Lectionary Passages –
Luke 2 vv 33 – 35 and John 19 vv 25 – 27
The Sharp Sword of Sorrow for our Mothers
I have spent most of this week feeling desperately sorry for the Queen. Hasn’t she had enough? A ninety-four year old, with an absolute continuing commitment to duty and service but with the anxiety surrounding her ninety-nine year old husband in hospital for a protracted stay with a heart problem. In the not too distant past, Charles and Diana’s divorce, Andrew and Sarah Fergusson’s divorce, Anne and Mark Philip’s divorce, Diana’s death, all the questions that still swirl around Andrew and his links and friendships, all of the apparent trauma surrounding Harry and Meghan’s departure for America and now that interview. A mother – and a grandmother, who knows full well the sharp sword of sorrow.
On Wednesday morning I spent time saying prayers with a family at a graveside in our local cemetery. Their twenty-three year old son had been viscously murdered in a particularly brutal racist attack only just over a mile away from where I live. They are a Sikh-Christian family whose line originates in northern India but they are long established in this country. I had been privileged to conduct the funeral in 2019 and last Wednesday was the second anniversary of his death. We gathered again at his grave. Grey clouds wept heavy rain – rain that matched the tears of his mother. Another mother who knows the sharp sword of sorrow.
While drinking my mid-morning coffee and listening to Radio Two’s Pop Master Quiz, my eye was caught by a wren in the garden. Flying backwards and forwards to the ivy that festoons part of our garden wall, it must have been the female carrying delicate material to line her nest. I wondered about that tiny bird – almost the smallest of our British birds. Having completed the nest, she will lay up to eight eggs, spend over two weeks incubating them and then another three frantically feeding the chicks until they fledge and fly. And then watch as some of those nestlings are likely to fall prey to our next-door neighbour’s two marauding cats. Is it an unworthy anthropomorphism or do wren mothers know anything like our human sword-sharp sorrow?
One of the most dramatic and powerful theatrical productions that I have ever watched was a one-person show based on Colm Toibin’s book ‘The Testament of Mary’. Fiona Shaw held us absolutely spellbound for 90 minutes without leaving the stage; at the end there was a pin-drop silence – we were all so moved by what we had witnessed. She gave us a completely new angle on Mary, a new understanding, as she railed in real anger at her son and wailed in anguish at his crucifixion. As Simeon had predicted, Mary knew the sharp sword of sorrow.
I have chosen to focus not only on readings for Mothering Sunday rather than on those for the fourth Sunday in Lent, but also to suggest both Gospel passages that are given as alternatives. They are very short, and it is worth reading part, at least, of the surrounding passages too to set them in context. It is Mary who is one of the central characters in these passages.
I love the story of Simeon and Anna, if for no other reason than that I see in these two very aged people a saintly persistence in faith and faithfulness that lasts to the very end of life. As a good Jewish couple, Mary and Joseph took Jesus to the Temple in Jerusalem for the prescribed ceremonies at the birth of a child. Again, where else could Luke have heard about this unless it was from Mary herself?
For Simeon, after years of waiting and longing, there was something within him that told him that in this tiny child God’s purposes would come to fruition. He breaks into a psalm of praise – what we know as the Nunc Dimittis – ‘Now Lord, let your servant depart in peace, my eyes have seen your salvation’. Then a Blessing and a warning about the sharp sword of sorrow that will pierce Mary’s heart.
It comes true. John’s finely detailed description of the scene of the crucifixion includes the picture of four women close to the foot of the cross. Among them was Mary – the mother of Jesus. What did it cost Mary to stand there and watch her eldest son die in such a bloody and barbaric way? What did she really think, what did she really feel? How sharp was the sword of sorrow for her?
At least Jesus, in his last moments, was alive to her pain. He had prayed for forgiveness for those who had crucified him – and others. He had spoken words of assurance and promise to one of those crucified alongside him. Now his closing eyes focus on his mother and in deep concern and compassion he creates a bond between her and the one who in John’s Gospel is called ‘the disciple he loved’. He dies knowing that she is being cared for by John.
There are some connotations of Mothering Sunday being linked to people, especially those working away from home, returning at this, the mid-point of Lent, to attend their ‘mother church’, or people from local parish churches attending Services in the mother church of the diocese – the Cathedral. Most of our focus, however, is on our own mothers. In our heart of hearts, we recognise that our mothers know pain and sorrow – and that at times we have been the cause of that. Families are complex units of human life and the news headlines this week have again brought home that truth.
If it is true that Jesus is the bearer of our sins, isn’t also true that we can, with equal accuracy, describe our mothers as the bearer of our sorrows, which sometimes are as sharp as swords. We see it in Mary, we see in our own mother.
Thank God for our mothers.
Bryan Coates March 2021
PS I started sharing these Reflections on the fifth Sunday of Lent – Passion Sunday, as we entered the first lockdown almost a year ago. This might be the last one for the time being. We are planning to resume ‘live’ worship in at least some of our Circuit Churches and I now have a commitment to prepare sermons and services for those churches for the next few Sundays. Thank you for staying with them.