy servant depart in peace...’

And we know, as Mary could not when she heard Simeon’s words, that Mary was to endure at the foot of a cross the horror of watching brutal men torture her lovely boy to death. Just as so many parents, men as well as women, have had to endure the loss of a beloved child.

Motherhood – parenthood – brings heartbreak for some. May God forbid I should ever have to endure it.

So today as we celebrate Mothering Sunday, and let us celebrate it with joy:
  • As children - let us show our love and gratitude to our mothers.
  • As mothers - let us allow our families to make a fuss of us.
  • And as families - let us enjoy all the memories.
But let us not forget those heartbroken over children:
  • those who long for children but cannot have them;
  • parents that are separated from their children;
  • and parents who have lost their children through death or in other ways.

And let us give thanks for those foster parents, adoptive parents and carers who by their love show God’s love to children that are not their own.