Sub Dean - Revd Canon Michael Rawson
As you walk along the steep road running down the Mount of Olives in Jerusalem towards the Garden of Gethsemane you come across a beautiful garden with a rather strange shaped chapel in the middle of it.
The chapel is called Dominus Flevit, meaning 'the Lord wept'. It recalls both today's gospel reading and an episode later in St Luke's gospel when Jesus wept over the city of Jerusalem. It's a small chapel, reputedly built to resemble a teardrop and the view across the altar looks out over the old city of Jerusalem. On the front of the altar is an image of a hen gathering her chicks under her wings. It's an unusual image and one that struck me last Sunday during the Pilgrim Confirmation group.
During the session we reflected on the images we have of God. The ones we were brought up with and perhaps have rejected in favour of others as our faith has matured and developed. I wonder what is your image of God?
On the face of it there don't seem to be very many feminine and nurturing images of God in the Christian tradition. Many Christians have been brought up with a definite picture of God the Father, with the inevitable great white beard, sitting on a throne floating on a cloud. The Holy Spirit is often seen without gender, although in the Old Testament and especially in the Book of Wisdom, God's wisdom is often referred to in the feminine. Then there's Jesus. Well he's easily identifiable as a man because he was one. As an historical fact that is not in dispute. But perhaps there is an alternative way of imagining Jesus.
St Anselm was the 11th century Archbishop of Canterbury, living in a brutal and bloodthirsty era in which life was short and often cheap. Marriage was predominantly seen in contractual terms, with little emphasis on love and affection. Anselm wrote that one of the highest forms of relationship was true friendship. As a celibate monk, human affection was out of the question and so he reflected on the tenderness of God. The picture he paints of Jesus is in stark contrast to many of the rather severe and masculine images we are used to. He wrote this,
Jesus, like a mother you gather your people to you;
you are gentle with us as a mother with her children.
Often you weep over our sins and our pride,
tenderly you draw us from hatred and judgement.
You comfort us in sorrow and bind up our wounds,
in sickness you nurse us, and with pure milk you feed us.
Jesus, by your dying we are born to new life;
by your anguish and labour we come forth in joy.
Despair turns to hope through your sweet goodness;
through your gentleness we find comfort in fear.
Your warmth gives life to the dead,
your touch makes sinners righteous.
Lord Jesus, in your mercy heal us;
in your love and tenderness remake us.
In your compassion bring grace and forgiveness,
for the beauty of heaven may your love prepare us.
Even more than simply seeing the song in terms of the tenderness of the Saviour, the image of motherhood speaks to a much more profound truth, for it is also about risk.
When Anselm was writing child birth carried with it an especially high risk. A frighteningly high proportion of women died during childbirth. If there was a choice between the child or the mother, then the child always came first, for the husband could remarry. The mother was seen in terms of being the pain-bearer; the life-giver. New life came through pain, suffering, and frequently death. "Jesus, by your dying we are born to new life; by your anguish and labour we come forth in joy." These are words I often use at a funeral at the Commendation of the deceased person into the hands of their Creator.
It is said that during a fire in a barn a mother hen will spread out her wings over her chicks to protect them from the flames and in so doing, sacrifices herself for her young. As he spreads his arms wide upon the cross, Jesus says, "How often have I desired to gather your children together as a hen gathers her brood under her wings." On the cross, Jesus gives his life, so that we might have life without end. At this Eucharist we feed on him, and receive his life in our lives. "Jesus, by your dying we are born to new life."
This imagery of Jesus as a mother is certainly not the final word on him. We can never fully define God for then God ceases to be God. Such images may not be helpful to you. However, they might just open our eyes to a new vision of God and enable us to draw closer to our vulnerable, compassionate God who takes risks on our behalf. The one who open his arms wide for us, drawing all into God’s kingdom.
The tenderness and gentle, motherly care of Jesus are in sharp contrast to Jerusalem, ‘the city that kills the prophets and stones those who are sent to it!’ How poignant are those words following the unspeakable violence that tore through two mosques in Christchurch, New Zealand this week. 50 children, women and men were murdered as they came to a place of sanctuary to worship God. Scores of others have been injured and traumatised through this senseless violence and hatred. Fear of difference and labelling others as ‘the enemy’ have once more shed the blood of the innocent. How Jesus must weep over such actions in our world as he did two thousand years ago.
St Anselm wrote of Jesus,
‘Despair turns to hope through your sweet goodness; through your gentleness we find comfort in fear.’
Sadly, as a Cathedral community we know first hand something of the pain the people of Christchurch are experiencing. Then, as today, we can do two things. First of all, to look to the tenderness of God who knows the way of suffering and gives us the promise of hope and new life. Secondly, we can stand firmly beside our persecuted sisters and brothers against those who seek to do us harm and try to divide us. God calls us to share in the ministry of reconciliation and healing, where every person - with no exception - is our brother and sister, created in the image and likeness of God, and infinitely loved by our Creator. A very practical way of showing our love and solidarity with our Muslim brothers and sisters is to join us today in our visit to Harper Road Mosque at lunchtime. Even if you can only come for 10 minutes, then please do come.
Today’s gospel reading points us to the topsy turvy world of God’s kingdom in which the creator of the universe washes the feet of us the creature; where Christ the king wears a crown of thorns on the throne of the cross; where Jesus the Saviour of the world is seen as a mother hen gathering her brood under her wings. Our nation, our world desperately needs to be gathered and healed and given new hope. God calls each one of us to be messengers and bearers of that saving message.
‘Lord Jesus, in your mercy heal us; in your love and tenderness remake us.’