1 Samuel 1.20-end
Our three readings this morning give us two very different stories of farewells between mothers and sons, and S. Paul’s exhortation to the church in Colossae. The mother and son stories are particularly poignant today; Mothering Sunday in the shadow of Covid-19 is not what it ought to be, and many people are today experiencing separation and isolation from their dearest relations.
The story of Hannah and Samuel is one of a number of great birth stories in the Old Testament. Hannah prays in the House of the Lord at Shiloh for a child, and her prayer is answered in the birth of her son Samuel. Hannah’s hymn of praise to God is a precedent for Mary’s hymn of praise in Luke’s gospel that we know as the Magnificat, familiar to us from Evensong. Having received Samuel from God, Hannah gives him back to God, presenting him in the House of the Lord at Shiloh. As the bible puts it, “She left him there for the Lord”. The boy Samuel grows to be a great prophet, the one who anoints David as King over Israel.
Whilst Hannah hands over Samuel to the Lord in our Old Testament reading, in our gospel reading it is the Son who is doing the handing over, as he hands his mother over to the Beloved Disciple. We can see this as an expression of Jesus’ care for his mother, as indeed it no doubt was. But if we try to imagine ourselves into Mary’s position, the heart-tearing position of witnessing the cruel death of her son, we might realise that there were other words that she might have wished to have heard from Jesus in that moment. The Beloved Disciple can be no substitute for Jesus, and for Mary this must have felt like a moment of rejection. Mary must let Jesus go; just like Hannah, she must “leave him there for the Lord”.
The Beloved Disciple can for Mary be no substitute for Jesus, and yet we must not overlook the significance of Jesus’ words to them both. In the Beloved Disciple we see the embryo Church; the other disciples have fled, only the Beloved Disciple and a small group of women remain. Jesus commends Mary to the care of the Beloved Disciple, but he also commends the Beloved Disciple to the care of Mary. And in the Beloved Disciple he in fact commends the whole Church – he commends us all to the love and care of his Mother, whose prayers continue to be poured out for us all; and he commends his Mother to the care of the Church, he commends her to our care, and so she continues to be honoured – as she herself says in her great hymn of praise, “All generations shall call me blessed”, and so we rightly do.
Hannah and Mary must both in their different ways leave their sons in the care of the Lord. And Jesus leaves his Mother to the care of his friend and disciple. And we too in these strange and difficult times find ourselves separated from our loved ones, sometimes separated from our mothers, who may be self-isolating in a different town, or living overseas, suddenly inaccessible to visits. We find ourselves leaving our loved ones to the care of the Lord, and leaving them sometimes too to the care of others. And we also should be alert to those that the Lord may be commending to our care; isolated neighbours, perhaps, people we might sometimes overlook who we might be able to help. But just as the care of the Beloved Disciple does not undo the separation from Jesus that Mary experiences, so too the kindness of relative strangers cannot mask the separation many of us are feeling from our loved ones. The world which has been getting steadily smaller over several centuries thanks to advances in transport seems to have got suddenly bigger over the past week. Yes, we have the miracle of the internet, and amazing ways of communicating at great distance. But there is no substitute for physical presence.
And as in our family life, so in our church life we find ourselves separated. The wonders of the internet, not to mention the good old-fashioned telephone, will help. We are working hard at finding new ways of remaining united as the body of Christ in this place, and yet just as in family life, so in church life there is no substitute for physical presence. I have discovered how hard it is for example to officiate at a funeral without being able to offer my hand to the mourners. And just as we miss each other’s physical presence this morning, so too we miss our Lord’s presence in the sacrament. I hope it gives you some comfort to know that although public worship is suspended, the Eucharist continues to be celebrated regularly in both of the churches of our benefice; this morning I am celebrating at S. Mary’s.
And yet, painful as the separations are, our love remains undiminished. This is true of Hannah and Samuel; it is true of Jesus and his Mother Mary; let us pray that it may be true of us in relation to each other. And painful as the separations are, our unity remains more profound. The letters of S. Paul can help us. On the one hand, the Apostle often speaks of the longing that he feels to be physically present with his brothers and sisters in Christ in the many churches he either founded or helped to build up; but he also speaks of that unity which binds together the Church as the Body of Christ, even in the absence of physical presence. As he writes to the church at Colossae: “Above all, clothe yourselves with love, which binds everything together in perfect harmony. And let the peace of Christ rule in your hearts, to which indeed you were called in the one body.”
In the Name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit.