8am and 9:30am on Sundays Hart Street, Henley-on-Thames RG9 2AU

City Church

THE PARISH CHURCH OF ST MARY THE VIRGIN, HENLEY-ON-THAMES

Mothering Sunday

Mar 19, 2021, Author: Fr Jeremy Tayler

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Exodus 2:1-10
2 Corinthians 1:3-7
Psalm 34:11-20
Luke 2:33-35

+In the Name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit.
Amen.

Every year I am struck by the contrast between the pink fluffy sentimentality of Mothers’ Day as it is promoted in our shops, and the rather stark realism of the readings the Church of England sets for Mothering Sunday. The traditional note of this Sunday in Christian tradition is one of consolation; that is, the comfort received after a loss. Today is a day of rejoicing, but it is the rejoicing of one who has come through something painful.

I am not of course myself a mother, but as an observer of motherhood – as both a son and a husband – it seems to me that this is true to the experience of mothers: from the process of giving birth itself, through the first stumble and fall in the playground, the first day of nursery or school, all the little trials and separations of childhood, up to the moment when the child is no longer a child but an adult ready to set out on the journey of life, for mothers there are many moments of loss and pain. But more-often-than-not these moments are also closely associated with growth – it is in the mother’s stepping back and letting go that the child is able to grow and develop, and the pang of separation gives way to the consolation of seeing the child flourish and grow. The story of Moses and his mother, lovingly preparing a little basket for him and pushing him out into the Nile, is in a rather extreme way a metaphor for what motherhood is always about.

Today’s psalm is a portion of Psalm 34, one of a number of alphabetical psalms, although the acrostic structure is completely obscured for us both by translation and the fact that we have only read half of it. Like many of the acrostic psalms, Psalm 34 has connections with the ancient Jewish wisdom tradition. It may have its setting in a school, with the teacher addressing the students as “my children”, indicating the respect and affection of the relationship; or it may, perhaps, have its setting in the home, always so important in Jewish religious practice. “Come, ye children, and hearken unto me : and I will teach you the fear of the Lord” – fear in the sense of reverence and respect, rather than a cowering dread.

Perhaps we can imagine Mary saying these words to the boy Jesus. As devout Jews, Psalm 34 would certainly have been familiar to them, and in fact it is one of the most widely quoted psalms in the New Testament. And it does in places sound rather like the sensible guidance of a mother:

Keep thy tongue from evil : and thy lips, that they speak no guile.
Eschew evil, and do good : seek peace, and ensue it.
The eyes of the Lord are over the righteous : and his ears are open unto their prayers.

In other words, don’t spread gossip, don’t tell lies, don’t be naughty, don’t get into squabbles and fights. If you try to be good, God will look kindly on you and listen to your prayers.

And perhaps we can imagine too Mary’s growing anxiety as Jesus grows up. First He surrounds Himself with bad company – something that the psalms frequently warn against. His friends and followers are hot-headed fisherman, dodgy tax collectors, revolutionary wannabes and women of questionable reputation. And far from seeking and pursuing peace, He gets Himself into dreadful rows with all the most powerful people; so much so that individuals and factions that are usually seen as rivals and enemies are united in their dislike of Him: Pharisees and Sadducees, Herod and Pilate all agree that He is a dangerous man who must be got rid of, and quickly.

The son who once held such promise seems to have gone off in the wrong direction; in fact He seems almost to be lost to her altogether, He appears even at one point to disown her when she comes looking for Him, hoping perhaps to be able to save Him from Himself: “Who is my mother?”, He asks.

And then for Mary the worst fears of any mother are realised.

At Stations of the Cross on Friday mornings, I sing a verse of the ancient hymn Stabat Mater between each station. This hymn is a meditation on the Cross from the perspective of Mary. In today’s gospel, Simeon speaks of the sword that will pierce her soul. There is a traditional doctrine, a little exotic perhaps in the Church of England, which teaches that Mary shares profoundly and uniquely in Jesus’ sufferings. I do think that this too is true to the experiences of mothers. Seeing one’s child suffer is as bad as or perhaps even worse than suffering oneself. Seeing the Son who held such hope and promise suffer and die such a cruel and apparently senseless death – it’s hard to imagine the depths she must have reached.

And yet, “Great are the troubles of the righteous : but the Lord delivereth him out of all”. Or as St Paul puts it, “…just as the sufferings of Christ are abundant for us, so also our consolation is abundant through Christ.” As real and as unfathomable as her pain may be, she will receive consolation.

One of the mysteries of the gospels is the absence of any specific account of a Resurrection appearance to Mary His Mother. She is present at the Cross in the account of John’s gospel, and she is present with the disciples in Jerusalem in the first chapter of the Acts of the Apostles, but a veil is drawn over her movements and her involvement in the story in between. Some will believe that Jesus appeared to her, although the story has not been told, and some will not, but her presence among the disciples in the first chapter of the Acts of the Apostles shows that she believes, that she knows that her Son lives. And more than that, as He intimated from the Cross, this motley crew of dodgy characters that once followed her Son around have made her welcome and have in a sense become her children too.

So already in that first chapter of Acts we can see that she has been consoled, and in time she will enjoy the still greater consolations of life united with her Son in eternity.

It is in the nature of motherhood to have one’s soul pierced. For some the pains are smaller, for others greater; there are those whose share of these pains is close even to that of Mary. And yet there is consolation, and there will be consolation, and the greater the sorrow, the greater will be the consolation.

Blessed be the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, the Father of mercies and the God of all consolation.

+In the Name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit.
Amen