Sermon preached at St Swithin’s Compton Bassett, 11th March: Mothering Sunday
1 Samuel 1.20-28 & Luke 2.33-35
This fourth Sunday of Lent, half-way through the austere season leading up to Easter, is also Mothering Sunday. Traditionally it was a day when children, daughters mainly, were given a day off to visit their mother and family. However, the ‘mothering’ part of this Sunday has its roots in a tradition that didn’t have much to do with our biological mothers.
In the old days, when regular worship in parish churches was still more part of the pattern of life, it was deemed to be important once a year for people to return to their ‘home’ or ‘mother’ church, instead of worshipping at the local parish church. Naturally, this became a good reason for a family reunion, when those who had ‘flown the nest’ so to say, came back home to worship.
It is also thought that those who returned home, often being still children sent off to work elsewhere, picked up flowers as they walked along the country lanes, to give to their mother as a small gift. So, that’s a bit of history around Mothering Sunday that may help put our readings and worship this morning into context.
Both lectionary readings this morning are appropriately chosen, as they are both about mothers and their sons. In the reading from the first book of Samuel, we hear how Hannah brings names Samuel her son as he is born and presents him in the temple after he has been weaned. This would normally have been after a couple or even three years. She names her son Samuel, which is thought to be a composition of the Hebrew words for ‘name’ and ‘God’, and the name either means ‘Name of God’ or ‘God has heard’, hence Hannah’s words that she had asked for him of the Lord.
Also in the short Gospel reading from Luke’s Gospel we hear how a boy is presented in the temple. This time it is Joseph and Mary who have brought Jesus to the temple according to the Jewish custom. Simeon, who has been waiting for this moment all his life, is guided by the Holy Spirit to come into the temple, and this morning we hear how he blesses the child and speaks this remarkable prophecy: “‘This child is destined for the falling and the rising of many in Israel, and to be a sign that will be opposed so that the inner thoughts of many will be revealed—and a sword will pierce your own soul too.”
These words are spoken to Mary, his mother, who in Luke’s Gospel often represents the people Israel as a whole. Whether that is the case here or not, in either case, these are harsh words: a sword will pierce your own soul too.
Both mothers, Hannah and Mary, have to make a large sacrifice to allow their sons to do what they are meant to do and to be who they are meant to be. Hannah leaves her wished-for child in the temple, being only two or three years old. And Mary hears how her son is blessed, but in a way that already foretells the cost at which this blessing will come.
I would like to suggest this morning that what we hear in these readings is not about the particular future of these two children and the cost to their particular mothers, but it tells us something much more profound about the complexity of family life and the sacrifices parents are asked to make to allow their children to be who they are meant to be, to follow God’s call in their lives.
As Christians, we believe that we are all uniquely made in the image of God. That we are called to follow in Jesus’ footsteps in our own particular and unique way. Yet, also, we are all born from a mother, who in most cases nurtures us through our childhood. And even if not, we still receive the gift of life through the person who nurtured us for nine months in her womb.
Just as in our readings, in our daily lives, we can sometimes feel a conflict between the two. I myself am not a parent, so I can only imagine how difficult it is to nurture children, provide them with a safe and loving environment, and yet give them the freedom they need to grow up to be loving and whole people themselves.
When do we make decisions on their behalf, and when are they ready to make decisions themselves are questions all parents will have wrestled with at some point, I would assume. And indeed, in some cases, children almost seem to be destined to pierce the souls of their parents. Again, I can only speak from my own perspective and experience, but I feel strongly that the Church of England is where I belong. I can only imagine how hard this is on my parents, who live in The Netherlands, who I guess on the one hand like to see me flourish, but on the other hand would love me to live just a bit closer.
For all of us, being children ourselves, children of our parents and children of our heavenly Father, these questions are real too. What are we meant to be doing, and who are we meant to be?
Some people give up work to look after elderly parents, and they will have asked themselves what the right decision was: to serve their parents by caring for them, or to serve others through the work they did. Those questions don’t have easy answers, and it is important to remember too that the answers will be different for different people at different times and stages in life.
The season of Lent is a time in which we can particularly reflect on these questions: are we doing what we are meant to be doing, and are we trying to be truthful to who we are and in our relationship with God and others? This fourth Sunday of Lent, the half-way point, Mothering Sunday, is the day in which the gravity that can come with this reflection can be momentarily lifted as we give thanks for what we have been given, particularly by those who have born and nurtured us.
Because no matter our individual paths and vocations, we are all called to be thankful. In our collect last week, we prayed that we may find the way of the cross ‘none other than life and peace’. May we find the same to be true about our paths in life: not always easy, often complicated, but we can be reassured by the fact that God is in there with us. Jesus walked the way of the cross before us, and he will walk with us, no matter where we go.