John 19. 25b-27: Mary at the Foot of the Cross
I'm delighted to tell you that we are joined this morning by Clare's parents - John and Jan...which means that I have the pleasure of having my Mother--in-Law with me on Mothering Sunday. The only problem is...I can't now tell you any of my mother-in-law jokes!
So instead, to get us started on the theme of Mothering Sunday, here is a letter from a Mother to a Child....
The bathroom door is closed! Please do not stand here and talk, whine, or ask questions. Wait until I get out. Yes, it is locked. I want it that way. It is not broken, and I am not trapped. I know I have left it unlocked, and even open at times, since you were born, because I was afraid that some horrible tragedy might occur while I was in here, and you would want some comfort from me. But it's been ten years and I want some privacy.
Do not ask me how long I will be. I will come out when I am done. Do not bring the phone to the bathroom door. Do not go running back to the phone yelling "She's on the toilet!".
Do not stick your fingers under the door and wiggle them. That was funny when you were two, but not now. Do not slide pennies under the door, or notes, or LEGO pieces.
If you have followed me down the hall talking, and are still talking as you face this closed door, please turn around, walk away, and wait for me in another room. I will be glad to listen to you when I am done.
And yes, I still love you.
(From 'A Barrel of Fun' by J.John and Mark Stibbe. ISBN: 1-85424-621-6)
There's an old Jewish proverb that goes, "God could not be everywhere at once, and therefore he made mothers". It's meant to be taken ironically, of course. God, as we well know, is everywhere - at all times and in all places - deeply and fundamentally present by the Holy Spirit. In fact if we change the old Jewish proverb just a little bit, I think we might get an even better picture of the importance of motherhood. Let's say "God is everywhere at once, and yet he still decided to make mothers".
The idea of motherhood was so important to God, that Jesus was given an earthly mother. God could easily have appeared among us in an instant. He could have arrived on earth, as Jesus, by just willing himself into a human body - fully grown and ready to embark on his ministry. But that was not the path that he chose.
Instead, God chose that Jesus should raised by a mother...that he should experience 30 or so years of the closeness of family life, under the leadership of Mary. Joseph, of course, was involved too - but it is interesting to note that the focus of the gospel stories about Jesus' parents tend to be on Mary, rather more than Joseph. It is Mary who is chosen to bring Jesus into the world. It is Mary who first accepts the Angel's news. It is Mary who goes through the pain of childbirth. Ultimately, for reasons we don't know, Joseph drops out of the Gospel stories altogether - until it is only Mary who stands at the foot of the cross, in front of her dying son.
The Orthodox church has a term for Mary - they call her "Theotokos" which directly translates as the 'God-bearer', or the one who gives birth to God. It is a rather more precise understanding of Mary's role than the term 'Mother of God' which is often used in English. 'Mother of God' can seem to imply that Mary was the source from which Jesus came, eternally. Whereas Scripture, and the church's tradition, quite clearly tells us that Jesus has always existed, from eternity. Check out the first chapter of John if you want to be sure: "In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God". That passage goes on to explicitly state that the Word, Jesus, then came and dwelt among us.
The word 'Theotokos' - God-bearer - then, makes clear that Mary bore Jesus into the world. She was the channel through which he came - and she was the one entrusted with the task of bearing him, and bearing with him, throughout his childhood, and then his earthly ministry. She was entrusted with his care, and with teaching him what it meant to be human. The church believes that Jesus was, in a weird theological twist, both fully human, and fully divine. Being fully human, Jesus needed the love, care and teaching of an earthly mother.
It is for that reason that the church venerates Mary as perhaps the most important human being who has ever lived. She had more physical connection with God than anyone has had - by bearing Jesus within her. She obediently and willingly carried out the task that was given to her of bringing Jesus into the world, and bringing him up to fulfill his mission.
Isn't it interesting that this most important human being of all...was a woman? The world is so often dominated by men, and by male perspectives. Just think for a moment about the worlds of politics, academia, journalism, finance and banking...all of them are still dominated by men. Gradually, decade by decade, we are seeing women beginning to gain a foothold...but it is a slow and difficult process.
It is still the case that the majority of Christian churches are dominated by men. The Orthodox church, the Catholic Church, the Coptic Church, and many of the Bible-belt churches of the USA...all of them still reserve the role of priest or minister, or pastor, exclusively for men. It is only in the reformed churches that women are gradually being recognised for the contribution that they bring to the role of priest. And I want to say publicly that I truly value the contribution of my female colleagues in this team.
However, what I don't want to do is fall into the trap of saying that it is only women who can do certain things, or only men who do others. It is too easy to say, as the classic book-title does, that 'Men are from Mars and Women are from Venus'. Too often we hear the tired old rhetoric that men are the warmongers, and women are the peace-makers.
The bible teaches us that we are all made in the image of God - male and female. That means, I think, that all of us - potentially - have those God-given attributes of creativity, and nurturing, and caring for one another, and loving each other. Motherhood is not necessarily something that is only done by women...some of the best mothers I know, are actually men! Consider those men who are perhaps widowed, or left by their wives to bring up their children. What about those men who stay in England bringing up children while their wives are serving in Iraq or Afghanistan?
There is another phenomenon that is making us rethink those old gender stereotypes, as well...namely the phenomenon of homosexuality. Gay people are teaching us that all men do not have to be warriors... and that it is perfectly possible to be artists, and homemakers too. That is not because gay men can't also be warriors...many of them patently are, despite what our armed forces would like the enemies of the UK to believe! But perhaps homosexual people, who tend not to slip so easily into the stereotypes that society has constructed for us...perhaps they are helping us to ask questions of what it truly means to be human...made in the image of God...male and female. (See Genesis 1:27 for a biblical reference to this idea: "So God created humankind in his image; in the image of God he created them; male and female he created them".)
Perhaps the story of Adam and Eve teaches us that to be truly human - truly made in the image of God - is to embrace all of the characteristics of maleness and femaleness. Perhaps becoming more like God, in whose image we are made, means traditional men becoming more traditionally female, and traditional females becoming more traditionally male.
What am I trying to say to you? Let me try to break it down into some examples. There are at least two men in this congregation who spend a great deal of their lives caring for an older relative. They are not out working in a bank, or shooting people...they are acting as nurturing carers. They act, in fact, like mothers to their elderly relatives in all but name. On the other hand, there are women within this congregation who work as administrators and managers within their chosen professions - jobs that until only a few years ago would have been exclusively assigned to men. Two out of the four priests in this parish are women, not men. At least three men in this congregation regularly spend time in the Community Cafe, offering a listening ear, comfort and care for lonely people who come into the Cafe. They nurture...they care. They take on the role of 'mothering'.
Some people might panic at this apparent breaking down of the traditional gender roles that society has assigned to men and women. But not me. Even some churches play to the gallery of male and female stereo-typing...declaring that they will help men to become 'true men in the Lord', and women to become 'true women'. Regretfully, that kind of teaching programme too often results in re-enforcing old stereotypes. Men go out to work, and have fun with their mates (on the pretext of evangelising of course!). Women still end up at home with the kids.
I believe in a Lord who welcomed women into his circle of disciples...a circle that for any other Rabbi of his time would have been exclusively reserved for men. I worship a Lord who chose to reveal himself, after his resurrection, first and foremost to a woman. I worship a Lord who used words like 'Love one another' and 'forgive one another' - traditionally female words, nurturing words. I worship a Lord who, perhaps because of the influence of the Mother whom God had appointed for him, was completely in touch with the feminine side of his nature, as much as the masculine.
He held those two sides in balance. He refused the temptation of the Devil - during the 40 days and 40 nights - the temptation to use the traditionally male-notion of power to dominate the world. Instead, he embraced the more traditionally feminine notions of service - washing his disciples feet, and giving up his life for others.
So, on this Mother's day - it is right that we should celebrate all the women who give up their lives to serve their children, or to 'mother' those in need around them. It is right for us to acknowledge their contribution to our own lives and well-being. It is right for us to acknowledge that, by and large, mothers are the only workers who do not have regular time off. They are the great 'vacationless' class. (A quote by Anne Morrow Lindbergh, taken from 'A Bucket of Surprises' by J.John and Mark Stibbe. ISBN: 1-85424-588-0)
But let us also embrace the mother that is within us all - drawing from the example of Jesus and his Mother Mary. Jesus teaches us that having children is only one way of being a mother. As we embrace the idea that we are made in the image of God...who is father and mother to us all...we know that mothering is something that we all have the capacity to do...whether we have our own children or not.
May you discover the mother within you - as you rise to the challenge of knowing yourself to be made in the image of God. May you follow the example of Mary, the God-bearer, and of Jesus her Son - as you offer love, care and nurture to those around you. And may you come to know God not just as Father, but as Mother...the mother whose love for you will never end, throughout eternity.