A Sermon preached by the Precentor, Canon Anna Macham
Sunday 27 March 2022- 10:30, The Fourth Sunday of Lent
2 Corinthians 1: 3-7 and Luke 2: 33-35
Today, the Fourth Sunday of Lent, is Mothering Sunday. Mothering Sunday is also historically known as Laetare Sunday, a day of joyful celebration and respite from austere Lenten practices. Yet, as we reach this turning point in our annual journey through Lent, and spend time with our mothers, or remember them, we also know that today, far from being a celebration, will be a bleak day for many women, mothers and children throughout the world.
Since the start of the Russian Invasion of Ukraine a month ago, ten million people have fled their homes, and the vast majority of these have been women and children. We’ve seen photographs of women giving birth in underground metro stations and new-borns hastily being moved to makeshift bomb shelters as health facilities become damaged. It’s estimated that, in the 3 months from the start of the invasion, 80,000 women will give birth in Ukraine, many without access to critical maternal health care. As well as loss of access to healthcare, education, food, water and sanitation, during conflict, women and girls are particularly vulnerable to sexual and gender-based violence. Eastern Ukraine has been in the shadow of conflict for the last 8 years, and according to a 2019 UNFPA study, some 75% of women in the country already reported experiencing some form of violence since the age of 15 (UNFPA Well-Being and Safety of Women report, 7 March 2019).
Earlier this month, on International Women’s Day, the 8th March, Sima Bahous, the Executive Director of U.N.Women- the U.N. body dedicated to gender equality- emphasised the leadership role that women, as well as their male counterparts, can play in conflict. “Women are not only victims of crisis, but they are also carrying their families, their communities and their nations, from fragility to stability, if we only give them the space to do so,” she said (CNBC News Report, Friday 11 March). Over the last few weeks, campaigners have argued that, as women continue to bear different and additional burdens of war, they should be represented in all decision-making platforms on de-escalation, conflict prevention, mitigation and other processes in pursuit of peace and security for the people of Ukraine and beyond. Yet I found it striking, watching the news earlier this week, how few of the world leaders who gathered in Brussels for the European Council Summit to discuss the latest response to the war were female.
For many centuries, the Church suffered from only a male perspective being used to interpret biblical passages about women and motherhood, with such verses as those in Genesis chapter 2 that describe the creation of Eve, the first woman, out of Adam’s rib being interpreted to mean that she should be his helper, the word helpmate being interpreted to mean his subordinate rather than his counterpart. In Genesis 1, which was actually written later, God commands “Let us make humankind in our image, according to our likeness; and let them have dominion…So God created humankind in his image,/ in the image of God he created them” (Genesis 1:26-27). This simple statement of the equality of the genders, made together in God’s image, and their mutual cooperation, was overlooked in favour of the folklore of the tale of Adam’s rib, partly because it described graphically the creation of a specific individual, and partly because it fitted traditional interpretations of a woman’s place (see Marina Warner, Alone of All Her Sex, (1976), p.178).
Traditional perspectives such as these, for many years, accounted for much of the objection to the ordination of women as priests. Even though it was women- many of them mothers- who did a lot of the work and kept the Church going, their role was seen as one of supporting the priest (see Linda Woodhead, That was the Church that was, chapter 3). Although this situation is obviously very different now, the number of women currently offering themselves to train as priests is going down relative to men, and the Church remains the only institution in public life that is legally allowed to exclude women from positions of leadership (see Jenny Baker, Equals (2014), p.53).
For these reasons, Mothering Sunday has a deeper significance than all the commercial hype around it, much of which only reinforces shallow and unhelpful stereotypes. It’s important that women are public figures and leaders in the Church, just as it is in secular and political spaces, so that female perspectives can be heard. Today is a day to listen to the perspectives of mothers, to celebrate them, and to thank and appreciate them, in the knowledge that being a mother is one of the most demanding challenging, heart breaking, anxiety-provoking, joyful jobs in the world.
Of all biblical mothers, the Gospel figure of Mary, Jesus’s mother, in our short Gospel reading today, is the most famous. Mary’s consent to the Incarnation, the coming of God to earth as Jesus, in Christian theology exemplifies the perfect coming together of human free will with the divine plan. Yet over the centuries, Mary’s free cooperation with God for salvation came to epitomise feminine submissiveness and obedience. When we think of Mary, more often than not, we think of centuries’ worth of artistic representation of her in lapis lazuli, rather pale and passive looking (see Marina Warner, p.177).
But, as today’s reading shows, the biblical Mary is nothing like this. There’s much more to this short reading than there seems. Mary is in the Temple as a new mother. First of all, she’s simply amazed at the reaction her new child provokes, like many new parents. Secondly, she receives the unwelcome news that her son will be responsible for the falling and rising of many, a reference to the path of suffering that Jesus and his disciples will tread before they can rise to the promised glory. And thirdly, she learns that she herself is a woman who will suffer, as “a sword will pierce [her] own soul too.” The literal translation of this is a “sword through your very life”- a violent image to reference the piercing grief Mary will feel when she watches her Son die on the cross, bravely staying with him and not deserting him out of fear like the other disciples. Being a mother in a situation of violence and conflict, as we’ve already observed, is something that women across the world know all too well today.
Mothering Sunday, then, doesn’t have to be saccharine celebration of an ideal that women, mothers or not, simply can’t live up to. Mothering Sunday is about discovering the agency of biblical women such as Mary, who were determined to act bravely and wisely even when the societies they lived in told them they had little power. It’s also a day to recognise that, although we have all had a mum, not everyone has positive associations of motherhood. Some have a difficult relationship with their mother; some may not remember their mother or ever have known her; some may have wished to be mothers but never were, or never wanted to but felt judged by society for making that choice.
We hardly ever use the word “mothering” apart from today, but it comes of course from the verb “to mother”. The picture this evokes, as opposed to the verb “to father,” which more narrowly means to beget or generate children, is of a woman with her arms wrapped around her children in protective love. As well as being an image for God, this is also an image of the Church. One of my favourite paintings of Mary is Piero della Francesca’s Madonna della Misericordia (1445) where Mary- who symbolises the Church- shelters the faithful under her robe. In the painting, the faithful look up at her with real respect (see Sarah Coakley, Powers and Submissions (2002), p.59). Mothering is a protective love that determinedly protects and loves those in her care, a love that demands our respect, that takes risks, that sticks its neck out, that takes action to protect the vulnerable and those who suffer.
Paul, in our second reading, in a beautiful passage, speaks of “the God of all consolation, who consoles us in… our affliction, so that we may be able to console those who are in any affliction with the consolation with which we ourselves are consoled by God.” When we see ourselves as the objects of God’s endlessly creative, resourceful and compassionate love- seeing ourselves as we are, as God sees us, and not as other think we should be- then the kindness and patience and forgiveness that Paul talks about as the marks of the new community in Christ, which we call the Church, can begin to grow, and develop.
On this day, whatever our gender, may we more deeply discover our capacity for mothering. And may we dare to pray that God will pierce our hearts too, that his love and consolation may open our hearts to the suffering of others, that we may listen to those whose voices that are not heard and act on behalf of the most vulnerable in our world.