Fourth Sunday of Lent - Choral Evensong

  • Preacher

    Reader - Caroline Clifford

For the last few weeks, whether or not we are mothers, have mothers alive and in contact, have parental responsibilities of any kind, are men, women or transgender, none of us can fail to have noticed the cards, flowers and gifts for Mother’s Day prominently displayed in shops and supermarkets

This morning, here and in other churches, bunches of daffodils were handed out for mothers and carers. Some of us may have been lucky enough to receive some of these from our children and/or will be taking them to our own mothers this evening.

While this day is marked for celebration, the images of the Virgin Mary in Christian churches, museums and art galleries are of two main kinds: the mother and child, as in our own gilded statue in front of me on the north side of the Cathedral, and the pietá, where Mary holds the body of her dead son after the crucifixion, following Michelangelo’s famous sculpture in St. Peter’s, Rome.

Together these images depict the joy - and pain - of motherhood: perhaps the closest physical bond in human existence, that between a mother and her baby, contrasted with the suffering a mother endures when that child becomes ill or even dies at any stage of their life. Estrangement can also cause acute suffering. If any of you have watched the TV programme ‘Long Lost Family’, you will have seen the pain felt by mothers who were forced by circumstances outside their control to give up their babies for adoption, and adult sons and daughters still suffering from that rejection.

In one of yesterday’s papers, a journalist wrote that he had not really liked his mother, which was a source of disappointment to him and presumably, unsatisfactory for her too.

We have just listened to the Choir singing Howell’s anthem ‘Like the hart’ based on the first three verses of Psalm 42, in which the psalmist expresses his sadness at God’s absence during his time of suffering.

I would like to talk about less extreme but no less pertinent struggles, which can affect mothers even more than other women. On International Women’s Day last Thursday, when there were rallies worldwide in support of equal rights for women, the UN Secretary, Antonio Cuterres, spoke of gender equality and the empowerment of women and girls as ‘the greatest human rights challenge in our world’.

In developing countries, many women are expected to stay at home and look after their children, they are not educated so have no job prospects. In the United Kingdom, my own mother stayed at home to look after her children after training as a nurse though I myself with a university degree, was fortunate enough to be able to teach part-time while my children were growing up. Nowadays, there is little part-time work, two salaries are often considered necessary for family requirements and certainly in London, there is the ongoing problem of unaffordable housing. Then there are single mothers, who need to work all the hours they can get in order to provide for a household, frequently leaving them little time to engage with their children.

Modern mothers even more than other women may well feel discouraged by such revelations as the presenter pay gap at the BBC and the news that despite a requirement for all large private sector organisations to report their gender pay gaps by April 4th, few employers have yet done so, with the implication that damage to their business reputations is more important to them than trying to rectify the situation.

Since working mothers have somehow to juggle their home and work commitments extremely carefully, as even house husbands, other family members, or child minders generally have to be told what to do, they should be beneficiaries of a larger share of the takings rather than a smaller one. Of course, even at interview, a woman’s plans for motherhood can be hinted at in questions, despite the fact that Employment Law now explicitly forbids this. Companies can also get round this legal restriction by not interviewing women of childbearing age so as to avoid the issue of maternity leave, or complaints from mothers who return to work and find that their previous job has been scaled down. This may well be responsible for the so-called glass ceiling where in the UK at least, there are very few women in top positions.

My point in reminding you of all this is that the flowers of Mothering Sunday can mask the very real suffering that many mothers experience throughout the rest of the year, when the working community fails to take them seriously. This means that mothers are not perceived as role models for the future of their communities and can make no skilled contribution, let  alone  offer  their  transferable skills of: stoicism, patience, speed of response to new and unforeseen situations, compassion and  understanding.

What comfort can we take from the Bible about this injustice? In the First lesson, from Exodus, God shows his kindness to the Israelites suffering ‘cruel slavery’ (Ex 6.9) by persisting with them despite the fact they are not listening to him, and showing the patience of a parent. A commentator describes this passage as ‘the beginning of a permanent relationship between’ Israel and God, when God promises to bring them to a new land.

In the Second Lesson, from Romans, Paul says that we can ‘boast of our sufferings’ (Rom 5.3) and a commentator adds that a Christian’s ‘faithfulness to the crucified messiah is measured . . . in degrees of sacrifice and suffering’.

So mothers can take heart from the fact that God is with them, as with all others who suffer while believing in him, and moreover, that attitudes towards women in general are already beginning to change in society. The Suffragettes who brought the first vote to women in 2018 are being remembered this year and the MeToo campaign has highlighted the dignity with which women expect to be treated.

While the writer of Psalm 13 began like the anthem, with a prayer for relief from suffering, it ends in the same way as Psalm 42, with the psalmist’s expression of trust in God’s ‘steadfast love’ and ‘salvation’ , and the final words:

‘I will sing to the LORD,

      because he has dealt bountifully

              with me.’ 

So let us all enjoy the remainder of Mothering Sunday, while hoping for a greater appreciation of all women, and particularly, today, of mothers and their gifts, from employers and the wider community in future years.