Collect for Lent IV
GRACIOUS Father, whose blessed Son Jesus Christ came from heaven to be the true bread which gives life to the world,
evermore give us this bread, that he may live in us, and we in him, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit,
one God, now and for ever. Amen.
Collect for Lent
ALMIGHTY and everlasting God, you despise nothing you have made and forgive the sins of all who are penitent.
Create and make in us new and contrite hearts, that we, worthily lamenting our sins and acknowledging our brokenness,
may obtain of you, the God of all mercy, perfect remission and forgiveness; through Jesus Christ our Lord,
who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, for ever and ever. Amen.
Old Testament lesson:
Exodus, 2, Vv 1 - 10
2 Corinthians 1, Vv 3 - 7
St John 19, Vv 25b - 27
Today is Mothering Sunday, the fourth Sunday in Lent, sometimes called mid-Lent Sunday. It is also called Refreshment Sunday and it allows us a sort of breathing space in the middle of our Lenten preparations for Easter: space to relax for a day in the middle of this penitential season. We are allowed to take up, but just for a day, those activities that we have forsworn for Lent. If we have given up, say, the consumption of chocolate, then we have a couple of pieces on Mothering Sunday. If we have given up smoking or alcohol, then a cigarette or a gin and tonic are acceptable today. It seems, at first sight, a strange custom but it does concentrate our minds wonderfully in our return to abstinence for the remaining three weeks.
Today, on Mothering Sunday, the church asks us to consider mothers under three broad headings. The first is, perhaps obviously, our own mothers. It is difficult for me, as a man, to talk meaningfully about motherhood. Being a mother comprises much more that giving birth to a child. I read somewhere that giving birth is the easy bit, although I am sure that there are some in this congregation who might wish to take issue with that simple statement. Motherhood was described as nine months of expectation followed by twenty-four hours of pain and excitement. All this, I suggest, pales into insignificance when compared with the ensuing agonies and frustrations that occupy the next, maybe, twenty or so years; until our children have, grown up, left home, or are, perhaps, happily married with families of their own – and they don’t stop, even then. The responsibilities of mothers, more so than for fathers, I believe, are to protect children from the ravages of the world and to bring them to maturity as active, stable, contributing members of society. I suppose that it could be argued that fathers want fame, success and achievement for their children; for them to be among the ‘movers and the shakers’ in the world. Yet, both parents know that such attributes can be dangerous. Very few are strong enough to have these characteristics and use them successfully without hurting others or doing damage to themselves.
Does Holy Scripture give us any help when considering our relationships with our mothers, or they with us? If we turn to the Gospels we get a rather mixed story. In the first, so-called sign that Saint John tells us of, Jesus, his immediate family and his disciples attended a wedding at Cana in Galilee. Tradition suggests that it may have been the marriage of one of the disciples, possibly Nathanael. As you will remember, Mary asked Jesus to intervene when the host of the wedding feast discovered that they have run short of wine. The Authorised Version gives Jesus’ reply to his mother rather starkly; ‘Woman, what have I to do with thee? mine hour is not yet come.’ More modern translations are kinder. The New English Bible has, ‘Dear woman, why do you involve me?’ Our New Revised Standard Version says, ‘Woman, what concern is that to you and to me?’ Does Jesus demonstrate a degree of surliness? We are not sure. On another occasion, while speaking to the crowds, Jesus is told that his mother and brothers are standing outside, waiting to speak with him. Saint Matthew tells us that his response was, ‘Who is my mother, and who are my brothers?’ Jesus had a mission, to prepare all for the kingdom of God on earth. He would let nothing stand in the way of that task, not family commitments or any worldly undertaking. It had been revealed to him that he was God’s Son and his duty to his heavenly Father allowed no familial interference. We might consider that these examples give us very little guidance as to how human families should behave; how a deep maternal love should develop between a mother and her children. Yet, let us turn back to Saint John and his portrayal of the crucifixion. Not long before Jesus shouted out that wonderful word ‘Tetelæstai’, translated as ‘it is finished’, he observed, in his agony, his mother and the beloved disciple standing nearby. Ever mindful of his responsibilities as a loyal son Jesus placed the care of his mother with John, and made John responsible for her, now that he was no longer able to be with her, as we just heard in our Gospel reading. What more concerned and compassionate Son could any mother have? When Jesus was presented in the Temple, when just eight days old, it was Simeon who told Mary, you will remember, that a sword would pierce her heart – how prophetic these words turned out to be.
Secondly, on this Mothering Sunday we are asked to think about Mary the mother of Jesus. The church, certainly the Eastern Church, knows her as Theotokos, The Mother of God. In Reformed Protestant churches Mary is granted almost no recognition while members of the Roman Catholic Church are often accused of offering her direct worship. There is, of course, a world of difference between Mariolatry and Mariology. That Mary was a special character in history is not disputed. That she was, as I have premised, the Mother of God, is often forgotten. In all of human history, in over two million years of our population of this planet, this one woman was uniquely chosen by God to be overshadowed by his Holy Spirit to give birth to his Son. There is, as we know, little scriptural information about Mary. Yet, Alban Butler, in his ‘Lives of the Saints’ accords her no fewer than thirteen distinct feast days each year. In my English Missal she is accorded some sixteen special days; four in the month of September alone. We could argue all day about her immaculate conception, her perpetual virginity and her eventual assumption into heaven. None of these facets of her life are Biblically attested but we must remember that Christianity is a revealed religion. Much of the doctrine that surrounds the Blessed Virgin stems from traditions that have been revealed by God to man down the two millennia of the church’s life. So, we mustn’t just condemn these ideas as non-Biblical but embrace them as possibly divinely inspired. Mary was most assuredly a unique person. Most especially she accepted God’s proposals for her – you will remember her words, ‘Here am I, the servant of the Lord; let it be with me according to your word’. In her wonderful song, known to us as Magnificat, she said, ‘all generations shall call me blessed.’ She is rightly called Regina Coeli – Queen of Heaven. Although there is clearly no scriptural evidence for it, many Christians believe that, at the time of her death, Mary was bodily assumed into heaven to be with her beloved Son, now resurrected, ascended and glorified. The church keeps the Feast of the Assumption of Mary on the fifteenth day of August. As I have said, there is no Biblical evidence for this event, but if Enoch and Elijah could be taken bodily up into heaven, for which we do have chapter and verse, then I like to think that this could and did happen to Mary. However, it is not part of the Anglican Church’s doctrine.
The third area of consideration that we are expected to think about on Mothering Sunday is Mother Church. The church has been referred to as The Bride of Christ, although there is little evidence that Jesus came to earth to create a church, certainly not as we understand the word today. Jesus only used the word ‘church’ twice, and Saint Matthew recorded both of them. In one, as you will remember, Jesus said, ‘thou art Peter, and upon this rock I will build my church; and the gates of Hell shall not prevail against it.’ This may be considered a very ambiguous statement of intent. The Roman Catholic Church has taken this affirmation of Saint Peter to build an ecclesiastical structure in which the Papacy is seen to be in direct line of descent from that Apostle, where the Pope is the Vicar of Christ. Jesus could just have easily meant that ‘upon this rock’ means upon himself. He will build a church based on his authority, and his alone. Perhaps we shall never know the exact meaning of those words. We do know that the twelve chosen disciples, or at least eleven of them, did form the nucleus of a church, a church that has grown and developed across the face of the whole earth, until some two billion of its inhabitants, about a third of the population, claim to be Christians. Even if he did not initiate a worshipping structure, Jesus always directed his message of redemption and salvation to groups of people; rarely, if ever, did he spell out the meaning of the gospel to individuals. A possible exception was Nicodemus who went to see him privately. Saint John tells us that Nicodemus, a Pharisee and a leader of the Jews, came to Jesus by night. Jesus gave his Messianic message to groups; groups of all shapes and sizes. This policy is reflected in the church of today. It is a corporate body: the very word Christian means membership of the Church of Christ. We should be wary of any who claim to be Christians, who may lead good and purposeful lives, but never set foot inside a church.
The church is not a static society. As I have previously mentioned, Christianity is a revealed religion and the New Testament church has been the custodian of those revelations. The essential nature of the church lies in the oneness between the living Lord and the community, as well as the unity between members of that community, with one another. These relationships are illustrated by many analogies in the New Testament. Christ is the Vine, we are the branches; he is the Shepherd, we are the sheep; he is the head of the Body, the church, we, true believers, are organic members of that Body. The whole Vine grows as one; there are other sheep that must be brought into the fold; the Body grows in stature.
So, on this mid-Lent Sunday, Mothering Sunday, we thank God for our earthly mothers, either living or now in the nearer presence of God. We thank him for the life and witness of the Blessed Virgin Mary, Theotokos, the Mother of God; she who all generations shall call blessed. And we thank him for his bride the Universal Christian Church, of which body we are all baptised members. Let us ponder on these things, today and in the days that lie ahead in our Paschal preparations.
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