The Rev'd Michael Rawson, Sub Dean and Canon Pastor
The Sub Dean's sermon preached at the Choral Eucharist on Mothering Sunday, 19 March.
On this Mothering Sunday we celebrate our mothers without whom we wouldn't be here today, we give thanks for them, together with the example of Mary our Mother, and for the Church who is mother of us all.
I realise that I am on thin ice but being a mother is not the easiest of roles, it's perhaps one of the most difficult, and there’s no training for it. Through the process of pregnancy and childbirth, a wonderful bond is formed between mother and child. Inspite of these days of the new man, I'm sure that we still learn so much of our earliest experiences from our mothers. There’s a lovely Jewish proverb which says, ‘God could not be everywhere, and therefore he made mothers.’
They are there with us rejoicing in our successes and drying our tears at our failures. Mothers always seem to there when no one else cares or wants to listen to us. And for all this what reward do they get? They are usually in the front line when we are grumpy and ratty; they are taken for granted, and we often treat them insensitively as we strive to become independent. It really makes us children wonder why mothers bother at all. Perhaps mothers ask themselves the same question.
Looking through the gospels where Mary appears, it is easy to think that she was treated in a similar way by her divine Son. Remember the story when Jesus is eleven years old and he gets lost on the way back from Jerusalem. Instead of staying with his people, he goes off to talk with the teachers in the temple. Then there's the wedding at Cana when Jesus seems to give Mary the brush off, saying that the lack of wine is none of her business. Again he seems to do a similar son-like act when he is told that his mother and brothers are waiting for him. "Who is my mother, who are my brothers and sisters?" he says. But inspite of all this seemingly rough treatment, Mary is always there - usually in the background - quietly supporting her son and letting go of him to allow him to become independent. The supreme example of this is to be found in this morning's gospel.
All Jesus' disciples except John have run away. Some would say it’s typical of men to be never there when they are needed. Only Mary and some other women remain. Mary is there in her Son's final agony, possibly remembering the prophecy of Simeon that a sword of agony would pierce her own heart one day. She has to remain there, helpless to her son's suffering. All she can do is be there, alongside him, suffering with him.
It’s here at the foot of the cross that the love of God and the pain of the world meet and where the victory of our God is truly revealed. It’s telling that apart from John the beloved disciple, they are all women. Maybe it’s a sweeping generalization but perhaps women are able to bear pain and love better than most men. Women tend to be more in touch with pain and with love. Mary, the God bearer stands beside Mary Magdalen, the woman who loved much and was forgiven much. So often in sacred icononography Mary Magdalen is hanging on to the cross as if her life depends on it. And where are Peter and the other disciples? They’ve run away because they could not bear the love or the pain.
It is here at the foot of the cross that Jesus gave his mother to the church, to us, to be our mother.
The Cathedral is often referred to as the Mother church of the diocese, always seen in feminine rather than masculine terms. If you enjoy looking around old churches you may have seen a carving of a pelican. There's one on the medieval bosses displayed by the font and another on the door of the Pugin tabernacle in the Harvard Chapel. The pelican is traditionally said to prick its own breast to allow its young to feed on its own blood, giving them life and nourishment. For some that is a hard concept to contemplate. So instead, picture a mother breastfeeding her child. What the mother gives the child is part of her very substance, and through that food, the child is nourished and grows. The mother is neither diminished nor devoured in this nurturing act.
Sunday by Sunday, and day by day, Jesus feeds us with himself, with his body and his blood, like the pelican, like the breastfeeding mother. We come to him, wearied by all that life throws at us, and he feeds us like a mother with life-giving, nourishing food. Christ referred to himself as a mother hen, wanting to gather all his children under his wings. The analogy doesn't end there, for like our own mothers, we so often take Christ for granted, treating him badly, seeking to ignore him and struggling for our independence from him, and yet when it all blows up in our faces and we are left with the mess of our lives, Christ is there to wipe our tears and to love us into new life.
Today is a bitter-sweet day of both joy and sorrow. Joy and thanksgiving for our own mothers who brought us into the world; for Mary our mother who points to and leads us to Jesus; for our mother the Church as we are fed with the body and blood of Jesus, the bread of life, who transforms us. It might also be a day of pain and sadness for those whose mothers are no longer with us on this earth but rejoice in God’s kingdom of light and peace or for those who have had a more difficult and challenging experience of motherhood. There is also sorrow as we ask forgiveness for the ways we so often fail those who love us most - our mothers and our Lord. But we do so in the firm knowledge that no matter what, we are still loved and cherished by them, and forever.
I’d like to leave you with words from St Anselm written in the 12th century.
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.