THE lections for Mothering Sunday explore the care of two mothers for their children, and also the maternal nature of God’s love.
Like all good things, the bonds of earthly kinship are to be valued, but not idolised. Our families are not to be closed in upon themselves. Rather, as St John Paul II writes, they are to be “schools of love” in which children experience, and are formed by, the self-giving life of God.
In our Old Testament reading, Hannah presents the infant Samuel in the temple at Shiloh. Samuel is presented to the Lord as soon as he is weaned. Francesca Aran Murphy describes it as “a hard maternal sacrifice”, and notes the many parallels between the story of Hannah and Samuel and that of the Blessed Virgin Mary and Jesus. In particular, Hannah’s presentation of Samuel is echoed by Mary’s presentation of the Christ-child in the Temple (Brazos Theological Commentary on the Bible: 1 Samuel).
In our Gospel, Mary sees the fulfilment of Simeon’s prophecy that “a sword will pierce your heart” as her son offers his life upon the altar of the Cross. Both mothers, at great emotional cost, leave their children a “space of freedom” to pursue their God-given vocation.
For every parent, love involves a willingness to allow his or her child to grow into his or her vocation. Part of the pain of parental love is the fact that it both requires an acceptance of that “space of freedom” and yet cannot but care deeply about the choices that the child makes.
It is not only the freedom of the child which causes pain to his or her mother, but the child’s capacity for suffering. In a meditation on the Passion, St Bernard of Clairvaux declares to Mary that “the violence of sorrow has cut through your heart, and we rightly call you more than martyr.”
Besides revealing the cost of Mary’s love for her son, our Gospel reveals the maternal care of Jesus. As Pope Benedict XVI observes, the historical details of John’s Gospel are usually recounted to make a theological point: “His concern always goes deeper than the mere facts of the past. The event points beyond itself to that which endures.”
The first “clue” to the deeper meaning is Jesus’s use of the word “Woman”. This refers back to Jesus’s mode of address at the wedding in Cana. That miracle had been “an anticipation of the definitive marriage feast — of the new wine that the Lord wanted to bestow”. It is at Calvary that this “wine” is poured out for the life of the world (Jesus of Nazareth: Holy Week).
The blood and water that flow from his side are the labour pains that enable us to be born again, and they signify the sacramental nourishment that we receive from him through the Church. Julian of Norwich writes that “a mother can give her child milk to suck, but our dear mother Jesus can feed us with himself, and he does so most courteously and most tenderly with the holy sacrament, which is the precious food of life itself.” This maternal image of Christ recurs in our post-communion prayer
At the hour of his death, Jesus entrusts Mary to the care of his closest disciple. Benedict XVI explains that “John is responsible for her — he takes her to himself.” The literal translation is stronger still, signifying that the beloved disciple “received her into his inner life-setting”.
Paul’s words in our epistle describe the situation of Mary and John: “Just as the sufferings of Christ are abundant for us, so also our consolation is abundant through Christ.” As they stand at the foot of the Cross, Jesus’s words demonstrate that no amount of suffering can extinguish his capacity for love. It is at this moment of physical weakness that his divine power and glory is manifest most clearly, in a love that has both a cosmic breadth and a care for those immediately present.
In commending his mother and disciple to each other, Jesus is both displaying filial love and inaugurating a new community — one in which the water of baptism is thicker than the blood of kinship. Mary and the beloved disciple are both individuals and types. As Benedict XVI observes, “the words spoken by Jesus on the cross continue to be fulfilled in many concrete ways” in the life of his Church.