The Fourth Sunday in Lent
11 March 2018
10.30 Sung Eucharist; Mothering Sunday
Canon Simon Cowling
Exodus 2. 1-10; John 19. 25b-27
I ask you to visit the cathedral. If (the statue) shocks you as much as it did me, then write to the Bishop of the diocese and tell him so.
This was the request made in 1984 by Walter Dennis, then suffragan bishop of New York. He was reacting to an almost life-size bronze sculpture of the crucified Christ which had been hung in the Cathedral of St John the Divine in New York City. The Bishop was shocked because the sculptor, Edwina Sandys, had portrayed Christ as a woman and had entitled her piece ‘Christa’. Theologically and historically indefensible was how the bishop described the sculpture. Even the fact that the sculptor was the granddaughter of Winston Churchill could not save her from episcopal opprobrium. The statue was soon unceremoniously removed from the cathedral, strapped to the top of Edwina Sandys’ sports car.
It’s worth reflecting for a moment on the bishop’s remark about the statue being theologically and historically indefensible. Although it was a good soundbite picked up by the media at the time, the remark showed a complete lack of understanding of the role of artistic imagination. Of course Jesus was male, but in her sculpture Edwina Sandys was representing the suffering of Jesus as a divine sharing of our common human condition, as something that is experienced by women as well as men. And in representing this divine sharing in human suffering through a female Jesus, Edwina Sandys was helping us to probe the theological truth that in his suffering and death Jesus reconciled to God the whole of humanity – male and female. Christa also brings home a related theological truth with great clarity: that the power of God’s reconciling love can be understood in female terms as much as in male terms. In case you are tempted to consider this to be a mere theological fad belonging to late modernity, I refer you to the words of the eleventh century Saint Anselm which we said together at the start of the service: Jesus, like a mother you gather your people to you; you are gentle with us as a mother with her children.
Anselm’s words provide us with a good link to our Old Testament reading. The story surrounding the birth of Moses can be read as a story of gentle but determined female resistance to the oppressive and archetypal male violence of Pharaoh. A mother is determined to save her baby from the death that has been decreed by Egypt’s Pharaoh for all male Hebrew children. She casts him adrift on the Nile in a watertight basket. The child is found by Pharaoh’s daughter, no less, who is equally and knowingly determined to subvert her father’s draconian decree. A deal is done with the child’s real mother and Moses, as he will be known, is saved.
The story of Moses in the bulrushes is a tale of the power of maternal love. Yet Moses’s safety can only be guaranteed by the intervention of another woman – Pharaoh’s daughter – whose love can also be described as maternal. She is not Moses’s mother, but the instinct to save a vulnerable child and enable him to be nurtured is more powerful than her instinct to obey a royal command, even though that command has come from her father.
Today’s short Gospel reading offers us another example of love that might be described as maternal. As he dies on the cross, Jesus commends his beloved disciple John and his mother Mary to each other: here is your son; here is your mother. With these words Jesus nurtures into existence a new family, the family of the church, whose bonds are rooted not in a common gene pool but in the shared love we have for the one who reconciles to God the whole of humanity. We are John and Mary; we are a community that has been nurtured into existence by the one who is gentle with us as a mother with her children, the gentle God whom we encounter in Christ.
We are comfortably familiar with the idea of God as Father – an image Jesus used scores of times in the Gospels, though it is in fact quite rare in the Old Testament writings. But consider the first sentence of the very first of the thirty-nine articles of religion in the Book of Common Prayer: There is but one living and true God, everlasting, without body, parts, or passions. This is a stern reminder to us that God is utterly beyond gender. Once we grasp that, we are released to be able to embrace images of God other than as Father as a way of understanding God and God’s love. These can helpfully include (amongst many others) maternal images and stories in scripture and the tradition The mother of whom St Anselm writes in his prayer; the Christa of Edwina Sandys’ sculpture; the instinctive action of Pharaoh’s daughter by the Nile, and the words of the crucified Christ to his mother and the beloved disciple John. Many of us will be glad to give thanks for our mothers today; some of us may have rather more ambivalent feelings. But all of us can give thanks for the mothering, nurturing, and sustaining love of God. A love which we are able to begin to discern through all sorts of words and images, but which ultimately can never be contained by them.