John 19. 25b-27: Mary at the Foot of the Cross
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, of course, Jesus has always existed, from eternity – according to the beginning of John’s Gospel. "In the beginning was the Word…”
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 teaches that Jesus was, in a weird theological paradox, 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.
The majority of Christian churches are still 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 some of the reformed churches that women are gradually being recognised for the contribution that they bring to the role of priest.
What we must not 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. In African culture, as I've discovered in Ghana, the division is between women who are the life-givers (by giving birth and nurturing children) and men who are the life-takers (through hunting, warfare and offering sacrifices). That's why some many churches are still struggling with the idea of women priests...they cannot cope, culturally, with the idea of a woman offering the sacrifice of Christ.
But we can transcend these cultural ideas. Ghandi wasn’t a man, nor was the Buddha. But they all promoted love, forgiveness and nurture. They were all, in a sense, from ‘Venus’. Margaret Thatcher and Queen Bodesia were not men, but they easily picked up the tools of war to resolve problems. Jesus, in fact, embodies both the notion of life-giver and sacrifice-maker. He sacrifices himself on the Cross, and by doing so offers spiritual life to all. The male and female, completely combined.
The Bible teaches us that we are all made in the image of God - male and female. Just think about that for a moment. To say we are all made in the image of God means that God has both male and female characteristics. 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 in the Forces overseas? What about those – like some in this very congregation – who live with and look after their elderly mothers?
Perhaps the story of Adam and Eve invites us to realise that to be truly human - truly made in the image of God - is to embrace all of the characteristics of maleness and femaleness. According to their story, it is only after the Fall that the role of farmer is given to Adam, and the role of baby-bearer given to Eve. Perhaps becoming more like God, in whose image we are made, means men embracing their female side, and women embracing the male. Perhaps getting the balance right is the way back into the garden of Eden?
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'. These are 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 in the wilderness. As we thought about at Café Church two weeks ago, Jesus resisted the temptation to use the very male-concept of power to dominate the world. Instead, he embraced the more traditionally feminine concept of service - washing his disciples feet, and giving up his life for others.
So, on this Mother's day - we celebrate all the women who give up their lives to serve their children, or to 'mother' those in need around them. We gratefully acknowledge their contribution to our own lives and well-being. Let us also acknowledge that, by and large, mothers are the only workers who do not have regular time off. Even holidays are not time off for most mothers…just mothering in a different location, without all the normal tools of distraction at their finger-tips! No wonder some mothers would want to lock themselves in the bathroom from time to time…they are the great 'vacation-less' class.
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 – men and women alike - 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 also as Mother...the mother whose love for you will never end, throughout eternity. Let this ‘Mother’s Day’ be God’s day…the day we seek out and celebrate the Mother within all of us. Amen.