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.