Mothering Sunday can be a very difficult day to plan for if you are a member of the clergy. If you look at the card shops and in advertisements all you see is celebration of mothers who are loved and loving, families which are happy and together. But even a superficial acquaintance with reality tells us that this is not the whole story of motherhood. In reality in church on Mothering Sunday there could be children, young or old, whose mothers have left them or have died. Children whose mothers were, or are, neglectful, or abusive or just too weighed down with their own problems to be able to look after them properly. There may be mothers, who have lost children or who are estranged from their children, and mothers whose children have acted in ways that make them ashamed – imagine being the mother of Jihadi John . There may be fathers who have to be mothers as well, and stepmothers, and foster mothers, grandparents or other family members raising children. Families come in all shapes and sizes. And there will be those who would love to be mothers but are unable to have children.
The card shop version of Motherhood, all roses and kittens, just won’t do in many circumstances, and it can rub salt in the wounds for many people, which is why I am glad that this isn’t just a commercial festival but also a religious one, and one which draws on Biblical stories of motherhood which are far grittier and more complex, and often closer to reality. We may think that unconventional, fractured or blended families are a modern challenge, but actually they’ve been there throughout human history. The “Janet and John” family – Mum and Dad and 2 children living happily ever after with never a cross word spoken – is the thing that is unusual.
Family life in the Bible is very varied in its form, and often falls prey to forces beyond people’s control. Rarely is it trouble free. The readings we heard today – set for Mothering Sunday – bear that out. There was Moses – born in a time of persecution and danger, threatened from the moment of his birth to a mother who was placed in an impossible position. Pharaoh had decreed that all Hebrew baby boys should be thrown into the Nile. What could she do when she gave birth to him. You can only hide a baby for so long. But putting him the Nile herself, cradled in a lovingly made reed basket, was a very risky ploy. It could all have gone very wrong. It is a story in which a lot is left to our imagination. When Pharaoh’s daughter finds him we aren’t sure what will happen next. She realises he’s a Hebrew, one of those her father has condemned, but she decides not only to spare him, but also to bring him up as her own. What does she think will happen if her father finds out? We aren’t told. Does she cotton on that the “nurse” Moses’ sister offers is actually his mother? Maybe, but she’s obviously not going to say so. It is as if she has thought “least said; soonest mended”. Quietly, quietly she engineers a situation in which not only does Moses’ mother get to keep him till he’s weaned, but she can form a new family for him for the long-term. As her son he will be right at the heart of Pharaoh’s court, among people of power, where he will get the best protection, the best nurture, the best preparation for the role he will eventually take. A new, second family is created for him alongside his birth family, and this is the only reason he survives to adulthood.
In the Gospel reading we hear of another new family being formed. As Jesus hangs on the cross his mother and one of his closest disciples, usually identified as John, stand watching, helpless and desperate. Each is losing someone they love – a beloved son, a beloved friend. Mary is losing the man who should provide for her and protect her. Jesus entrusts them to each other. It’s not a normal arrangement. It might even have seemed a bit disreputable. After all, John is not a relative, and for a woman to live with a man she wasn’t related too would have been frowned on. But it seems it worked. For the early Christians for whom John’s Gospel was written at the end of the first century, this new family formed at the foot of the cross was meant to be a picture in microcosm of what many of them had encountered in the church. Some would have been cast out of their families of origin when they decided to follow Christ. Some may have lost their families to persecution. Some – slaves, unsupported widows and orphans – may not have had a family at all when they encountered Christian faith. Some were Jews and some Gentiles. Yet all had a place in this new family that met together to worship, to learn, and to love one another.
It seems to me that the message of the Bible, which is strewn with unconventional families, troubled families, blended families, new families based on love and choice rather than blood and marriage, is a profoundly helpful one for all of us today. It proclaims that in Christ we are all part of something far bigger than the “Mum and Dad and two children” idyll that the greetings cards and adverts depict. “On the cross” as our collect put it “Christ drew the whole human family to himself”. He showed us what love looks like, as he bound together and healed our fractured world, and he proclaimed that it can take any form we can imagine, and many we can’t. Whatever is in our minds today as we celebrate Mothering Sunday, whether we are celebrating the love of an earthly mother, or mourning the absence of that love for whatever reason, this is good news for us all.