In twenty-five years of ministry it never struck me until now, how (at first sight) odd the readings are for Mothering Sunday. I say “at first sight” because they are not really odd at all once you remember that this is also the fourth Sunday in Lent and that we are moving ever closer to the Cross.
What I think threw me was a kind of clash of cultures. I remembered years of Mothering Sundays in a parish church; “All Age” services that were often full of children and families who didn’t come very often; services that usually ended with gleeful children receiving little bunches of flowers from the vicar which were then passed on to their mums. This was supposed to be a happy, attractive occasion. What many of us clergy were trying to do was to give our rare visitors the kind of jolly experience that would make them come back again.
In this year of Luke there is a choice of two gospel readings for Mothering Sunday. The first, from Luke 2, is the couple of verses when Simeon says to Mary in the Temple in Jerusalem, “And a sword will pierce your heart, too.” Or from John 19 when we find Mary standing at the foot of the cross and Jesus gives her to the Beloved Disciple as his new mother. Neither of these are cheerful, “hip, hip hooray” for the joys of motherhood type readings. And the thing is I don’t ever remember preaching on the texts in my twenty-two years of parish ministry. It is a great pity if I didn’t.
“Standing at the foot of the cross was Mary.” You could stop there and leave it to the imagination to paint the vivid picture of what she must be going through. You could not do so without a box of tissues nearby. All the disciples (bar John) have run away. Only Mary, John and two other women have the courage to be there.
Someone once said that motherhood was 50% love and 50% guilt. Anyone who has been a mother knows this. Perhaps as an adult child we also know guilt for the way we did not always respect, love and understand what our parents were going through. Mothers and fathers look back on the way they let their children down and adult children look at the way they let their parents down.
What was going through Mary’s mind as she looked at her son? She had shown such faithfulness at the beginning but later there had been moments of friction (for example, at the Marriage at Cana, in Galilee), moments of real misunderstanding when she had listened to the negative things being said about her son to the extent that she came with his brothers to take him away because everyone was saying he was mad. As she looked at Jesus now being executed as a criminal, was she confused? Was a part of her saying, “Are these leaders of our religion right? Is my son a blasphemer?
In a way, however disturbed Mary might have been, not only because of the horror in front of her but because of confusion in her own mind, does not matter. What matters is her faithfulness to the son she loved. That she was there for him.
And Jesus is, of course, is faithful to her. In the rather formal words he says, “Women behold your Son. Son behold your mother,” Jesus hands over legal responsibility for his mother. He makes sure, in a country where women were utterly materially dependent on men that his mother will be looked after. But, despite the fact that Jesus had younger brothers, he also hands her over to John: someone who knows who Jesus is, who does understand what Jesus’ ministry was all about.
This a moment of profound reconciliation, where faithful love and care overcome all other considerations – all past hurts and misunderstanding. It is also a moment of hope for the future. With John as her guardian Mary will from hereon in be at the heart of the little group of disciples who will change the world. Jesus’ brother, James will become a leader of the Church.
Mary is like us with our own children: wanting the best for them, fearing for them; sometimes making the mistake of trying to take control for their own good! Church should be about telling it as it is; not always playing Happy Families to get the punters in. This story of love and guilt is in the end about a mother’s profound love and faithfulness to her son and God’s overarching faithfulness to world. Jesus does not only look after his mother’s legal and material future, but after that which has always given her hope and meaning, her faith in God. In the midst of darkness the promise of tomorrow is beginning to take root.