Given by Beth Phillips, Westcott’s Tutor in Ethics.
2 Cor. 1.3-7; Luke 2.33-35
‘Blessed be the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, the Father of mercies and the God of all consolation, who consoles us in all our affliction, so that we may be able to console those who are in any affliction . . . ’ Amen.
In many churches this Sunday we will be celebrating mothers and motherhood, and I must confess to you that even after ten years in this country, I find it difficult to embrace Mothering Sunday. Now, one may very rightly denounce the consumerism of American Mother’s Day and how it has been imported into Mothering Sunday, and I will be in agreement there. My problem with Mothering Sunday is more about seasonal timing. To an American, Mother’s Day is redolent with Spring and Eastertide; and it comes in May when the weather is warm and it’s lovely to be outside. So it is difficult to embrace Mothering Sunday in the midst of Lent. Mother’s Day and Lent do not go together; it simply feels wrong.
But if anything could persuade me to change my mind, it may well be the readings we have just heard.
The gospel reading takes us back to the same moment we observed on Candlemas, when Jesus is presented at the Temple, and his presence is the source of great rejoicing for Simeon and Anna. On Candlemas we tend to focus on the words of Simeon which we sing in the Nunc Dimitis, words of gratefulness, fulfilment, consolation, and hope – words which Simeon addresses to God. In tonight’s reading, we are asked to pause and consider Simeon’s less lyrical words, those which he addresses directly to the mother of Jesus:
‘This child is destined for the falling and the rising of many in Israel, and to be a sign that will be opposed so that the inner thoughts of many will be revealed – and a sword will pierce your own soul too.’ The tone of these words is entirely different; these are words of foreboding, danger, mystery, and suffering.
Mothering Sunday, like American Mother’s Day, can be a sentimental and shallow celebration of an idealised vision of motherhood, just as Valentine’s Day is often a sentimental and shallow celebration of an idealised vision of love – motherhood and love are apparently all warm feelings, and roses and champagne.
Perhaps the invitation extended by our gospel reading, in stark contrast to this sentimentalising of motherhood, is the opportunity to contemplate and enter into the reality which Mary experienced uniquely as the mother of Jesus, and which all of us experience in lesser ways:
that motherhood – like all our most intimate relationships – can be the source of both unparalleled joy and consolation as well as the very deepest pain and suffering.
I don’t mean this in a simple and trite way. This is not merely the sort of truism that could well grace a Mother’s Day greeting card: ‘Motherhood: It’s the hardest job you’ll ever have, and the best!’ – though of course that is a truism because there is something true in it.
What I mean, though, is something rather more searching, something about the mystery of human interrelatedness and interdependence, of which motherhood is in some ways a unique instance but is in no sense the exclusive instance. Wherever we connect most deeply with one another and commit ourselves most fully to one another’s good – whether that is in friendship, or marriage, or parenthood, or communities of religious orders – we find both the deepest, most fulfilling consolation, and the deepest, most piercing pain.
Our reading from Paul’s second letter to the Corinthians describes Christian discipleship and ministry in these same terms. ‘For just as the sufferings of Christ are abundant for us, so also our consolation is abundant through Christ. If we are being afflicted, it is for your consolation and salvation; if we are being consoled, it is for your consolation . . .’
Whether our vocation in life is to priestly or lay ministry, to parenthood of children or to other forms of being fruitful in this world, whenever we commit to the journey of seeking to faithfully embody our vocation – to be disciples – with all our heart, soul, mind and strength, there too will we find both the deepest, most fulfilling consolation, and the deepest, most piercing pain.
So perhaps Mothering Sunday really does belong in Lent, if indeed it is an opportunity to contemplate and embrace this mysterious reality – this coinciding of joy and pain, of suffering and consolation – because Lent is a season in which we seek to enter into the mysteries of Christ’s sufferings and into the unique joy and consolation prepared for us when we take up our cross and follow him.
Now, lest I create the entirely false impression of a person who deeply understands and keeps a most holy Lent . . .
I should be honest with you about the fact that each year I tend to feel genuinely bitter about the beginning of Lent. But again, this has everything to do with seasonal timing.
Having spent a great deal of my life in the very sunny regions of southern California and Texas, I find myself deeply affected by the darkness of winter at this distance from the Equator. Quite frankly, it makes me miserable.
And when we come to the beginning of Lent each year, we are not only suffering the toll taken by months of sun deprivation, we are also at about the midpoint of the academic year – that point at which the excitement of the beginning of a new academic year is too far behind us, and the horizon of the end of this academic year is too far ahead of us.
So at that precise point each year – just when I feel certain I’ve altogether come to the end of my ability to cope – my honest feeling is, ‘Lent? Really? At this point I’m supposed to deeply contemplate my mortality and make grand gestures signifying my finitude and sinfulness and general inadequacy? Great. That’s just what I need.’
And yet, most years, it becomes very clear to me somewhere in the course of these forty days that this is, in fact, just what I need.
For just as we cannot enter into the deepest joys of our mysterious human interdependence without entering into the dangerous certainty of those joys being accompanied by deepest pain, so we cannot enter into the deepest joys of our lives in Christ without entering into the dangerous certainty of the cross.
Our Lenten disciplines should be a piercing mixture of contemplating the sufferings of Christ, embracing the ways in which we must enter into those sufferings, and turning to the world around us to see where ‘the least’ and ‘the last’ are suffering today – where Christ is suffering now in and with them, and meeting Christ there by refusing to remain indifferent to that suffering. And there we find, along with St Paul, that ‘just as the sufferings of Christ are abundant for us, so also our consolation is abundant through Christ’.
Now, that may not work as a message on a Mother’s Day card, but perhaps it resonates more deeply and honestly with the rich and mysterious realities of motherhood, and of all our most intimate interdependencies, than all the flowers and roast dinners and greeting cards could ever do.
And so, ‘Blessed be the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, the Father of mercies and the God of all consolation, who consoles us in all our affliction, so that we may be able to console those who are in any affliction . . . ’
‘ – and a sword will pierce your own soul too.’
In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit, Amen.