Hello – I’m Carey Saleh, Vicar of Stourport and Wilden.
These are difficult readings for today - not the sunny image of children giving bouquets to their mums at church that we often associate with Mothering Sunday. But Mothering Sunday can be a difficult occasion for many – love, longing, grief make up our individual and collective responses, as well as thanksgiving. And this past year particularly has shown us the pain that so often inflicts family life and our closest relationships in circumstances beyond our control.
Love makes us vulnerable to grief and loss, a theme which is pertinent for Lent. Indeed, this past year many have felt that we have been in one long season of Lent since March last year. So these readings may speak into our own situations.
Imagine that group gathered around the cross, and Jesus, moments from death, looking down upon them. This was not a dignified death. The term “excruciating” literally means “out of crucifying.” Crucifixion was amongst the most agonising and humiliating methods of execution. The condemned found it increasingly difficult to expand their lungs without pulling themselves up by arms that were nailed at the wrists, and so increasing their pain. Eventually, exhausted, they could no longer raise the weight of their body, and so succumbed to death by asphyxiation.
Yet in these final moments of agony Jesus lookeds down at those gathered at his cross.
The writer of John’s gospel never names the mother of Jesus. She is not referred to as Mary, but simply “his mother”. In these verses today is the narrator describing two women at the cross, or four women?
“Standing at the cross of Jesus were his mother, and his mother’s sister, Mary the wife of Clopas, and Mary Magdalene.”
Could the mother of Jesus be Mary the wife of Clopas if Joseph had died? Is Mary Magdalene her sister? Strange to have two sisters named Mary (Miriam in Hebrew) but not impossible in that culture.
And interesting that the writer of the gospel tells us of the women (two or four) and then says, “when Jesus saw his mother and the disciple whom he loved”……. Tradition has assumed that the disciple whom Jesus loved was the writer of the fourth gospel, since the mention of this disciple including this particular intimate incident around the cross only appears in the gospel of John. These few verses suggest that the disciple whom Jesus loved was in that group of women. So was the disciple whom Jesus loved referred to in these verses Mary Magdalene?
I make this point not to be controversial, nor to suggest that there is a definitive answer, but to make the point that relationships are not as clearcut as people, society, the church would like to make them. Jesus himself knew this. He once asked, “Who is my mother, my brother, my sister?”
And being a spouse or mother or sibling or son isn’t necessarily defined either by gender or blood ties.
As we learn more and more how our rigid stereotypes about gender have been misplaced and even caused damage, can we enable a less rigid understanding to help us in our spiritual journey? Jesus taught us to call God “Father” - not because God is male, but to show us that our relationship with God is with one who knows us, who has brought us into being, nurtured us. There are other images in scripture that allow us to envisage God as mother, as midwife, as one who feeds us from the breast, or as “birth giver” as the opening word of the Lord’s prayer in Aramaic can be translated.
We too are also called to “mother” one another at different times and stages of our lives, whether we are male or female, whether we give birth biologically and physically or metaphorically and relationally. Families have different shapes. Some families are connected by blood and others not. What makes a family is a sense of belonging and unity.
God is therefore the one in whom every family is named. In God, who is Love, we are all one. In God, who is Relationship, we are called to relate to one another; to grow and to nurture as part of our spiritual calling and our journey as spiritual beings who are learning how to be human. Paul in his letter to the church at Corinth describes
“the God of all consolation, who consoles us in our afflictions, so that we may be able to console those who are in any affliction with the consolation with which we ourselves are consoled by God. For just as the sufferings of Christ are abundant for us, so also our consolation is abundant through Christ”.
Jesus, in the last moments of execution by crucifixion, consoled those he loved by giving them to each other. The love that they had for him was the bond that enabled them to be for each other the family they lacked. Whether they were male or female, they became for each other the mother, child, life companion, and consolation in grief that they each needed. What a gift from the human Jesus and the divine Christ, “out of crucifying.”.
What was in every sense, suffering – and most of all the suffering of Jesus – was in God’s love a
“re-membering” of family; a joining back together in relationship and love.
And if ever there was a reason to mark Mothering Sunday in this season of Lent, perhaps that is the one we most need to understand at such a time as this. For our prime calling as the Church is to nurture the love that is God’s gift to the world. How might God be calling us to do that in new and changing ways as we begin to step out of Lockdown into a different world? And how might we begin to change the ways we have looked at others, and see in them afresh, our family?