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Readings: Mothering Sunday

06 March 2015

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Mothering Sunday

Exodus 2.1-10; Psalm 127.1-4; 2 Corinthians 1.3-7; John 19.25b-27

God of compassion, whose Son Jesus Christ, the child of Mary, shared the life of a home in Nazareth, and on the cross drew the whole human family to himself: strengthen us in our daily living that in joy and in sorrow we may know the power of your presence to bind together and to heal; through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.

THE Irish writer Colm Tóibín's bleak and painful short novel The Testament of Mary imagines the life that the mother of Jesus may have lived, in the household of the Beloved Disciple (identified as John) in Ephesus, after the crucifixion. It is an accomplished and original piece of literature, yet for many of its readers it offers a harsh challenge to everything they might most wish to hold to, in the picture of Mary standing faithfully with her dying son.

Tóibín's Mary is angry and resentful, particularly when she speaks of the men who visit periodically to ask about her memories. These scribes, who are perhaps the writers of the Gospels, are not interested in recording the facts as she tells them. They seek a different sort of ending, and a powerful degree of certainty; and it is their version of events which will be left for posterity. She has not only lost a son, but lost the right to tell his story.

This is not the way the Church has imagined the consequences of Jesus's last act. We read his words to Mary and "the disciple whom he loved" as an expression of love and concern that even physical agony cannot quench (John 19.26-27). Before he entrusts himself to his Father, he entrusts his mother and his beloved friend to one another. Some scholars, among them Rudolph Bultmann, have seen this as the institution of the Church. That idea is less in favour among contemporary commentators; and it is in any case questionable whether the action needs that kind of elaboration.

This was the Gospel reading that I had before me in a week when real human crises seemed to be all around. The mother who had recently lost an adult child was rushed into hospital, to be followed a few days later by her husband. Another friend was coming to terms with his mother's advancing dementia. Railway carriages were displaying appeals for donations to Age Concern, so that elderly people living alone could receive a call, and have some friendly contact once a week.

Turning to the Old Testament reading for Mothering Sunday, we find Moses, entrusted to a reed basket, found by Pharaoh's daughter, and returned to his mother until he had grown up (Exodus 2.1-10). The alternative choice is the story of Hannah, who gives up her little son to the Lord, and entrusts him to Eli in the Temple (1 Samuel 1.20-28).

All this has made me think about how, and to whom, we entrust those closest to us: parents in residential care; parents in other countries, who depend on the love and support of those who are not their flesh and blood; their migrant children who receive familial privileges in the homes of friends in their adopted countries; children cared for by others while their parents work; adopted children, and those in foster care. The list could be longer.

Entrusting carries great risks, and trust can be abused. Tóibín hints that it was. It can also produce extraordinary new futures. Moses became the leader of his people as they embarked on God's destiny for them. As a prophet, Samuel helped to shape a nation under a new system of kingship. Out of the affliction of slavery and oppression, and the pain of childlessness, God brought great events.

It is the journey through pain to new depths of humanity that Paul charts for the Christians in Corinth. He goes further, assuring them that those who suffer not only receive consolation, but learn to be consolers themselves (2 Corinthians 1.3-8). This possibility is not exclusive to Christian communities; others often do it better. But, where Christians do fulfil this sacred trust, there is no better sign of the Church in the world.

This week, the calendar is full of saints to brighten the middle of Lent: Patrick (17th March), Cyril of Jerusalem (18th), Joseph (19th), Cuthbert (20th) and Thomas Cranmer (21st)t). Four of the five, as bishops, held in trust part of God's Church; if Cranmer seems more fallible than the others, it is partly because his career lies within the firm grip of modern historical scholarship.

Joseph was entrusted with God's own Son. Falling in a week when we give thanks for our mothers, his feast day is a rare opportunity to keep a non-secular fathers' day.

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