Mothering Sunday sermons often come in the form of a rant – against the rampant commercialism and guilt-inducing saccharin of Mother’s Day, which – as you all know – completely subsumes the original meaning of the day. But I’m not going to do that – this year anyway!
Instead, I want to focus on perhaps the most famous Mother of them all…the mother of Jesus, and through him – in a very real sense – the Mother of the Church.
Now, there’s a lot of theology to debate around Mary. We could happily wallow around for a while in words like ‘Theotokos’ – the ‘God-bearer’, or the ‘Mother of God’. We could debate the catholic doctrines of her Assumption into heaven – which is the idea that Mary never died, but was raised bodily into heaven by her son. Or we could thrash around for a while in the doctrine of the Immaculate Conception – which many people are surprised to learn is the idea that Mary’s own conception, in her own Mother’s womb, was preserved free from all stain of original sin. Oh yes, we could have a lot of fun exploring that together!
We could also spend some time thinking about what it means for us to have a Lady Chapel, currently in the middle of repainting and restoration. We could ask ourselves what it means to pray through Mary to Jesus, or to seek her prayers for ‘us sinners now and at the hour of our deaths’. That too would be a fertile area of discussion.
But let me not be so theologically indulgent. The Mary I’d like to focus on this morning is that Mary who stands at the foot of her Son’s cross.
Let me invite you to put yourself in Mary’s shoes for a moment. Here is a woman – an ordinary, poorly educated, peasant woman, who has experienced the most extraordinary things. The birth of her son was announced to her by an angel. An Angel, for goodness sake! His birth was surrounded by amazing signs – a star in the heavens, visitors from Eastern lands. She experienced the horror and fear of having to protect her child from the State, fleeing as a refugee into a foreign land. She experienced the wonder of seeing him recognised as the messiah by the holiest of men in the Temple. She watched him grow, day by day, until his thirties…wondering, all the time, what his extra-ordinary life was going to accomplish. Then, as he embarked on his preaching mission, she felt the pain of rejection, as Jesus’ own concept of family expanded to include all his followers. ‘Who are my mother, my brothers and sisters?’ he said. ‘Those who do the will of my Father’. She watched as her son’s public ministry reached its public climax, as he was hailed as the King of Kings, riding into Jerusalem to the waving of palm branches and the adulation of the crowd. How proud she must have been that day!
After all that, and much more, Mary finds herself standing at the foot of her son’s execution. All her dreams, all her hopes, dashed. It seemed that, after all, her son was not destined to rule the nation, or lead it out of bondage to the Romans. It seemed that, after all he had done and all he had said, everyone had left him, abandoned him – except this little group of women and just one disciple who had stuck with him to the bitter end. There would clearly be no grandchildren for Mary to dandle on her knee. All gone, all hope lost.
And yet, Mary remains. She does not leave. She does not disown her beloved child, even though one of his best friends, and all but one of his disciples had done exactly that. She remains. Steadfast. Loyal. Hoping against hope, for a miracle.
This, ultimately, is the heart of a Mother. Every mother has dreams for their child. Which true mother does not want their child to be successful, wealthy, or just, simply, happy? But like Mary, not every mother gets to realise those ambitions. Disease, poverty, death or just plain bad luck can so often get in the way. But the true mother never gives up. She stays, standing at the foot of her child’s cross, praying, hoping, for a miracle.
And that, perhaps, is why the Church has so often been described as our Mother, too. The church is the place – the community – in which we too are nourished and offered new spiritual life. The church has hopes and dreams for each one of her children. The church seeks only the best for us – that hope that we will grow to live fulfilled, purposeful and ultimately happy lives.
But sometimes we fail. Bad luck, disease, death, the temptations of ‘the world, the flesh and the devil’ draw us away from our Mother church. But does she stop hoping and praying for us? She does not. She continues, like any true mother, to hope for a miracle.
And when we return, she does not chastise us, she welcomes us. Like the return of the prodigal son, she sets a table, a spiritual feast for us, at the table of her husband Christ. She welcomes us home, and invites us in. She puts on our slippers for us, lights the fire, and puts fragrant tobacco in our pipe!
Mary, you see, teaches the Church what it means to be a mother. A mother yearns only for the happiness of her child. She accepts – and loves - her child for who that child is. The child’s colour, their disability, their wealth or status, their sexuality, their intelligence, their theology – none of these things gets in the way of Mother church loving us, and wanting us only to grow into full maturity and happiness.
So perhaps, after all, I should rant a little about the loss of Mother’s Day as a day to invite a return to Mother Church. We should, of course, thank our own Mothers for all they mean to us. We should, today of all days, pray for those whose motherhood is an excessive burden or sorrow. We should remember with love our Mothers who have passed on to glory. But above all, perhaps we might all commit ourselves anew to returning time and time again to Mother Church?