Laetare 2016 and the Curious Case of the Missing Person

The Fourth Sunday of Lent, traditionally known as Laetare Sunday (from the first word of the introit) or Mothering Sunday, is almost riotous in its joy. Rose vestments, flowers, musical instruments — after the plainness of the Lenten liturgy hitherto, these burst upon our senses. Yes, we rejoice, and how! There is a problem, however, and it is all to do with the conflation of several ideas about motherhood. I have touched upon this in earlier years, notably here and here. Seeing the Church as mother is intensely difficult for some; the sentimentality that surrounds the celebration of human motherhood is also difficult. I make no secret of the fact that I find this day difficult myself, but the fact that something is difficult does not mean that we can ignore it. Indeed, the harder we find something, very often the more necessary it is to engage with it. This morning, those following Cycle C in the lectionary will have a powerful help, but it isn’t an obvious one.

The parable of the Prodigal Son, Luke 15:1—32, is a beautiful statement of God’s unfailing love and forgiveness for his wayward sons and daughters. I find I can identify both with the younger son, the complete wastrel, and the elder son, the envious sourpuss. I love poring over every detail. But it must have struck you, as it has often struck me, that one person is curiously absent: the prodigal’s mother. In fact, there aren’t any women in the story at all, if we except the elder brother’s pointed allusion to the women he assumes featured in his brother’s life of debauchery. For a Jew to tell a story about family forgiveness and reconciliation without mentioning the mother strikes me as odd. However, Luke’s story is the version that has come down to us; so that is the one with which we must engage.

If we look at the way in which the prodigal’s father is portrayed, I think we can note several characteristics we tend to identify with mothers rather than fathers: keeping a perpetual look-out for the missing child when everyone else has presumably given him up for lost; running to meet him (an absolute no-no for any dignified paterfamilias of the time); fussing about clean clothes the moment he steps over the threshold; throwing a party to welcome the prodigal home; and, perhaps most telling of all, noticing the elder son’s grumpiness and reassuring him that he too is loved. To me, this is yet another indication that God transcends all ideas of male and female, and the Church too, in the way in which she is to mediate forgiveness and mercy, is to transcend all divisions.

So, what are we to take with us from today’s celebration? I would like to suggest that all of us need to become more like the father in the parable. Each one of us is to show love, mercy and forgiveness to others, and maybe allowing ourselves to see some motherly charcteristics in the prodigal’s father may help us to think more deeply about what the Church is and how she acts in the world. The Church is not an abstraction, any more than we are abstractions. And love, mercy and forgiveness are not abstractions, either.



5 thoughts on “Laetare 2016 and the Curious Case of the Missing Person”

  1. Thank you ,Sister.
    While appreciating and agreeing with most of your comments , I think the point of view of the
    hardworking brother is worth considering .
    It might be easier to respond as the father did if you were the father. It might be much more difficult to respond in the same way if you were the brother .
    In many families, communities and
    countries lots of people find themselves in that brother’s role. It is much more challenging to respond as you suggest from that position.
    Not impossible, but challenging.

    • I see your point, Meg, but I was merely trying to show (without unduly repeating myself as I seem to have commented on this parable quite often) one way in which today’s gospel can lead us deeper into the liturgy of the day, and at the same time make a connection with our more secular celebration of motherhood in the UK. Being loving, merciful and forgiving is not usually easy for any of us, is it?

  2. I’m sure that I’ve mentioned the history of my mother absenting herself from our lives when I was aged 4 – and te subsequent consequences of years in Care and the affect that had on my life.

    I don’t want to labour that point now, just to say that this morning the Gospel interpretation by our Vicar spoke of God as both our Father and Mother – a concept which I can accept, so when I hear someone described God as She, I no longer flinch.

    All through the circumstances of my broken childhood, he was alongside me as both Father and Mother, I just didn’t have the capacity to see him/her in that way in those times.
    The 1950’s were after all, a bit of a ‘stone age’ in terms of how we understood God (which we still don’t), but more modern biblical interpretation and wider biblical literacy has given us a theology of God, which reflects kindness and love, not the ‘wrathful God’ who sadly, was preached to me in my childhood.

    Today’s Epistle and Gospel reflect God’s love for us as Mother and Father, if we choose to have him/her. And I do, thanks be to God.

    • Absolutely. Which is why in previous posts for this day I’ve tended to quote Julian of Norwich on the subject. She presents some very deep theological thinking in very striking language; so does Eckhart, but fewer English readers seem to be familiar with him.

      • I have books by Julian of Norwich and Meister Eckhart – I couldn’t get on with the latter – not sure why, perhaps I have a bad translation? Something to revisit in the future as I still have a reading list of 15 to read, before I start the latest round of Essays for the current module of the Ministry Training course.

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