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.
A SCULPTURE by the artist Jill Sim, Madonna and Child . . . Flight, is now on display in Ely Cathedral until 2 April. The work shows a young woman running at full pelt with a child in her arms. Her headscarf and full-skirted dress evoke media images of mothers and children fleeing from the embattled cities of Syria and Iraq.
Her trainers could identify her with almost anyone. Her body is tilted forward for speed, and the infant is almost sliding out of her grasp. The artist has allowed the piece to be exhibited as a reminder of the suffering and desperation of all refugees, and also to highlight the efforts of the local refugee-resettlement campaign.
With this powerful icon of parental determination to protect their children in mind, it is startling — even shocking — to read the final line of the episode from the story of Samuel’s birth and infancy which provides Mothering Sunday’s Old Testament reading. Hannah, who has been given the son that she longed for after praying in the temple at Shiloh, takes him back as a toddler to present him to Eli, the high priest.
“She left him there for the Lord” (1 Samuel 1.28). That matter-of-fact announcement confronts a modern sensibility, attuned to agonising narratives of what it means to give up a child, and continually presented with evidence of the failure of institutions to care for the children entrusted to them.
The story of Hannah and Samuel would later influence the apocryphal Gospel of James (second century) and its account of the infancy and childhood of Mary. It describes how Mary’s parents handed over their three-year-old daughter to be brought up in the Temple. The subject is a popular one in art, and Titian’s depiction of the tiny girl ascending a steep flight of steps, at the top of which stands a bearded figure in high-priestly robes, eloquently evokes the solitariness of the child.
It hangs in Venice, and perhaps it served to console the parents who gave their daughters to convents because dowries could not be found for them. The promise of a holy destiny might have gone some way to reconciling mothers and fathers who did not find separation easy just because it was practical.
Luke records the visit of the adult Mary and Joseph, with the infant Jesus, to the Temple in Jerusalem, with Hannah as a reference point. Already he has linked Mary’s song of joy in response to Elizabeth’s greeting with the song attributed to Hannah as she leaves her son (Luke 1.46-55; 1 Samuel 2.1-10).
Mary and Joseph will not leave their child, but the prophecy that they hear from Simeon places the rest of their life as a family under the shadow of loss (Luke 2.34-35). And yet that is not the end of the story, and the Gospel-writer insists that the more sombre note introduced by Simeon’s words should be readjusted to joy. This is Anna’s cue. She sees straight to the “redemption of Jerusalem”, and begins to proclaim to all who share that hope that its fulfilment is imminent (Luke 2.38).
The carefully controlled oscillation between suspense and relaxation, darkness and light, and sorrow and joy is the mark of a skilled narrator. Paul uses a similar technique to tell the young and volatile Christian community in Corinth the story that makes sense of its sufferings, and offers comfort through the assurance of belonging to a larger Christian body, and ultimately to God (2 Corinthians 1.3-7).
He has already declared his understanding of his relationship to this community, and, perhaps surprisingly, it is a maternal one. Writing to them as those who have not yet grown to a mature faith, he explains that he must treat them as “people of the flesh, as infants in Christ”. They need to be fed on milk until they are ready for the “solid food” of more demanding teaching (1 Corinthians 3.1-2).
Now, writing again to Corinth, he invites his readers to see his sufferings as a form of consolation. They are to know that the consolation that God offers Paul when he undergoes persecution is an abundant resource, and they can draw on it when they find themselves faced with similar persecution (2 Corinthians 1.6-7).
If this seems an ambiguous assortment of readings for Mothering Sunday, it is nevertheless true to its complexity as a day of refreshment and joy, and the point at which Lent moves closer to the Passion. It is true also to the complexity of the human families, in their many configurations, that God in Christ draws close to himself on the cross (as the collect of the day emphasises).