This Sunday's readings: 4th Sunday of Lent, Mothering Sunday

02 November 2006


Exodus 2.1-10

2 Corinthians 1.3-7

John 19.25b-27



THE GOSPEL writers do not dwell on the harrowing details of the death of Jesus. Their reticence is not because the gruesome procedure of crucifixion was all too familiar to their first readers, nor is it to spare our squeamish feelings. The evangelists want us to understand who it is who suffers and why he suffers so, not to rehearse in every particular what he went through.

The same restraint is used in describing those at the foot of the cross. We hear of those who are there, but nothing of their pain. From Mary Magdalene "seven demons had gone out" (Luke 8.2). What now possesses her mind we are not told.

The mother of Jesus is unnamed in St John’s Gospel. So, too, is the "beloved disciple". Those closest to cross are the most hidden. We know that his mother’s name is Mary, but the author of this Gospel purposely does not mention it. This Sunday we shall deplore the anonymity of motherhood, and the fact that mothers have generally gone unmentioned in our histories, in the books with their telling titles, The History of Man and the rest.

We cannot accept that a mother’s identity should be subsumed and lost in that of the man she has married or the son she has carried. But the anonymity of Mary in John’s Gospel is not because she is overlooked. Later, all generations will call her blessed. But had she spoken here at the cross — she has come a long way from Cana — her word would have been the Baptist’s: "He must increase; I must decrease" (John 3.30).

The debate about the identity of "the beloved disciple" will drag on until the day we meet him. Whoever he was, what mattered most to him was that he was loved by Jesus. For those who doubt whether anyone loves them, nothing can be more overwhelming than to find that they are wrong. The reason why one of Shakespeare’s most cruel characters does some little good at the last is just because he makes this discovery. "Yet Edmund was belov’d" ( King Lear V.iii.239).

Jesus commends the unnamed woman and disciple to each other. At the foot of the cross, a new community is formed. The death-throes of Jesus are the birth pangs of the Church. It is the first meeting of the new family of God — all two of them, hiding together in the cleft rock.

A commentary on our cameo gospel and on the relationship between Christ, his mother, and the disciple he loved, are provided by a remarkable stained-glass window in Littlemore church, near Oxford. The church was built by John Henry Newman, though the window is later. The mother of Jesus and the beloved disciple are pictured at the foot of the cross. They are virtually embracing the cross, their figures almost merging with it, but at the same time — and very touchingly — they are holding hands.

The Revd Bernhard Schunemann, the former Priest-in-Charge of Littlemore, comments on this window, with its rare iconography. "The agony and death of Jesus transforms our inability to form an intimate relationship with God."

Jesus’s death puts us right with God. But what about each other? On Mothering Sunday, we wonder whether that agony and death can also transform our often wretched incompetence in relating to our nearest and dearest.

Newman’s own difficulty was not an "inability to form an intimate relationship with God". He got on rather well with God. Newman’s problem was not God, but mother. She disapproved of the direction her son’s religious opinions were taking. "I, who never thought of any thing more precious than her sympathy and praise", wrote Newman, "had none of it."

It is a pattern endlessly repeated. The child’s guilty sense, carried over into adult life, that he or she can never be good enough; the parent’s tormented sense of loss in watching the child go his or her own way. It is the most endemic of our disordered loves, and by far the most destructive of our well-being.

The foundation stone of Littlemore church was laid by Newman’s mother, though she did not live to see its consecration. Was Newman trying to assuage his crippling sense of guilt by the absurd alabaster memorial he put up to her, a monument showing Mrs Newman discussing the plans of the new church with an angel?

This Sunday, it is very important indeed that we give daffodils to Mums, but we trivialise this precious day if we evade its shadows. The adults we see weeping on Mothering Sunday are not all shedding tears of happiness.

O Lord Jesus Christ, fill me with that faith of thine wherewith out of thine own pain thou didst comfort thy mother in hers; and despoiled and naked gavest her both home and son. To such love, without like, without limit, lead me, O Lord, now and for ever.

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