Today is Mothering Sunday, which, as it happens coincides with Mother’s Day in the UK, but is distinct from it. Mothering Sunday celebrates in the first place our mother Church and then our earthly mothers. Today, then, is about ‘mothering’. This weekend, as it happens, also celebrates the Annunciation of our Lord to the Blessed Virgin Mary. It is now 9 months to Christmas!
The Blessed Virgin Mary as the Mother of our Lord is the supreme example of motherhood in the Bible. God decided that when he was going to reveal himself fully to us human beings, he was going to do it by becoming one of us. To do this, he was, as St Paul puts it: ‘born of a woman’ and for 30 years was nurtured and cared for by a woman.
You would think that this would of itself be sufficient to secure the Blessed Virgin Mary a place of respect and honour in the Church. In fact, she became instead a highly controversial figure. She remains controversial today although for different reasons depending on your particular perspective.
We need to look a little at the history. In the New Testament, there is not a lot about Mary. This doesn’t in and of itself mean anything: there is very little about the doctrine of the Eucharist, but we know it was central to the worship of the Early Church.
Mary herself was present at our Lord’s first miracle in Cana of Galilee, she was present at the Cross when he was crucified, and present on the Day of Pentecost when the Holy Spirit was given. In the years that followed, as the Church sought to express its faith and worship, Mary was given a prominent role of honour and respect. In 431, the Council of Ephesus formally proclaimed her ‘Theotokos’: God-bearer. Or, as it is more usually translated: Mother of God. The Church meant by this that Jesus as the Divine Son of God came into the world by her.
During the years following, through what are known as the Middle Ages, devotion to Mary became an important part of Christian worship and religious practice.
I have recently spoken about the European Reformation. While the reformers all recognized Mary as ‘Theotokos’ and believed in the Virgin Birth. They felt things had gone too far and that honour was being given to Mary that properly belonged to her Son. In the same way that the Church divided over issues such as ‘justification by faith’ so to Christians divided over Mary. These divisions are still with us.
In the years following the Reformation, Roman Catholics not only continued to reverence her, they accredited her with more formal titles all emphasizing the importance of her role in salvation. There are, as a result, many feast days dedicated to her.
Roman Catholics celebrate, for example, in addition to the Annunciation of our Lord to the Blessed Virgin Mary, the Immaculate Conception of the Blessed Virgin Mary, the Assumption of the Blessed Virgin Mary and her enthronement as the Queen of Heaven. She is recognized as herself a Mediator between her son and human beings. Some would even describe her as ‘Co-redemptrix’, seeing her as playing a unique and essential role in our salvation. Roman Catholics, at least officially, would reject any suggestion that they worship Mary or that, in honouring Mary, they are in any way dishonouring her son.
It has to be said, however, that the impression is sometimes given that, whatever the official position of the Church may be, the reality for many is somewhat different and that Mary occupies a position in some people’s devotions that comes dangerously near to worship.
In more recent times, however, Mary has been subject to a new line of attack in addition to traditional Protestant rhetoric. For many today, Mary is quite simply not the role model they want and certainly not one they want for women.
Mary is regarded as representing a particular male view of the ideal woman: someone who is both mother and sexually pure. Worse still, her words to the Angel Gabriel are considered to be a modern form of blasphemy: ‘let it be to me according to your word.’ Mary’s submission and apparent passivity is seen as a bad example to women who are being encouraged ‘to do it for themselves’ and who don’t need men or male permission to be the person they want to be.
Instead, another Mary is championed, by both Christian and non-Christian alike, as a more appropriate role model for our age. She is Mary Magdalene. Mary Magdalene is seen as more independent, riskier, even sexier. Admittedly, this is with the aid of some imagination and highly dubious interpretation of the Gospel records, but why let the facts spoil things?
So the Blessed Virgin Mary falls victim to Protestant fundamentalists and liberals alike. She is no use to us. Best then to consign her to history alongside other characters in the Gospel story that we pay little attention to.
I think this is both sad and a grave error. After all, God did choose this young woman to be the mother of his Son and, for a long time, she was the biggest influence in his life. One of our Lord’s last words on the Cross was to his Mother and to the disciple whom he loved: To his mother, he said: ‘Woman, behold your Son.’ And to the disciple: ‘Behold your mother.’
There isn’t time to try to unpack the significance of these words this morning, but Mary does have particular relevance for us today on Mothering Sunday. (In what I am about to say I have no wish whatsoever to denigrate the role of fathers: but it is Mothering Sunday!)
God could have chosen many different ways to reveal himself to us. The Letter to the Hebrews refers to the way God has spoken to us in the past, but now, he writes, he has spoken to us through a Son. And to do this he entrusted himself to a young woman. God not only had faith in Mary, he had faith in the value of an earthly mother.
Many here today are mothers. It has always been a challenging role. In the past, many women have died in childbirth. Nowadays, thanks to medical technology, being a mother is for many, if not all, a choice. But whereas in the past, the role was reasonably well-defined, it is so no longer. Society gives many confusing messages as to what being a mother is all about.
Quite rightly a woman’s right to be treated equally in the workplace is increasingly recognized even if there is still a long way to go. Nevertheless, with this has come, in some circles, a patronizing attitude to those women who choose not to focus exclusively on career, but to focus as well or instead on mothering. I think the time has come in the Church for us to stop telling women what they must or must not do. We are all different and what matters is that we each seek to offer ourselves, our personalities and gifts, to God.
For some this will mean one set of choices, for others a different set. But whichever choices women decide to make, what they deserve from the Church is support not criticism.
One aspect of that support is to affirm the value of mothering, in whatever way a mother has decided to express it. It is right that today we offer affirmation and encouragement to all who have embarked on this challenging and lifetime role.
We need earthly mothers, but we do need spiritual mothering as well. Often clergy will get asked: ‘Do I need to Church to be a Christian?’ Clergy are often evasive in their answer. So, for the avoidance of any doubt: ‘Do I need to go to Church to be a Christian? Yes – you do!’
Why? Because that’s how God has decided it is going to be.
God provides us with earthly families and he provides us with spiritual families. Christ Church is our spiritual family. It is appropriate that our AGM should fall this year on Mothering Sunday. It is a time to thank God for our mother Church: for Christ Church and for all who our part of her.
Finally, though, I want to return to the Blessed Virgin Mary. Not only does she remind us of the God given importance of mothers and our need for mothering, both physical and spiritual, she serves as a spiritual role model for both women and men.
Mary was the first disciple and her example provides us with an example of what it means to be a disciple. It is no coincidence that our age should not like Mary’s words: ‘Let it be to me according to your word’.
Self-fulfilment now is the order of the day and that is to be achieved by asserting our wills, demanding our rights, and doing what we want. We celebrate the successful and powerful and despise the humble and meek.
Mary chose a different way. She saw no greater path of fulfilment than doing what God wanted her to do. Hers was a path of submission and sacrifice. In the Temple, she was told that a sword would pierce her own heart also. Being a mother is never easy, nor is being a disciple, but it is to this path that we are all called to today.
Mary realized that true fulfilment lies not in asserting our will, but submitting to God’s. The God who Mary knew was the God who casts down the mighty from their seats and who exalts the humble and meek.
So today we thank God for our mothers and for our mother Church, and we ask him to help us to follow Mary along the path of submission and service. We honour the Blessed Virgin Mary, Mother of God, especially today as we seek to serve her Lord and ours:
Hail Mary full of Grace,
the Lord is with thee.
Blessed art thou among women
and blessed is the fruit of thy womb Jesus.
Holy Mary Mother of God,
pray for us sinners,
now and at the hour of our death.