Sunday 31 March 2019

Children can bring heartbreak as well as joy to mothers

Address given at Borrisokane Church on Sunday 31st March 2019, the 4th of Lent, celebrated as Mothering Sunday

Mothering Sunday is not just a secular celebration of motherhood but one of the best loved festivals of the Church year.
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?
  • Or, if you are particularly pious, 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.

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. 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, after the passage we heard read, 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 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. Nor should we 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.

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.

What heartbreak it must have been for Jesus’s mother Mary at the foot of his cross, as John 19:25-27 tells us in his Gospel.
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 the ‘disciple whom Jesus loved’ was John, one of the sons of Zebedee and Mary’s sister Salome, 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 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 today as we celebrate Mothering Sunday:
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.

Sunday 17 March 2019

Seeking the real St Patrick

Address given at Ballingarry on Sunday 17th March 2019, St Patrick's Day

Today we remember St Patrick, the patron saint of Ireland, whose feast day this is.
In the secular world, this is a day for us to celebrate all that is right and true and beautiful in our communities and in the homeland we share, whatever else may divide us. Many of us I’m sure, wear a shamrock with pride, take part in or attend St Patrick’s Day parades, and raise a glass to toast our nation. It’s allowed, you know, even if you’ve pledged to abstain during Lent, as the Prayer Book marks only weekdays in Lent as days of discipline and self-denial! Some no doubt will over-indulge and get up to all sorts of ‘shamroguery’, but we shouldn’t be afraid to join in decent, patriotic celebration.

But as Christians I suggest we should go further. We should seek to find the real St Patrick behind all the picturesque and fanciful legends that have grown up about him over the last 1500 years. And we should reflect on what St Patrick’s life and mission has to say to us in Ireland today.

Much of what I was told about St Patrick as a child is not true – it is much later legend.
Patrick did not teach about the Trinity using the trefoil leaf of a shamrock, charming though the story is. The story first appears in writing in 1726, though it may be somewhat older, much later than Patrick’s time.

Patrick did not banish all the snakes from Ireland. That story is first mentioned by Gerald of Wales in the 13th Century, although he didn’t believe it himself. The truth is that Ireland was separated from Britain by rising sea levels after the last ice age, which prevented snakes from reaching Ireland from Britain.

Patrick was not the first to convert the pagan Irish to Christianity. The narrow seas between Britain and Ireland were a trading highway in Roman times. Archeology shows that many Irish settled on the west coasts of Britain, and no doubt British Christians settled here. Irish chroniclers tell us that Pope Celestine consecrated a Gaul named Palladius to be the first bishop for Irish Christians in 431, a little before St Patrick. And there are traditions that there are other Irish saints who preceded Patrick, including St Kieran of Seir Keiran, Co Offaly, St Declan of Ardmore, Co Waterford and St Ailbe of Emly, Co Tipperary.

Most of what we know about the real St Patrick comes from his own writings.
The main source is his Confessio, or Confession, in which Patrick gives a short account of his life and mission.

Patrick tells us, ‘My father was Calpornius. He was a deacon; his father was Potitus, a priest, who lived at Bannavem Taburniae.’ We do not know exactly where Bannavem Taburniae was, but it may have been in Cumbria, Strathclyde in southwest Scotland, or Wales. So Patrick came from a Christian family of Romano-British clergy. As such his native language would have been primitive Welsh, and no doubt he would have been educated in Latin.

Patrick tells us he was taken prisoner by an Irish raiding party, along with thousands of others, and taken as a slave to Ireland, where he was put to work as a shepherd. There his love and awe of God grew and grew, until after 6 years captivity a voice in a dream urged him to run away and escape back to Britain, which he did.

After his return to Britain, Patrick felt called to ordination. There is a tradition that he studied in Europe, principally at Auxerre in modern France, where he was ordained by St Germanus.

In another vision, Patrick heard the voices of the Irish among whom he had lived calling to him, ‘We appeal to you, holy servant boy, to come and walk among us.’ Acting on this vision he returned to Ireland as a missionary.

Patrick was aware of the work of other Christian missionaries in the south and east – he was not alone. But his focus seems to have been in the north and west, where the Christian faith had not yet arrived.

Patrick gives little detail of his work, but tells us that he baptised thousands of people, ordained priests to lead the new Christian communities, converted wealthy women, some of whom became nuns, and converted the sons of kings. No doubt those he encountered were attracted by his distinctive spirituality, expressed in St Patrick’s Breastplate, the famous hymn attributed to him, some verses of which we shall sing in a moment.

But his mission was not always easy, for he tells us he met opposition. He was, beaten, robbed, put in chains and held captive. But Patrick rejoices that ‘the sons and daughters of the leaders of the Irish are seen to be monks and virgins of Christ.’

Patrick was a modest man. He finishes his Confessio with these words, addressed to us, to you and me: ‘I pray for those who believe in and have reverence for God. Some of them may happen to inspect or come upon this writing which Patrick, a sinner without learning, wrote in Ireland. May none of them ever say that whatever little I did or made known to please God was done through ignorance. Instead, you can judge and believe in all truth that it was a gift of God. This is my confession before I die.’

What can we as Christians today take from the life and mission of the real St Patrick?
St Patrick was passionately dedicated to sharing with the pagan Irish his Christian faith, which he saw as a blessing and gift from God. He echoes the words of Tobit (13:1b-7) in today’s 1st reading: ‘Bless the Lord of righteousness, and exalt the King of the ages. In the land of my exile I acknowledge him, and show his power and majesty to a nation of sinners.’ I suggest we should be more like St Patrick, eager to share our faith in the public square in our own times, when so many seem to find it difficult to do so.

St Patrick knew all about economic and social oppression from an early age. He challenged these evils and faced persecution for it. To quote from St Paul’s words in today’s epistle (2 Corinthians 4:1-12), he was ‘afflicted in every way, but not crushed; perplexed, but not driven to despair; persecuted, but not forsaken; struck down, but not destroyed’. When we in our times encounter such oppression, we should confront it as St Patrick did, and persevere against those who seek to perpetuate it, even if it costs us.

In today’s reading from John’s Gospel (John: 4:31-38), Jesus tells his disciples, ‘Look around you, and see how the fields are ripe for harvesting. The reaper is already receiving wages and is gathering fruit for eternal life, so that sower and reaper may rejoice together … I sent you to reap that for which you did not labour. Others have laboured, and you have entered into their labour.’ St Patrick reaped a harvest sown by others, as he was not the only nor the first Christian missionary to come to Ireland. In later times the Irish Church found unity around his bishopric of Armagh. In the same way, Christians of different traditions in Ireland today should seek unity in our diversity. We should rejoice in the truly important things that we have in common, rather than cling to the little things that separate us. Only then can we gather in the fruit for eternal life that Jesus desires us to reap.

I shall finish in prayer.
Hear us, most merciful God,
for that part of the Church
which through your servant Patrick you planted in our land;
that it may hold fast the faith entrusted to the saints
and in the end bear much fruit to eternal life:
through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen