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.
I HAD the privilege recently of hearting Professor Tom O’Loughlin of Nottingham University speaking on the eucharist. He focused on the symbolic power and real implications of drawing people round the same table.
I learned a new term — “fictive families” — which he applied to the communities that are not constituted through ties of blood, but formed when this ordinary but extraordinary gathering takes place. What happens at that shared meal is that they become a new family which, as he so beautifully expressed it, lives “in the imagination of God”.
Fictive families do not come into being only through ritual. They also arise in the workplace, in institutions, in care-giving, and in certain intentional ways. The readings for Mothering Sunday, selected here from an ample set of choices, all describe or model the creation of fictive families.
Of the three, the best known, and most firmly imprinted in the memory of anyone who has owned an illustrated children’s Bible, will be the finding of Moses by Pharaoh’s daughter (Exodus 2.10). The baby had been strategically abandoned by his mother, aware of the risk that he might not survive.
Had the Egyptian women obeyed Pharaoh’s general instruction to kill all male infants born to the Hebrew population, they would have tossed him into the Nile (Exodus 1.22). Instead, they seem to have been more on the side of the resourceful Hebrew midwives, who ensure a steady increase in male children.
Moses, by this fortunate turn of events, keeps his place in his biological family, and gains a new place in a powerful adoptive family (Exodus 2.10). Eventually, the tension between the two forms of belonging will precipitate the crisis that turns him first into a fugitive (Exodus 2.11-15), and then into the leader who brings his people out of Egypt (Exodus 3).
Without the advantages of growing up in the ruling family, he would have been one of the slave labourers whom he defended (Exodus 2.11-12). He would certainly not have had the entrée to the court that enabled him to confront Pharaoh face to face.
The interesting women who appear briefly in this narrative do not concern the chronicler more than functionally. Did Moses’s own mother and his adoptive mother talk about the collusion that involved them both? Did Pharaoh’s daughter give any of her jewellery to finance her son’s flight (Exodus 3.21-22, 11.2-3, 12.35-36)?
Paul, writing to the Christian community with whom he had the most difficult relationship, is speaking to a family whose bond is the faith that they share. They have taken time to settle into it and live out its expectations fully, and they and Paul have suffered on that account. But their shared bond of affliction makes space for a bond of consolation, a word echoing through the opening of his Second Letter to the Corinthians.
There is more to it. Paul’s tone is maternal, echoing the voice that comforts the hurt and disappointed child, in consoling the children who have not grown up much since he admonished them in his earlier letter.
Then, he told them that he had to feed them on milk because spiritually they were still quarrelsome infants (1 Corinthians 3.2-3). He assumes the persona of mother to the Thessalonians (1 Thessalonians 2.7), and even speaks of giving birth to the Galatians (Galatians 4.19). St Anselm called him “our greatest mother”.
And yet, comfortable with switching gender identity, he is also like a father to the Thessalonians (1 Thessalonians 2.11), and to the Corinthians he has become “a father through the gospel” (1 Corinthians 4.14-15).
Finally, the Gospel reading tells, in just five sentences, how the archetypal fictive family emerged from the heart and mind of God, in the form of a mother who had watched her son die in agony, and his friend who had kept watch with her. They did not choose this association. It is rather that their shared knowledge of the body and the blood made it inevitable.
Fictive families in no way undermine or diminish the love and thanksgiving that we properly offer to our own mothers, living and dead, on this Sunday. They may even make clearer the fact that all families grow through shared realities; that all families are laboratories of love, and that some experiments fail terribly.
At their best, however, they are spacious and loving enough to teach their members how to be members of the other and different families which might begin to transform the world.