If you were presented with the challenge to devise Bible readings for Mothering Sunday, I wonder what you would come up with? I suspect none of us would choose the gospel we have just read (Luke 2: 25-35), although we might just suggest the Old Testament reading (Exodus 2:1-10). Perhaps the church is trying to deflect our thinking away from the cosy, serene and un-troubled view of motherhood portrayed by the Mothers’ Day cards in the shops. Our experience of life tells us that, while we would like it to be like that, it is rarely like that all the time. Certainly the experience of mothers and their off-spring during the past year has been far from cosy and plain sailing.
Even in our more predictable first lesson, we heard that the mother of Moses was prepared to take risks and to lose him to another family once he was weaned, in order to save his life at the expense of satisfying her own maternal desire to bring him up and watch him grow and thrive. In the Gospel, Mary was warned by Simeon that the special child she had brought into the world would bring her indescribable pain and suffering. Similarly, although not on the same level, we know that the unselfish relinquishing of her child by Moses’ mother, and her consequent sorrow, had life-changing consequences for the future of the tribes of Hebrew slaves to which she and her family belonged.
It was Moses who responded to the call of God to lead them out of Egypt, into the Promised Land where they could live in freedom and comparative prosperity. It was Moses who acted as the intermediary between the people and God, and who taught them what God wanted them to be, and how they were to behave if they were to be God’s Chosen People. It was Moses who interceded with God when the people grumbled about the food, or lack of it, the shortage of water, and the conditions they were enduring in their desert wanderings. After all of his efforts and leadership on their behalf, on more than one occasion the people said, “We were better off in Egypt. Why did you bring us out here to die?” At one point, Moses became so exasperated with the continuing complaints of the people, he went to God saying, “What shall I do with this people?”
It occurred to me that, if we reflect on all those aspects of the work of Moses, we may see something rather interesting. The people reacted like sulky teenagers. Moses was brought to the end of his tether in dealing with them. Yet also, under the guidance and intervention of God, Moses taught the people how to behave; he provided food and water; he struggled with God on their behalf when they had misbehaved; he laid the foundations of their future life. There is a way in which we might say that he mothered the infant nation and brought them up until they had reached a reasonable level of maturity. I’m not sure that anyone else has ever suggested the image of Moses as mother, but it does draw our attention to the fact that the gifts of caring and nurturing are not only given to the female of the species.
And of course we extend that concept to the church as mother. From earliest times in the church, the early Church Fathers, Tertullian, Cyprian, Origen and Augustine, all declared that, “You cannot have God for your Father, if you do not have the church for your mother.” In other words, you cannot claim to believe the things which Jesus taught if you do not also ensure that you experience the benefits of the teaching and guidance of the church community.
We have, as Christians, the knowledge of having our own individual and unique being as a child of God, but in order to avoid the pitfalls of going our own headstrong way without any external directions, we need the assistance of the church. It mothers us by helping us to keep to the straight and narrow, and also encourages us to grow up and mature in our faith, so that we do not remain child-ish, even if we never cease to be children of God.
Within this “family” of God, we will all perform different roles from time to time. There will be occasions when each of us, by caring and nurturing someone in need, will act in a mothering way. There will be other times when we find ourselves in the position of a needy child, seeking comfort and reassurance, or maybe even a word of advice or brisk correction, in order to set us back on the right road again.
The family analogy can be extended to realising that, as children of God, we are all brothers and sisters in that one united family. I may know that I am a child of God, but I am not an only child. Jesus as the first-born of the Father has welcomed into the family all who seek to be included. That means that we see our brothers and sisters not only as those who are part of this visible community here, but across the world, and across all time, past, present and future. This recognition of others as being children of God will help us at times when we are called to respond to their need and suffering, or indeed when we find ourselves either in need of forgiveness or being called upon to forgive someone who has wronged us.
Perhaps it is fitting on a day when some of the expressions of gratitude to mothers border on the sentimental, that the long-established church celebration of Mothering Sunday draws our attention to the fact that mothering is not all sweet music and calm waters. Indeed, there will be times, as in the past year, when caring for children, or indeed for an elderly mother, will strain our creativity and resilience to its limits. But we have a loving Father in God who created us, and in his Son Jesus we have our brother, and even as some have said, our mother, in that his death brought about our re-creation. So we know that in our faith and within the church we have a realistic and absolutely reliable experience of true family life, which hopefully we can also experience and give thanks for, in our own homes.