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Sunday, 26 March 2017

Mothers, Mary, Mother Mary


Today, it will not have escaped your notice, is Mothers’ Day. At least, it might be Mothers’ Day out in the world, but here in Church it’s Mothering Sunday, and that, in fact, is only tangentially about human mothers! Today is the fourth Sunday in Lent, and it’s long been known as Laetare Sunday, or Refreshment Sunday – it’s half-way through Lent, and in days when people kept it rather more strictly than they do now, it was a day when you could relax the rules a little.

And the tradition grew up that on that day, you went to the mother church in your area – often the cathedral, but it might have just been the largest church in your area. Families went together, and it became traditional for servants to have time off to go home and see their families on that day, if they lived near enough. In the Middle Ages, servants may only have got one day off a year, and it was, traditionally, the 4th Sunday in Lent. Many children had to leave home when they were very young – only about 11 or 12 – because their parents simply couldn't afford to feed them any longer. And, indeed, many of these children hadn't known what a full tummy felt like until they started work. But even so, they must have missed their families, and been glad to see them every year.

And today is also a day for remembering God’s love for us. What we remember on Mothering Sunday isn’t just our mothers, although that, too, but above all, the wonderful love of God, our Father and our Mother. After all, there are people whose mothers have died; people who didn’t or don’t have a good relationship with their mothers; and above all, people who would have loved to have been mothers, but it didn’t happen, for whatever reason. Many of those will not be in church this morning. The Church isn't always very tactful about Mothers Day, I'm afraid – I used to find it very patronising, especially considering that for the rest of the year I was rather left to get on with it, and was told that the loneliness and isolation and lack of fellowship was “the price you pay for the wonderful privilege of being a Christian Mother!” As if....

The worst Mothers Day sermon I ever heard was from a young curate who had just discovered his wife was expecting their first child – sadly, he moved away during the course of the year, as several of us were longing to hear what he would have had to say after several months of the reality of parenthood!

But, talking of motherhood, you will have noticed that our readings for today seemed more like Christmas ones than suitable for mid-Lent. You see, yesterday was 25 March, exactly nine months to go until Christmas, so, of course, that is the day when parts of the church celebrate what’s called the Annunciation, when Gabriel came to tell Mary she was going to have a baby. And even though we Protestants don’t really think about Mary much, the fact that she’s such an important figure in so much of Christianity means she’s probably worth thinking about from time to time.

So what do we actually know about her from the Bible, as opposed to tradition? She first appears in our Bibles in this very reading, when Gabriel comes to her to ask her if she will bear Jesus, and, of course, as we all know, she said she would, and Joseph agreed to marry her despite her being pregnant with a baby he knew he wasn’t responsible for.

I do rather love Luke’s stories about Mary – how one of the things the angel had said to her was that her relation, Elisabeth, was pregnant after all those years. And, as we heard in our reading, Mary rushes off to visit her. Was this to reassure herself that the angel was telling the truth? Or to congratulate Elisabeth? Or just to get away for a bit of space, do you suppose? We aren’t told.

But Elisabeth recognises Mary as the mother-to-be of the promised Saviour, and Mary’s response is that great song that we now call the “Magnificat”. Or if it wasn’t exactly that – that may well be Luke putting down what she ought to have said, like Shakespeare giving Henry V that great speech before Agincourt – it was probably words to that effect! I think she was very, very relieved to find the angel had been speaking the truth, and probably did explode in an outpouring of praise and joy! And later, in Bethlehem, when the shepherds come to visit her, we are told that she “kept all these things, and pondered them in her heart.” The next time we see Mary is when Jesus is twelve and gets separated from them in the Temple. I spent a lot of time with that story when my daughter was a teenager – how Mary and Joseph say to Jesus, “But why did you stay behind? Didn’t you realise we’d be worried about you?” and Jesus goes, “Oh, you don’t understand!” – typical teenager!

We don’t see Joseph again after this – tradition has it that he was a lot older than Mary, and, of course, he had a very physical job. It wasn’t just a carpenter as we know it – the Greek word is “technion”, which is the same root as our “technician”; if it had to do with houses, Joseph did it, from designing them, to building them, to making the furniture that went in them! And tradition has it that sometime between Jesus’ 12th birthday, and when we next see him, Joseph has died.

 But we see a lot more of Mary. She is there at the wedding at Cana, and indeed, it’s she who goes to Jesus when they’ve run out of wine. And Jesus says, at first, “Um, no – my time has not yet come!” but Mary knew. And she told the servants to “Do whatever he tells you”, and, sure enough, the water is turned into wine.

There’s a glimpse of her at one point when Jesus is teaching, and he’s told his mother and brother are outside waiting for him, but he refuses to be diverted from what he’s doing. And, of course, it could have been that it was just random people who said they were his relations to try to get closer to him.

We see Mary, of course, weeping at the Cross – something no mother should ever have to do. And Jesus commending her into the care of the “beloved disciple” John. And, finally, we see her in the Upper Room in Jerusalem when the Holy Spirit came.

That’s really all we know about her from the Bible, but other early traditions and writings, including some of what’s called the apocryphal gospels – they’re the ones that didn’t make the cut into the New Testament as we know it – tell us a bit more. They tell us that her mother was called Anne and her father was called Joachim, and that she was only about 16 when Gabriel came to her. One source has it that Anne couldn’t have babies, and when Mary finally arrived, she was given to be reared in the Temple, like Samuel. And traditional sources also tell us that she went to live in Ephesus, probably with John, and died somewhere between 3 and 15 years after the Crucifixion, surrounded by all the apostles. And that her body was taken up to heaven.

Well, so far, so good, but how did they get from there to the veneration of her, not to say worship in some cases, that we see today? This may be something you find difficult to understand – I certainly do – and that’s okay. We aren’t required to do more than honour her as the Mother of our dear Lord; we mention her when we say the Creed, of course, and there are lots of churches dedicated to her. My parents’ church in Sussex is dedicated to St Mary the Virgin, as are loads of other churches around the world. But we do not think of her as quasi-divine in some way. We do believe that Jesus was conceived by the power of the Holy Spirit, not by ordinary human means, but that this was something that happened in time, not in eternity! She became the Mother of God – she was not the Mother of God before Jesus was born.

I wonder, though, just how it happened that veneration of Mary became such a thing among Roman Catholic Christians. Orthodox Christianity also venerates her, but make it quite clear that she is not divine – the distinction, sometimes, among Catholics gets a bit blurred. One theory I have heard put forward is that she gives a female aspect to Christianity, which may or may not be lacking from the Trinity. Well, if that is so, how come Protestant women have managed without for so many generations?

Having said that, of course, it’s worth remembering the days when Christianity was first spread around the world. If you were Jewish, you were quite used to thinking of God as Father and Creator, but if you came from a background which worshipped a virgin goddess, Mary obviously provided what you found you were missing. And again, if you were used to worshipping a mother figure, as so many people were, you found something in Mary that perhaps you missed in the Christian depiction of God. Don’t forget, in the olden days you had to convert to Christianity when your ruler did, or the head of your tribe, or whatever, and if the worship you were used to was suddenly no longer provided, you had to make what you could of what you did have!

And then, of course, the Catholic Church being nothing if not practical, formalised a great deal of what was happening, and thought, about Mary into doctrine.... and so it went on. Chicken and egg type of situation, drawing on tradition and practice more than on Scripture. And so, of course, when the Protestants went back to the Bible, discarding most, although not all, traditional theology, Mary rather fell back into the background.

We Protestants, of course, do have a choice – there is a tradition of venerating Mary in some parts of the Protestant Church, but it is far from compulsory. We honour her as the Mother of our dear Lord – and we honour her, too, for her bravery in saying “Yes” to God like that. After all, had Joseph repudiated her for carrying someone else’s child, she could have ended up on the streets!

 But what, then, can we learn from Mary? We don’t tend to think of her very much, at least, I don’t. We don’t necessarily find in her a mother figure to worship. But there is that incredible bravery that said “Yes” to God – and remember, she didn’t know the end of the story, not at that stage! There are times I wonder what she must think of it all! But she was totally submitted to God in a way that very few people can claim to be. And, of course, there is what she said to the servants at that wedding in Cana - “Do whatever He tells you”.

And that’s not a bad motto to live by, either: Do whatever Jesus tells you. Amen.

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