18th March 2024

Mary – a Mother for the 21st Century

Mary – a Mother for the 21st Century
A sermon for Mothering Sunday, 10 March 2024
Preached by The Revd Maggie Guillebaud
Exodus 2:1-10, Luke 2:33-35

I don’t know if any of you have ever spent Easter in Southern Europe. These countries are predominantly Roman Catholic of course, and it was at Easter in Palermo in Sicily that I witnessed at first hand a very different kind of Easter from the one we are used to.
On Good Friday an enormous procession wound round Palermo carrying a life-sized Christ encased in a crystal coffin, so heavy that the 12 men who carried it had to put it down for a rest every 12 steps or so. Not far behind was a life-sized figure of the Virgin Mary being carried with a sword piercing her heart. The procession began at 3.00 and went round and round Palermo until well after dark.

But it was that statue of Mary which caught my attention, mostly because it ran counter to nearly every statue of her that I had ever encountered. Usually, we see Mary dandling the Christ Child on her knee, or gazing at him with wonder in the manger, a soft, feminine figure who in theory exemplifies the purest form of motherhood all over the world. Or she is the Queen of Heaven, resplendent in a crown and rich robes. This agonized figure, with her eyes turned upwards to heaven as she clasped her hands in prayer, was something totally different.
Our two readings today are both about mothers, and today Mothering Sunday records the time when girls who were in service to affluent households would go home not only to see their Mothers on this Sunday, but also attend their parish church, or Mother church. This has over the years morphed into Mother’s Day, with flowers, chocolates, cards, and a general appreciation of mothers. It’s good to feel appreciated.

So today I should like to focus on Mary the mother of Jesus, to whom this Cathedral is dedicated. To the Christian mind she has for two millennia exemplified the perfect woman, the perfect mother. But does the evidence for this view stack up?
Every year the MP Jess Philips reads out in the House of Commons the names of all those women in the UK who have been killed by their husbands, partners, boyfriends or family. This year it took her over 5 minutes. The youngest was 15, the oldest 92. That means that roughly just over 2 women a week are killed by their partners or families. Many, many of those are mothers.

And statistics would suggest that a ¼ of women in this country live, or have lived, in relationships where abuse has taken place. And remember abuse since the legislation of 2021 now includes financial and emotional abuse, not just physical violence. The fight to keep women safe from violence and misogyny goes on.

Indeed, being a woman has never been easy. We have had to fight, cajole, persuade, and get ourselves educated, in order to take our place beside men as equals. And in this country our rights are much better protected than in many parts of the world. Thank God for that.
Now some would argue that the historical cult of the Virgin Mary as an idealised obedient and meek figure has been responsible, in an oblique way, for not only holding back the progress of women in Christendom but has also set an impossible standard of female perfection, if you consider humble submission a measure of perfection. And I would suggest that at the root of much misogyny and violence against women is, in the eyes of the perpetrators of such violence, the idea that women need to be taught their place: not equal, but subservient. Just like Mary.
I think this reading of Mary is all wrong, and here are some of the reasons why.

Mary was indeed acquiescent to God’s wish for her that she should bear the Christ Child, but not before she had challenged Gabriel: ‘How can this be, since I am a virgin?’ Even as a teenager she had questions. And it takes considerable guts to challenge an angel.
Fast forward to the census in Bethlehem and the gruesome experience of giving birth in a stable. No moaning or railing against fate, but resilience in the face of, it must be said, tricky odds.

And today we remember Christ’s presentation in the Temple in Jerusalem where Mary has gone to be purified after giving birth and make the required sacrifices. Here Simeon’s prophesies foresee the unrest and conflict which is to follow, including her own suffering.
This is quickly followed in Luke by the story of Jesus staying behind in the Temple in Jerusalem as a 12-year-old boy while his parents return home after celebrating the Passover. I bet there is not one mother sitting here today, including me, who has not experienced the panic of not being able to find their child in the place where they thought they ought to be. Mary upbraids Jesus, who is lost for 3 whole days, with the words: ‘Child, why have you treated us like this? Look, your Father and I have been searching for you with great anxiety’. We know his answer, but Mary is not afraid to give Jesus a ticking-off.

So the story gradually unfolds, as we glimpse Mary in the Bible weaving in and out of Jesus’s life and ministry. Her rejection by Jesus, as told in Matthew, along with his brothers and sisters, as they try to get through the crowds to see Jesus must have been painful. But her final test is the worst: to see her son crucified at the hands of a gutless alien occupying force and a self-serving Jewish administration, guiltless, mostly silent as he undergoes his final agonies. Simeon’s prophecy has indeed come true as she stands at the foot of the cross.
Does the Mary who emerges here appear to be a woman without agency, a perfect woman on a pedestal of perfection? I think not. She is a woman of immense courage, relience, endurance, and finally hope.

Because she is the only named woman in the in the upper room where she and the Apostles, along with other disciples, including women, wait for the coming of the promised Holy Spirit after the Ascension. She gave birth to the Messiah, and now she will be there at the birth of the Church. She helped form him, shape him, as a growing child. Now she will do the same for his Church.

This is the last glimpse we have of her in the Bible. But legend has it that she went to Ephesus with the man John calls ‘the disciple whom he loved’, to whom Jesus bequeathed her care shortly before he died. One of Jesus’s last thoughts was for his Mother.
The bond is clear; they have been through so much together. And that is the kind of mother, the kind of woman, with whom I think many women can identify. Not the immaculate image of perfection, but a real woman who has been tested to the utmost and come through. The kind of woman we see striding out to convert the world in the wonderful Elizabeth Frink sculpture outside the doors of the Cathedral. The kind of woman who may be sitting next to you during this Eucharist. The kind of young woman perhaps sitting here this morning who will in the future go on to create her own family and guide her children through their lives.

Mary is indeed a pattern for all mother, but perhaps not in the way we have in the past perceived her. And we rightly revere her.

So to all the Mothers here today, and those watching online, a very happy and positive Mothering Sunday. Amen