Sunday, 31 March 2019

Scary Mamas: Mothering Sunday

Audio version here 

Exodus 1.8-10,13-22, Luke 1.39-56

On this Mothering Sunday I’ve put some pictures in our service sheets of a very famous mother, probably the mother who has been painted, drawn and sculpted more often than any other mother in history. It’s Mary, the mother of Jesus.

 ‘Taymouth Hours’,c.1325–40: 

But the images I’ve included aren’t , perhaps, the ones we’re most used to. We expect to see Mary humbly receiving the news that she will bear the Son of God from the Angel Gabriel, or tenderly cradling her child in the stable in Bethlehem. We expect her to look serene, gentle, loving, tender. But these images are very different!

In the one on the front of your service sheet, Mary has handed baby Jesus to a convenient angel while she wrestles the devil to the ground. In the one inside the sheet she’s landing a well-aimed punch on his nose. This is one scary mama.

c. 1240
The pictures come from Medieval Books of Hours, ancient collections of prayers which people used for their personal devotions.  Books of Hours were especially popular with women, and maybe that’s why the illustrators have included these particular images – the women who used these books knew how tough mothering was. They wouldn’t be convinced by a Mary who was all sweetness and light!

The reality of motherhood is that is isn’t all about cuddles and kisses. It’s also about protecting your children, standing up for them, being strong for them. Mothering is a demanding job and often quite scary. Often new mothers (and fathers too, of course) will say that having children has woken them up to the dangers of the world, and the fragility of life, not just for their own children, but for other people’s children too. It’s an alarming business, bringing up children, and you soon discover that you need to be strong, fierce, brave, stubborn and cunning, as well as kind and gentle. It often unlocks in people a hunger for justice and for peace in the world, because they know that this is the world their children will have to live in. Of course there are plenty of people who don’t have children who also care passionately about the world, and mothers and fathers who don’t care, but holding a child in your arms, a child that is utterly dependent on you, is often a powerful wake-up call not just to care for your own flesh and blood, but for all those who are vulnerable.

These images of Mary aren’t just about her fighting for her own son. The Bible tells us that her vision was much broader than this, as we heard in our Gospel reading today. In it, Mary sings of the child she is carrying in her womb. It’s a song that is often called the Magnificat, from the Latin version of its opening words “Magnificat anima mea dominum” My soul magnifies the Lord!

She sings about her child, who is going to bring down the powerful from their thrones, lift up the lowly, fill the hungry with good things, and send the rich away empty. He will bring in a kingdom of justice – good news for those who have been oppressed, but challenging for those who have been doing the oppressing. She rejoices not just in what her child will do for her, but in what he will do for others. That’s what inspired these images of Mary the warrior, Mary giving Satan what for.

You don’t have to believe in an actual physical devil, with horns and a tail, to get the message these images convey. The demons she wrestles with stand for all that is wrong in the world – greed, prejudice, injustice, hatred…all the things that sour and twist life, making it less than it ought to be. In saying yes to God when Gabriel asks her to bear God’s son, Mary lands the first punch on those forces of evil, announces the beginning of the end of their power.

Of course, I’m not advocating actual violence, and as far as we know Mary never actually struck anyone in anger, but these images remind us that she faced very real struggles throughout her life - it wasn’t a play-fight . She faced suspicion when she got pregnant. She, Joseph and Jesus became refugees in Egypt to escape the murderous King Herod. The Gospels tell us that she agonised as she watched him court danger and controversy in his ministry, longed for him to shut up and stay safe. Eventually she watched as her son was arrested, beaten and killed, helpless to do anything to protect him. But she stuck with him, and with his rag-tag bunch of followers – she is present with the disciples when the Holy Spirit comes down on them on the Day of Pentecost, after Jesus has ascended into heaven. Everything was against her, but, as the slogan puts it, “nevertheless, she persisted.” The forces of evil weren’t  going to get the better of her! She was a woman with guts and passion.

She stands in a long line of mothers who have been equally strong through the ages, mothers like those who have turned up every week in the Plaza de Mayo in Buenos Aires  to protest against the regime that took away their grown up sons and daughters because of their political views – the mothers of the disappeared. The military dictatorship of the 1970s made it illegal for people to gather in groups of more than three, so they marched in pairs, wearing distinctive white headscarves, calling for the government to tell them where their children were. And they kept on marching, week after week after week until the regime fell, and still they march, to expose the injustice that has gone on since then. The ruling elite had military power on their side, but that was no match for bunch of determined, angry middle-aged mothers. Their fierce love for their children was stronger than the evil of the regime.  They found a way.

So did the women we met in our first reading, from the Old Testament book of Genesis. The Egyptian Pharaoh was jealous of the Israelites living in his land, migrants who’d come to Egypt during a famine many generations before. He wanted to get rid of them, so he ordered the midwives who delivered their babies to kill any baby boys as soon as they were born. But those midwives – we have their names, Shiprah and Puah - weren’t having it. How could anyone ask women who had devoted themselves to bringing life into the world, to do that?

Pharaoh seemed all-powerful, but these women were fuelled with righteous anger, and sharp wits. They looked Pharaoh in the eye and told him a barefaced falsehood, that the Hebrew women were stronger than Egyptian women, and had their babies too quickly. By the time they got there, it was too late, they said, shrugging their shoulders. Pharaoh appears to have been stumped by this, at least for a while. They couldn’t save every child, but for those they did save it meant life rather than death. We don’t know if they were mothers themselves, but we see in them the same fierce love and courage that Mary had. And one of those baby boys who escaped death, perhaps because of them, eventually grew up to become the man who delivered the Israelites from slavery, Moses. He owed his life to a bunch of women who decided they were fed up with being oppressed, and weren’t going to stand for it any more. 

Anger can be a bad thing, fuelling violence and hatred. But it can also be the energy that gives us strength to do what is right, to defend those who can’t defend themselves. In the Bible God is often portrayed as fierce in her love, like a mother defending her children, angry at injustice and oppression, like those brave midwives, like Mary. It may not be a comfortable image, but it’s just the image we need when we’re struggling to make the world a better place for our children, and for everyone else’s children too.

So this Mothering Sunday, of course we give thanks for the gentle and tender mothering we receive, from whoever mothers us – female or male, biologically related or not. But we also give thanks for those who stand up for us, fight for us, support us when the going is tough, for the fierce mothers in our lives, whoever they are or have been.

And we pray for the courage to be fierce in our own mothering too when we need to be, that we will stand up for those who are vulnerable, that we will wrestle with evil, and not give up, just as our fiercely loving, passionately tender God does not give up on us.


More about the origins of Mothering Sunday and about these images here.

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