When God created mother, it was well into overtime on the sixth day. An angel dropped down and commented, ‘Lord, you are taking your time over this creature.’
God replied, ‘You should see the special requirements in the specification! She has to be easy to maintain, but not made of plastic or have any artificial components. She has one hundred and sixty moveable parts, and nerves of steel, with a lap big enough for ten children to sit on it at once, but she herself has to be able to sit on a child’s chair. She has to have a back that can carry everything that is loaded onto it. She has to be able to mend everything, from a grazed knee to a broken heart. And she’s supposed to have six pairs of hands’.
The angel shook her head. ’Six pairs of hands? No way!’
‘The hands are easy’, said God. ‘But I’m still working on the three pairs of eyes that she needs.’
‘Is this the standard model?’ asked the angel.
God nodded: ’Oh yes. One pair to look through closed doors while she asks, ‘What are you doing?’ even though she already knows the answer. A second pair at the back of her head, to see what she is not meant to see, but needs to know about. And, of course, the pair at the front that can look at her child, let him know that he is behaving badly and had better change his ways. While at the same time letting him see how much she loves and understands him.’
‘I think that you should go to bed now, Lord, and get some sleep,’ said the angel.
‘I can’t do that’, said God. ‘I’m almost there. I have nearly created a being who heals herself when she is ill, who can delight thirty children with one little birthday cake, who can persuade a three-year-old not to eat clay, a six-year-old to wash their hands before a meal and a nine-year-old to use his feet to walk and not to kick.’
The angel walked slowly around the prototype mum. ‘It’s too soft’, she said.
‘But tough’, God retorted, ‘You won’t believe the wear and tear this mum will tolerate.’
‘Can she think’, asked the angel?
‘Not just think, but reach wise judgements and essential compromises,’ said God. ‘And she can do more than that. She can forgive and forget.’
Finally, the angel ran her finger across the model’s cheek.
‘There’s a leak,’ she said. ‘I warned you that you were trying to get too much into her.’
‘That’s not a leak,’ said God. ‘That’s a tear.’
‘What’s that for?’ asked the angel.
It follows whenever she feels joy or grief. Or disappointment or pride, pain or loneliness, or the depths of love.’
‘You’re a genius,’ said the angel.
God looked again at his work of art, with pleasure and pride.
‘The tear,’ he said, ‘is her overflow valve.’
A whimsical, amusing I story I know and obviously not true; perhaps more in keeping with the sentimentality of Mothering Sunday rather than the reality.
If I had to choose a word to describe today, Mothering Sunday, it would be ‘bittersweet’.
A strange way to describe Mothering Sunday. But why bittersweet? I think the story that I have just told hints at that but there are several reasons.
Firstly, today can bring a mixture of emotions, as is the case so often at other times when there is a collective emphasis on happiness. Like Christmas, Mothering Sunday can be a painful time for some. Some of us will be unable to spend time with our mothers today. Often the physical distances which divide families will be the reason. Some may have had difficult relationships and might not be on speaking terms. Others will be feeling the pain of having been parted from our mothers through death or having lost children. My own personal circumstances fit into that last category as this is my first Mothering Sunday without mum. I have those wonderful memories of a very special mum and the happy times that we spent together but I must also live with the fact that mum is no longer physically with us. Bitter sweet.
Secondly, the role of a mother, of any parent or any carer, can be bitter sweet. The time when your child disappears in a crowded shop. The panic, the hug which your child gets when found and the telling off that you give them. The time when your child, however old they are, is seriously ill and you have to balance your support and positivity with the fear, dread and worry that you feel inside.
That tension is reflected in today’s readings. First, we hear about Hannah, one of Elkanah’s two wives, longed for a child. Peninnah, Eli’s other wife, had children and rubbed Hannah’s nose in it by mocking and taunting her. Hannah was desperate for a child and pleaded with God, so much so that the priest, Eli, thought that she was drunk. She vowed that she would give her son back to God. She conceived and bore Samuel and, after weaning, she gave the child that she had so wanted back to God, to serve in the temple. Bittersweet! To have your heart’s desire, a child. after being barren for so long, and to give that child back to God.
And then we have our gospel reading. Imagine the bitter sweet emotions which must have run through Mary’s heart. Pride and joy were certainly there as the Gospel tells us with the words “and the child’s father and mother were amazed” at what was being said by Simeon about Jesus.
But Mary’s amazement must have turned to concern as she heard Simeon go on to say to her and to her alone: “This child is destined for the falling and rising of many in Israel ………. and a sword will pierce your own soul too.”
Prophetic words but also deeply troubling words to a mother.
We see that fulfilled throughout Mary’s life.
A girl who said ‘yes’ to God and gave birth in the most difficult of circumstances, risking the condemnation of Jewish society (Joseph did after all intend to divorce her).
She watched as visitors barged in to the stable and allowed them to worship her son. She received wise men later and their gifts symbolising her baby’s greatness but also foreshadowing his death.
She was compelled to flee with her betrothed and the baby as refugees to a foreign land.
She knew what it was like when she lost her son during the visit to the temple in Jerusalem.
She sees Jesus stir up hatred, and opposition. And, of course she watches as Jesus is led to His death and is crucified.
Perhaps one of the most moving moments of the crucifixion is when Jesus looked down from the Cross at his mother. As it is told in St. John’s Gospel:
“When Jesus saw his mother and the disciple whom he loved standing there he said to his mother “Woman here is your son”. Then he said to the disciple “Here is your mother”. And from that hour the disciple took her into his own home”.
That scene is one of the most poignant illustrations of maternal love, mingling with filial love, blessed by God’s love at a time of suffering. Bitter sweet!
Thirdly there is the bittersweet juxtaposition of the joyful celebration of motherhood with the penitential austerity of Lent.
Bishop Tom Wright says,
“The Lenten journey often has that strange counterpoint of two melodies that seem to be in different keys struggling for resolution. Part of the discipline of Lent is to live with the message of the Kingdom apparently clashing with the march to the Cross”.
Fourthly, when we look at the image the church, the mother church, from which we get mothering Sunday, we can all think of times, both past and present, that have those bitter sweet moments. The Oxford Dictionary talks of the mother church as ‘The church, considered as a mother in its functions of nourishing and protecting the believer”.
At its best, the church as mother offers the hope that nurture, compassion and loving acceptance are not the exclusive domain of one gender or one age group or one culture. At its best, the model of the church as mother ensures that no one is excluded from the task of making disciples, because we’re all called to use our gifts to enable the flourishing of all. At its very best, witnessing to God’s great love for creation and we, the Church, serve as an example of nurturing, loving service for the wider society.
Sometimes this picture is not quite a clear cut as factions and divisions can cloud what the church tries to do.
So, what makes all these scenarios bitter sweet?
The simple answer is love.
Love is vulnerable, it suffers, it takes risks. If we didn’t love, if we couldn’t love, then those painful realities that upset the equilibrium of our lives – sickness, death, loss, broken relationships – all these would matter far less to us. But we do love, and so they hurt acutely.
Mothering Sunday, placed so near to Holy Week, reminds us that any relationship, without pain is likely to be a relationship without love. In fact, if we love, then we put ourselves in the very path of pain and suffering. To love is to put yourself at risk, and your heart will sometimes be wrung, sometimes broken. But we can’t wish it any other way, for we are made in the image of a God of love, and love, real love, costs – it is a very expensive commodity, and sometimes we may have to pay for it with the currency of our tears. We only have to look at Jesus example of love, a love that is vulnerable, that suffers and takes risks. By his death on the cross he shows his love for each one of us.
Whether we are a parent, carer, a member of a family, a member of the church family we are called to share this love, to all. In Paul’s letter to the Colossians we are told how this love can be worked out practically.
‘Therefore, as God’s chosen people, holy and dearly loved, clothe yourselves with compassion, kindness, humility, gentleness and patience. Bear with each other and forgive one another if any of you has a grievance against someone. Forgive as the Lord forgave you. And over all these virtues put on love, which binds them all together in perfect unity.’
So, today, although it can be bitter sweet, we celebrate Mothering Sunday because of all that it shows us about the goodness of God, his love for all of us and his concern that we shall love and care for each other as well as celebrating the love of those closest to us.