On March 10th, the Common Worship lectionary offers an additional set of options for churches who will be celebrating the Fourth Sunday of Lent as ‘Mothering Sunday’.
These include two possible Old Testament passages – the story of the baby Moses being found in the bulrushes (Exodus 2.1-10) and of Hannah’s dedication of her longed-for son Samuel to God (1 Samuel 1.20-28). They also include two Gospel passages – Simeon’s prophecy to Mary that her child is destined for the falling and rising of nations and that ‘a sword shall pierce your own heart also’ (Luke 2.33-35) and Jesus’ commending of his mother and the beloved disciple into one another’s care (John 19.25-27) as they stand at the foot of his cross.
The first thing to observe about these four stories is how unsentimental they are. These four Biblical stories all involve pain and disruption. Behind the story of Moses in the bulrushes is the fear that if the child’s true race and identity is known, his life will be in danger. Behind the joy of Hannah are many years of childlessness – and the complex feelings ’Mothering Sunday’ may provoke in those who long for their own children. Luke 2 contains the much-loved Nunc Dimittis (used in many churches and cathedrals each evening) where Simeon prays ‘Lord, you now let your servant go in peace…for my eyes have seen the salvation which you have prepared before the sight of every people…’ In offering Luke 2.33-35, the lectionary reminds us that after these words of rejoicing and comfort, Simeon offers Mary a prophecy of pain. That prophecy is fulfilled in John 19, as we see Mary standing at the foot of the cross with the beloved disciple, as her son is executed as a common criminal.
Questions for reflection
These stories present a challenge to us as congregations and as individuals:
1. They are honest about the challenges facing parents and children, and those longing to be parents. Do we – as individuals and as a church – help people to be honest about these challenges – or do we encourage people to keep up appearances, and to hide their difficulties behind facades? How can we support one another, honestly and generously, in the challenge and joy of family life?
2. They warn us against a rush to judge and stigmatise. In both Gospel readings, the reality of Mary’s faithful obedience contrasts with the way outsiders might have perceived and judged her. How do we nurture faithful, costly obedience to God’s call – and resist judgementalism?
3. They speak of God’s presence and action in families on the margins of society The lives of Jesus, Mary and Joseph are marked by their existence under a violent occupying power: in the flight to Egypt in his infancy, the beheading of Jesus’ cousin and forerunner, and most of all at Calvary.
In maternal compassion expressed by her presence [at her Son’s crucifixion]…Mary is so close to the drama of so many families, of so many mothers and children, reunited by death after long periods of separation for reasons of work, illness or violence at the hands of individuals or groups. (John Paul II)
The story of the Holy Family embraces, and draws our attention to, the plight of refugees and those living with persecution and violence in our own day. How do we discern, and serve, Christ in those children and parents who live through persecution and exile today?
4. They call us to be a community of nuture and mutual care: In his words from the cross in John 19 we see Jesus’ compassion and his concern for his mother. . Entrusting Mary and the beloved disciple to one another as mother and son, Jesus teaches us that the community of his disciples needs to have that same spirit of mutual care and concern. He is inviting us to acknowledge a responsibility for one another, whether or not we have ties of biological kinship. What (perhaps small) step can our church take this Lent to be a community which nurtures those who lack security and love – whatever their age and background?
There is a fuller set of resources for celebrating Mothering Sunday on the Children’s Society website