Col 3.12-17, Luke 2.33-35
“As God’s chosen ones, holy and beloved, clothe yourselves with compassion…” said the first of our Bible readings today.
It’s a very good reading for Mothering Sunday, because if there is one thing mothers are notorious for it is fussing about with clothes. Fathers can do it as well, but to be honest it is more often mothers who are guilty of it. “Put a coat on – you’ll catch your death out there.” “Take your coat off or you won’t feel the benefit when you go out…” “You’re not going out looking like that, are you?” “Pull your socks up! Tuck your shirt in!…” It’s very irritating when you are a child, but, speaking as a mother, I have to say give us a break – we can’t help it! Historically it has been very much our job to keep our children warm, clean and dry, and it is hard to resist the temptation to fuss. It all springs from that moment when we realise that this impossibly tiny, impossibly fragile looking creature is totally dependant on us, its parents, for its survival. Left on its own, it has no chance. It is an awesome responsibility and my experience is that new parents usually feel totally overawed by it, and sometimes really quite scared. I certainly was. Our instinct is naturally to want to wrap our children up, if not in cotton wool, then at least in a warm blanket, to hold them tight, to put whatever protective shields we can between them and the vagaries of a world that suddenly seems very large and very frightening. Clothing them is a symbol of that desire to protect them – no wonder we fuss about it so much.
I’ve still got the first babygro I clothed my children in. I had chosen it carefully before my first born arrived to bring him home from hospital in, because it was my favourite. Somehow it then acquired a significance for me, so I used it again, a bit more battered and well-washed, when I brought my daughter home two years later. Up until then, both children had been wrapped in hospital issue clothing – it was the first thing I clothed them in, and somehow that mattered, which is why I have kept it. The tiny 5lb 14oz son who was once swamped in it is now over six feet tall, and my daughter would look pretty silly trying to get into it too at the age of 26 but that doesn’t matter to me. It was the first bit of “clothing” I did for my children, as I took on the responsibility for their warmth and wellbeing in the world.
Today we will be clothing Arthur and Jonty as part of their baptisms. It is an ancient feature of the baptism service. Not all churches observe it, but I think it is a particularly lovely gesture. We wrap the children in a white shawl after they’ve been baptised to symbolise the fact that they are wrapped in the love of God. When we come to that part of the service, as you’ll see, I use the words of a 13th century Christian writer, Dame Julian of Norwich, “As the body is clad in the cloth, and the flesh in the skin, and the heart in the whole, so are we, soul and body, clad in the goodness of God, and enclosed.”
They are beautiful words, but they’re not pious sentimentality. Julian lived as an anchorite, a sort of nun who lived in a small cell attached to a church in Norwich, at a time when the Black Death was raging across Europe. All around her people were dying – well over a third of the population of Europe was wiped out. It was a very traumatic time, and it might seem unlikely that anyone could believe they were wrapped in God’s goodness in the midst of it all, but Julian did, and famously proclaimed that “all shall be well and all shall be well and all manner of thing shall be well.” It wasn’t that she thought nothing bad would happen to her or those she cared for. She simply knew that God was with her, upholding her, and that meant that whatever happened, in health and sickness, in joy and sorrow, in life and in death, she would have the courage and strength to face her troubles. If you are deeply rooted enough in the love of God then nothing that happens can destroy you utterly. You are living from a deeper place. On the surface the storms may rage, but below that the ground is firm and trustworthy.
When we wrap these children in their shawls, we aren’t saying that we think nothing bad will ever happen to them. Baptism isn’t a magical protection against the vagaries of life. It is a reminder that through those vagaries, we are not alone, but surrounded by God’s grace, and it is this which will ultimately keep them safe – not preventing bad things happening, but safeguarding them at the deepest level so they can come through them. But of course for these children really to understand that it needs to be more than a one-off symbolic action today. Wrapping them in a shawl once is a good reminder, a good start, but clothing themselves in the goodness of God has to be something which becomes a daily habit.
As St Paul tells us it is about putting on compassion, kindness, humility and patience, day by day, living what we believe, putting it into action. Faith, hope and love aren’t learned in an instant. And just as at first others must clothe us, so at first it is those around Arthur and Jonty who will need to show them how to live like this, with gratitude for what they have, not resentment of what they lack, live with generosity of heart and spirit day by day in the ordinary things they do. Parents, godparents, family and friends, as well as the church which pledges its support to you today are all involved – it takes a village to raise a child. When they were born, their parents clothed them. Today at their baptism I shall clothe them. But in reality it is a task we are all called to do, giving the children which are the future for us all the emotional and spiritual resilience they need to meet the challenges which are sure to come their way.
In our Gospel reading today, we heard Simeon’s words to Mary. She and Joseph had brought Jesus to the Temple as a baby to perform the rituals prescribed for the new born. Simeon, an elderly man who worshipped there daily, recognised that this child would be something special, God’s Messiah. He would be a blessing to the world, but it would be a costly ministry not just for him but for his parents too – “a sword will pierce your own soul too” he warns Mary. I am sure that parents everywhere can identify with the fear those words inevitably evoke. We want our children to live perfect lives, happy, healthy and safe, but we know that life isn’t like that. However carefully we try we can’t prevent bad things happening to our children, no matter how many warm shawls we wrap them up in. What we really need to do is clothe them in love, and in the goodness of God, and teach them to clothe themselves in them too as they grow, putting on those things which will make their spirits strong. That sort of clothing is far more important than anything you can get from Mothercare. It’s clothing which never fades or wears out, and which they never grow out of.