A sermon for Mothering Sunday
Texts: Exodus 2.1-10, Colossians 3.12-17, John 19.25b-27
I confess to you, my brothers and sisters, that I have always had a rather ambivalent relationship with Mary, the Mother of Jesus. This no doubt stems from my low-church upbringing. I was never really taught about the importance of Mary in the story of Jesus. The veneration of Mary was something which the Roman Catholics, down the road, did. It was slightly odd, and a little bit ‘suspect’. It was something which marked them from us. And so, in my early, formational years, Mary was treated as little more than the human incubator for the Son of God.
The extent to which Mary should, or should not, be venerated is a theme of church debates throughout the centuries. Those who think that such veneration has got out of hand, at times, point to the Qu’ran, (specifically 5.116). There’s a moment when the prophet Mohammed clearly thought that Christians were not just venerating Mary, but worshipping her, as if she were an equal member of the Trinity. In fact, in Mohammed’s understanding of what he observed among Christians, the Holy Spirit hardly got a mention! The Qu’ran was written around the turn of the 7th Century after Jesus – so clearly, Christians of that time were giving Mary a lot of attention.
Questions about the emphasis we should place on Mary have clearly been a feature of our history, here at St Faith’s. Last week, in preparation for a school assembly, I carried out a bit of a survey of images of Mary in our building. I walked around the church with a camera, describing for the children all the different ways that Mary is represented in our pictures, statues and windows.
For example, there is the Mother’s Union Banner, the icon in the prayer area, and then the gorgeous statue in the Lady Chapel. There are stained glass windows of Mary as the queen of heaven (in the South Aisle) and appearing to St Bernadette at Lourdes (in the South-West window). There are images of Mary at the Nativity (South Transept) and an image of today’s Gospel reading in the great East Window. Mary, and John are shown standing at the foot of the cross. I haven’t done an actual tally, but it wouldn’t surprise me to learn that there might be are more images of Mary in our church than there are of Jesus! Only the Stations of the Cross really redress the balance, in terms of a tally, and they are a relatively recent addition to the church.
After Easter, Bishop John will once again lead our Walsingham Cell of our Lady of Faith on a pilgrimage to ‘England’s Nazareth’. Our pilgrims will venerate Mary, and ask for her prayers to God, in the greatest English Shrine to her. After missing the occasion for the last two years, due to Covid, I’m sure it will be a very meaningful encounter for everyone who goes.
As an amateur historian and practicing theologian, all this interest in Mary intrigues me. Why has there been such an interest in her, over the centuries? After all, her contribution, through Scripture, to theology is relatively small. We only have her selfless willingness to bear Jesus, and her glorious hymn of liberation, called the Magnificat. Both of these are wonderful and inspiring moments, but essentially, they only echo much more developed theologies of service, and of the Kingdom, in the rest of Scripture.
Her wider story is, of course, inspiring to us. A peasant woman, willing to give her all to God, succeeds in bringing God himself into our world. She raises the child, and then stands with him throughout his ministry, his death, and his resurrection. She is devoted to Jesus, through thick and thin, never straying from his side, either when the crowds are shouting Hosanna, or when they shout ‘Crucify Him’. Her story is one of devotion, and steadfast faith, and serves to encourage us all to do the same.
But, arguably, other Bible characters had similar levels of devotion. Some devotions were even greater – leading them, for example, to persecution and imprisonment, torture and death. By tradition, Mary (on the other hand) was carried bodily into heaven, never having tasted death herself. So why does Mary intrigue us so much?
My gut tells me that Mary fascinates us because of her gender. In a patriarchal world, in which men make all the decisions, Mary makes her decision (to say yes to God). In a Bible-world of kings, conquests, geo-politics and apocalypses, Mary offers us a vision of faith in the domestic setting. Through her story, we glimpse the intimate realities of God in the home environment – growing up in the bosom of a loving family. Through the eyes of God’s ‘hand-maiden’, we glimpse the reality that God isn’t just interested in who wields power in our world, but also how power is exercised in our homes, and in our families.
Mary offers us a narrative of Motherhood, which stands in contrast to the traditional notions of Fatherhood – which all too often is about issues of power and control. Although we know that God made both men and women in God’s image, Mary reminds us of the feminine aspects of God. She gives us permission to apply the adverb ‘she’ to God, as much as ‘he’. What do I mean?
Well, this: if we only conceive of God in male terms, then we will expect God to act as males tend to act. We will expect God to control the situation we are praying about. We will expect God to intervene, and to ‘sort it out’. When we pray about conflicts in the world (like the one in Ukraine at the moment), we will expect God to step into the battlefield, like a Head teacher into a playground scrap – to separate the warring parties, and give them detention! But Mary, in reminding us of God’s feminine characteristics, will show us a God who sometimes stands back from her squabbling children, so that they might learn and grow through the squabble, always ready to both comfort and to teach. The feminine God isn’t focussed on control, or domination, but rather in the growth of her children. She wants her children to become all that they are capable of becoming – like the stereotypical mother of some cultures who pushes her child to become a Doctor. And she knows that a lesson lived is more likely to be learned than a lesson taught.
It is this feminine aspect of God, reflected in humanity, which emerges in the other readings that are set for today. In the first reading, from the Book of Exodus, the Mother of Moses uses her cunning and guile to protect her new-born son. She doesn’t gain custody of him through violence or coercion, but out of love, and compassion, and sheer motherly determination. In the second reading, from the letter to the Colossians, St Paul teaches that Christians must treat one another with the kinds of qualities we associate with the feminine: compassion, love, humility, peace, forgiveness. What a remarkable transformation this is, from the Saul who originally sought to control people through violence, persecution and murder!
So on this Mothering Sunday, let us give thanks for all those, like Mary the Mother of Jesus, who ignite in us the feminine aspects of God. Let us pray for those who are rightly repelling the violent Russian invaders in Ukraine, but also for those who are mothering the refugees who are fleeing the fighting. Their efforts, to bring food, medicine, clothing and shelter are no less heroic, no less important. And they, like Mary, remind us all of the feminine aspects of God, who creates, supplies and cares for all God’s children. Amen.