1 Samuel 1: 20-28 Colossians 3: 12-17 Luke 2: 33-35
If you have recently tried to make a train journey on a Sunday, you will know that the British Rail timetable can be rather complicated.
All those footnotes, small case letters in brackets, asterisks and stickers telling you that you will have to change your train at an unexpected station,
Or that the train will be delayed because of weekend engineering works,
Or even that part of what you thought was going to be a rail journey will have to be on a bus.
Such a journey on such a timetable can be very challenging.
But there are times when the church’s timetable can be challenging too.
Today there is a difficult junction between the Fourth Sunday in Lent and Mothering Sunday.
I say it’s difficult because joining up the joyful celebration of Motherhood with the penitential austerity of Lent is not an easy or obvious connection.
But just when I was beginning to fret about how to give a sermon on this connection, I read in this week’s Tablet an article by Tom Wright, Bishop of Durham which said:
“The Lenten journey often has that strange counterpoint of two melodies that seem to be in different keys struggling for resolution. Part of the discipline of Lent is to live with the message of the Kingdom apparently clashing with the march to the Cross”.
In search of inspiration for how to resolve the clash on this particular Sunday I did some optical research by looking at the Mother’s Day cards on display in one of our neighbourhood shops in Strutton Ground.
On the whole the inscriptions were not all that elevating or inspiring.
They were mostly in the poetic style of “Roses are Red, Violets are Blue, Good old Mum, We really love you”.
However there was an inscription on one card which did catch my eye. It read “Paradise Lies at the Feet of Mothers”. Now that happens to be a verse from the Koran – a book that is not often quoted in sermons at St Matthew’s.
It is a beautiful thought that Paradise lies at the feet of mothers. Yet with all respects to the Koran those words do not quite give the full picture, at least when compared to our readings today which throw deeper light on some of the complexities of motherhood, particularly when we reflect on the passage from St Luke’s Gospel.
Several of us will recall that at Candlemas Father Philip preached a memorable sermon on the Sunday when the church celebrates the Presentation of Christ in the Temple.
A longer version of this same passage from Luke was the Gospel reading that Sunday and Father Philip used the adjective Bittersweet to sum it up.
As it’s Mothering Sunday let’s focus for a moment on the bittersweet emotions which may have run through Mary’s heart. Pride and joy were certainly there as the Gospel tells us with the words “and the child’s father and mother were amazed” at what was being said by Simeon about Jesus.
But Mary’s amazement must have turned to concern as she heard Simeon go on to say to her and to her alone: “This child is destined for the falling and rising of many in Israel ………. and a sword will pierce your own soul too.”
Prophetic words but also deeply troubling words to a mother. They were a look forward to the Cross and perhaps to one of the most moving moments of the crucifixion when Jesus looked down from the Cross at his mother. As it is told in the words of St John’s Gospel:
“When Jesus saw his mother and the disciple whom he loved standing there he said to his mother “Woman here is your son”. Then he said to the disciple “Here is your mother”. And from that hour the disciple took her into his own home”.
That scene is one of the most poignant illustrations of maternal love, mingling with filial love, blessed by God’s love at a time of suffering.
As she stood at the foot of the Cross a sword was surely piercing Mary’s heart, just as Simeon had prophesised. And Jesus could not bear it. For put in blunt contemporary language the request he was making to his disciple, John, was “Please, get her out of here”.
And that was what John did, taking Mary into his own home from that hour and looking after her as if she was his own mother.
In a far smaller personal way I have had glimpses of understanding of that kind of motherly pain and motherly love in times of trial. When I was in prison, like most prisoners, I used to really enjoy having visits – from my family, from friends, and not least from Father Philip who visited me six times in seven months.
But there was one person whose prison visits I found very difficult. And that visitor was my mother.
Despite all her usual joie de vivre, she found it just too much to come into jail and see her little boy – that was me aged 56 – in prison uniform. So she always became upset.
And although I never actually voiced it I sometimes felt like saying to someone “please get her out of here” – simply because her maternal love and emotions were too strong.
And that is the bittersweet side of motherhood. Sometimes mothers suffer. That’s real life. We shall not gloss over it on Mothering Sunday.
But also part of real life is the joy of motherhood.
The other, happier side of Mothering Sunday celebration is in our readings too, particularly the joy of Hannah and her gratitude to God after giving birth to Samuel.
We will feel some of that joy here at St Matthew’s today when the children hurtle in from junior church to share their enjoyment of the day by bringing in gifts for their mothers
We may feel it after the service, particularly if we raise an extra glass on the grounds that another name in the church timetable for Mothering Sunday is Refreshment Sunday.
Alternative names for this particular day in the church calendar are Laetare Sunday which comes from the Latin word for rejoicing or Simnel Sunday.
That name points to another happy ecclesiastical tradition which St Matthew’s is reviving today by taking slices of Simnel cake to Westminster Abbey as a mark of gratitude to our mother church from a daughter church.
These traditions can be traced as far back as the book of Isaiah where one famous passage refers to Old Jerusalem as a Mother who comforts and nourishes her children. They include the tradition that Mary is venerated not only as the Mother of God but also as the Mother of the Church – a Catholic title formally confirmed by Pope Paul VI.
So if one tries to take in all the angles of
The Fourth Sunday in Lent
Or Laetare Sunday
Or Refreshment Sunday
Or Simnel Sunday
Or Mothering Sunday
You begin to appreciate the wisdom of that comment from Bishop Tom Wright when he referred to:
“That strange counterpoint of melodies that seem to be in different keys struggling for resolution.”
Yet running through all those melodies, those traditions, and through today’s readings are the great themes of Love, Gratitude and Obedience to God.
These virtues are personified by Mary.
From the moment of the annunciation when she responded:
“Be it unto me according to thy word” right through that heart breaking scene at the foot of the Cross, there was an unbroken line of loving obedience to God by Mary.
Her example sets the bar for us in Lent, and for us on Mothering Sunday.
In all the rising and falling episodes of our lives, in the painful times, the bittersweet times and the joyful times.
If we love honour and obey God with grateful hearts we will be blessed by him. Amen.
© Jonathan Aitken