Lenten Lilies for Mothering Sunday

One of the joys of my return from hospital has been seeing the changes in the garden, albeit viewing them from a safe distance indoors. Daffodils, especially wild daffodils (the Lenten Lilies of the title), remind me of some of the ambiguities of Laetare or Mothering Sunday.

We celebrate today as a feast of joy and motherhood, sometimes descending into sentimentality, sometimes becoming so abstract that we forget that actual motherhood is hard work — frequently, smelly and tiring. The token bunch of daffs dutifully handed over to Mum may be exactly that: tokenism, but sincerely meant and with a beautiful face to it. However, to see the Church as Mother, which is what the Church herself invites us to do, is, I think, increasingly difficult because so many have experienced hurt at her hands. There is no token bunch of daffs that will quite bridge the gap between expectation and reality. Is there any way to make sense of this?

I find my own answer in the garden. The wild daffodils I like so much are planted in soil. They grow out of the Herefordshire mud and loam. For most of the year they are unseen, lying deep in the earth. They bloom briefly yet brilliantly. So with the Church. She is flawed because she is made up of flawed creatures like you and me, but she is also shot through with grace, with truly infinite possibilities we may see only rarely. She shares in the muckiness of ordinary motherhood, as she also shares its glories.

Today, let us pray for all mothers, living or dead, for those who feel they’ve failed, those who don’t understand the concept of motherhood, those who need to be set free, and for our mother the Church.


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.


Mothering Sunday 2013

Mothering Sunday is an opportunity to think about what we mean when we speak of the Church as ‘Mother’. I suspect many no longer think or speak in those terms at all, or do so, more often than not, with self-conscious embarrassment. The Church is such a male-dominated organization, it is difficult to think of any very feminine characteristics. In English we can call the Church ‘it’ and avoid all the consequences of having to think of the Church and motherhood together. If we do, I think we lose something important.

First of all, there is that sense of personal connectedness. Sometimes people rage and rant about ‘the Church’ as though they had no part in her. The Church is then always something other, something to be resented, objectified, frankly treated with a kind of contempt. I can understand a secularist wanting to do that, but not a Christian. That stubborn female pronoun, that awkward designation as mother, is no mere accident of language. It reminds us that we are reborn in the waters of baptism which the Church administers, are nourished by the Word and Sacraments of which she is dispenser and guardian, and are finally led into the Kingdom through her prayers. Our salvation is personal. God doesn’t redeem abstractions— he redeems us.

The essential characteristic of the Church is that she is always feminine in relation to God. Every one of us, male or female, is feminine before God, a fact we often ignore because of our very human concerns about power and authority. Ultimately, each one of us will stand before God, utterly unable to help ourselves and reliant on grace mediated through the Church. Julian of Norwich saw in that moment the necessity of God’s being our Mother, as he is also our Father; and the connection between them is itself to be found in the Church*. That is not at all the same as some of the gendered theological reflection of recent decades, which has sometimes stretched orthodoxy to breaking-point. It is precisely because the Church is the locus in which we encounter God and experience grace that our thinking about her matters so much and needs to remain true to Christian tradition. It is also, incidentally, the reason why we celebrate the Church with such love and joy today — a love and joy which has spilled over into a celebration of all our mothers, living and dead.

Let us give thanks for this gift of motherhood, both natural and divine.

* I wrote about this more fully last year, here.Facebooktwitterredditpinterestlinkedintumblrmail