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

02 November 2006


Ephesians 5.8-14

JESUS went to Jerusalem for the autumn Feast of Tabernacles. The grapes and olives had been harvested. The festival joined thanksgiving for one season's end with prayers for the October rain and the next year's crops. At the Feast of Tabernacles, King Solomon had dedicated the Temple in Jerusalem. He had prayed to God: "Keep faith with your promise to my father David: 'There shall never fail you a man to sit before me on the throne of Israel, if only your children take heed to their way, to walk before me as you have walked before me'"(1 Kings 8.25).

On each morning of the festival, a procession went from the Temple to draw water, down the hill to the spring of Gihon that fed the Pool of Siloam. "From the Place of Drawing", rabbis would later claim, "they drew the spirit of God." A golden flagon was filled with water. The choir sang from the prophet Isaiah: "With joy you shall draw water from the wells of salvation" (Isaiah 12.3). Among the passages read out at Tabernacles was Isaiah's prophecy: "I shall pour water on the thirsty land; upon your descendants I shall pour out my spirit" (Isaiah 44.3).

On the Festival's first evening, a procession led down the steps from the innermost courtyard in the Temple, which held the altar, eastwards to the Court of the Women. There stood huge golden candlesticks, said to have been 75 feet high. At their tops, reached by ladder, were golden bowls for oil and wick. Once they were lit, there was not a courtyard in Jerusalem, we are told, that did not reflect the light.

Men of piety and great powers used to dance and sing before these candles, with torches in their hands. On the steps between the two courtyards stood musicians: harps, cymbals and trumpets played.

"On that day", wrote Zechariah of the final Tabernacles, "there shall be continuous day, not day and not night, for at evening time there shall be light" (Zechariah 14.7).

At cock-crow, two priests, stationed at the top of the steps, blew three notes on their trumpets. Down five steps, and again three notes. Down the rest of the steps, and the same again. And so they moved gradually eastwards, away from the Temple's heart and towards the rising sun, trumpets sounding.

At the outermost gate of the Temple, they turned around. They faced the Temple itself: "Our fathers", they called out, "turned their backs towards the Temple of the Lord and their faces towards the east; they worshipped the sun towards the east. But our eyes are turned to the Lord."

The day after the Festival, Jesus said: "I am the light of the world. Those who follow me shall not walk in darkness. They shall have the light of life" (John 8.12).

In the next chapter, Jesus comes across a man born blind. It is the Sabbath. "So long as I am in the world," says Jesus, "I am the light of the world" (John 9.5).

The man's life is not in danger. Jesus none the less kneads earth, with his spittle, into mud and anoints the man's eyes. Every part of the action breaks the Sabbath regulations.

Jesus now sends the blind man to the Pool of Siloam. John interprets the name freely, but with a clear purpose of his own: "one who has been sent" - as Jesus had been sent by the Father. The man will wash his eyes in the Temple's Pool; but the water that will give him sight is the water of the true Temple, Jesus himself. The man has been "anointed" - and so created anew - from the clay with which the first Adam was made.

Three times, the man admits his ignorance (John 9.12, 25, 36). But he is steadily growing in insight. He speaks first of "the man they call Jesus" (9.11). Questioned by the Pharisees, he describes Jesus as a "prophet"; then insists Jesus must be "from God" (9.33). He is ready to respond to Jesus when Jesus describes himself as "the son of man" (9.37).

The more the man sees, the more blind the Pharisees become. Three times, these Jews declare confidently what they know about Jesus (John 9.16, 24, 29); but are doing everything they can to deny the evidence of their own eyes. They argue against the testimony of one man in the days of Jesus himself; but John has in mind the debates too of his own age, when the synagogues were taking a harsher line against the Jewish followers of Jesus (John 9.22).

From the third century, a tradition grew of three pre-baptismal scrutinies. When the candidates had passed the great scrutiny and were judged worthy of the sacrament, John 9 was read out, and the candidates recited the creed. St Ambrose, in the fourth century, reminded the newly baptised that they had heard John 9 in Lent, in the preparation for their baptism at Easter.

The blind man has been enlightened, as catechumens were at baptism brought into the light (Hebrews 6.4; 10.32). As a heading to the stories of the blind man and of Lazarus, the baptismal acclamation recorded in Ephesians would serve well: "Awake, you that sleep, and arise from the dead; and Christ shall give you light" (Ephesians 5.14). Clement of Alexandria, in the late second century, cites the verse with three further lines. Now Christ is "the sun of the resurrection, the one begotten before the morning star, he who gives life by his own rays."

Mothering Sunday

PHARAOH decreed the drowning of all Hebrew boys at birth. Moses's father, rabbis claimed in the centuries after Christ, persuaded the Jewish council in Egypt that all couples should divorce, to prevent such an atrocity. It took Moses's older sister Miriam to point out that this would condemn the people to annihilation. Moses's mother in turn saved Moses's life with the basket (Exodus 2.1-3); his sister again had the infant entrusted to their own mother; and that mother brought him back to safety under the patronage of Pharaoh's daughter.
Of Elkanah's two wives, Peninnah had children, Hannah had not (1 Samuel 1.5). Elkanah was resigned to her barrenness. It was Hannah who prayed at Shiloh, had her prayers answered in the birth of Samuel and consigned him to the service of the Lord.

Central to each story is the initiative of the hero's mother. No wonder, in Matthew's genealogy, the four women mentioned prior to Mary were known for their independence (Matthew 1.3, 5, 6). Tamar took the initiative to be united with Judah (Genesis 38). The prostitute Rahab made possible Israel's entry into the Holy Land (Joshua 2). The foreigner Ruth brought about her own union with Boaz and so the Davidic line (Ruth 3). Bathsheba - adulteress though she was - ensured the succession of Solomon (1 Kings 1.15-40).

Matthew evokes Moses in his story of Jesus's infancy; Luke's Mary recalls the Song of Hannah (1 Samuel 2.1-10). Both evangelists are alert to Jesus's birth. Do they acknowledge the pain of Mary at his death? Only John places her at the foot of the cross; and in this account is no hint of the mater dolorosa.

We hear of Jesus's mother twice in John's Gospel: at the marriage in Cana that launched Jesus's public work (John 2.1-12); and here at its very end, when he commits her and the beloved disciple to each other's care. "Woman," he says. "Look, your son." And then, to the disciple, "Look, your mother" (John 19.26-27). On both occasions, he calls her "Woman", a term with which a man might well address most women, but not his mother.

Why does John's Jesus use this unexpected word? "When a woman is in labour," Jesus has said, "she is in distress, because her hour is come" (John 16.21). Jesus's hour is now come, as he nears death on the cross. "But when the child is born, she no longer remembers the agony, for joy that a person has been born into the world."

John may well be drawing on a stream of tradition whose breadth we can hardly glimpse now. We hear in Revelation: "There was a woman clothed with the sun . . . And she had a child in her womb, and she cried out in her pangs and strained to give birth. And . . . a great fire-red dragon . . . stood opposite the woman about to give birth, that when she gave birth he might eat the child" (Revelation 12.1-4). With Jesus on the cross, this is surely the hour of the dragon too, of the serpent of Eden. But not so. At this moment of Jesus's death a new son is "born" to the Woman, and the mother's agony can give way to joy.

Simeon warns Mary: "A sword shall pass through your soul, too" (Luke 2.35). It is not clear whether Luke is thinking of the crucifixion. He more probably has Ezekiel 14.17 in mind: in judgement, the Lord may say: "Let a sword pass through the land so that I may cut off man and beast from it." Mary will soon discover - when the young Jesus remains in Jerusalem (Luke 2.48-50) - that the claims of his heavenly father outrank all human attachment. His own family is subject to the same discrimination as all others: "My mother and my brothers are those who hear the word of God and keep it" (Luke 8.19-21). This Jesus will indeed bring divisions within families (12.51-53). As Moses's mother and Hannah before her, Mary must be divided between her love as a mother and her son's calling.

The Old Testament and the New all too readily stigmatise - or simply ignore - women and their role. Hosea could typify, with the image of his own marriage to a prostitute, God's relation to Israel (Hosea 1.2, 3.1). 1 Timothy could command a woman's silence in church and subordination by reference to Eve, "for she, not Adam, was led astray and was in transgression" (1 Timothy 2.9-15).

But a counter-current is never far beneath the surface. Paul's whole letter to the Galatians is shaped by the lineage of family and faith. Exegetes dwell on the sons of Abraham (Galatians 3.7) and of God (Galatians 4.6). Paul's own emphasis, by contrast, is on motherhood. God set him apart from his mother's womb to disclose God's son, born from a woman. Paul is bearing his converts again until Christ is shaped in them (Galatians 1.15, 4.4, 4.19). Paul does not concentrate on the sons of Abraham (as he inverts the argument of James's disciples) but on their mothers, Hagar and Sarah. The Gentiles, he insists, are the children of the promise, of Sarah.

Jerusalem at the letter's start, centre of James's mission; Jerusalem at the letter's end, seen as a city enslaved. Paul's conclusion (still heard in the BCP lectionary) may well have led to this Sunday's name. Paul contrasts that earthly city with its free counterpart in heaven. "The Jerusalem above is free, which is our mother" (Galatians 4.26).]


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