10.30 Sung Eucharist
The Fourth Sunday of Lent
Revd Simon Cowling
Colossians 3. 12-17; John 19. 25b-27
But you, Jesus, good Lord, are you not also a mother? Are you not that mother who, like a hen, collects her chickens under her wings? Truly, master, you are a mother.
Last week, along with all the clergy of the diocese, I received an invitation to attend a training session in the safeguarding of children. For reasons that hardly need stating, the safety and well-being of children in our churches has an extremely high priority in our new diocese. The invitation came a few days after the conviction at the Old Bailey of Polly Chowdhury and her partner for the manslaughter of Ayesha Ali, Polly’s daughter. Ayesha had undergone months of mental and physical abuse that culminated in a series of fifty separate injuries that led to her death during the school summer holidays. Our instinctive horror at the chain of events that led to Ayesha’s death was made almost unbearable by the culpable involvement of her mother in the death of her own child. It was far, very far, from the ideal of motherhood with which Mothering Sunday is associated.
Much closer to that ideal is Andrew, a remarkable man I knew in Leeds. In Andrew’s kitchen is a series of photographs of babies and toddlers, each surrounded by a home-made frame inscribed with the name of the child and a brief prayer. The photographs are of the many children Andrew has fostered over the past two decades. Andrew was widowed over twenty years ago, when both his daughters were very young. He came to a mature Christian faith in the months that followed his bereavement and was baptised and confirmed. He was caring full-time for his young family, but felt a calling to become a foster parent. His first foster child arrived in 1996. Since then Andrew has provided a loving home and a place of safety for many babies and pre-school children who were at risk of abuse or neglect. During that time nappy changes and feeding have been part of Andrew’s daily routine, though his own children have grown into young adults. His commitment and dedication to the call to be a foster parent, rooted in a clear sense of Christian discipleship, is inspiring and humbling in equal measure.
This juxtaposition of Andrew’s story with that of a mother complicit in the violent death of her daughter serves, firstly, to make the very serious theological point that our world is deeply disordered, and that we human beings do not always behave as those who are made in the image and likeness of God. The fourth century bishop and theologian Athanasius describes how the ‘handiwork of God’ is in a ‘process of dissolution’. In other words, the sinfulness of human beings, our sinfulness, unravels the goodness of God’s creation. But whatever our understanding of the nature and origin of evil, Polly Chowdhury and her partner, Kiki Muddar are living reminders of its persistent reality, and of the need for Christians to grapple with the theological challenges it poses.
And on this Mothering Sunday the contrast between the experiences of Andrew’s foster children, on the one hand, and the tragic death of Ayesha on the other, serves another purpose. It reminds us that what matters most for children in a family unit, any family unit, is the quality of the nurturing within that family. Even though nurturing, which is in fact a synonym of the word fostering, is often closely associated with motherhood, scripture teaches us that nurturing is ultimately rooted neither in gender nor in families of whatever sort, but in God’s love. This truth is the kernel of the prayer of St Anselm with which I began: But you, Jesus, good Lord, are you not also a mother? Are you not that mother who, like a hen, collects her chickens under her wings? Truly, master, you are a mother. In his prayer Anselm is drawing on some words of Jesus as he laments over Jerusalem: Jerusalem, Jerusalem … (h)ow often have I desired to gather your children together as a hen gathers her brood under her wings. And Jesus himself was drawing on an even older tradition in the Hebrew Scriptures, in which God comforts the people of Israel as a mother comforts her child and in which God is described as a mother eagle hovering protectively over her young.
We catch a glimpse of this nurturing love of God in today’s short Gospel reading. As he dies on the cross, Jesus commends his beloved disciple John, and his mother, to each other. Knowing that they are both about to lose the one whom they love Jesus creates, we might say, a new family unit that is rooted not in ties of blood but in love for and trust in him. I believe that this new family unit that Jesus creates with his words from the cross has a name: the Church, the fruit of and the continuation of Jesus’s ministry on earth. It is within the family of the Church, with its undivided loyalty to Christ, that we are set free to show, in our habits and our behaviour, the nurturing love of God to one another and to the world we serve as disciples of Jesus Christ.
In gathering together some of the fragments of what I have said this morning, I offer these thoughts. Firstly, we need to expand our intellectual and emotional view of motherhood, thinking of it less in terms of gender than in terms of the wholesome and appropriate nurture of our children. The fact that we sometimes don’t grasp this – Andrew’s story is very unusual – is greatly to our impoverishment as human beings. Secondly, we should develop our knowledge of, and appreciation for, the rich scriptural imagery associated with God as one who nurtures, who mothers. Though God is beyond gender, and our language about him can only ever be approximate, we should take our cue from scripture and be bold in our approximation. Finally, as we begin to sense from Jesus’s words on the cross to his mother and his disciple John, we must understand that no individual or family can have a fully authentic identity unless that identity is rooted in God from whom, as the writer of the letter to the Ephesians reminds us, every family in heaven and on earth takes its name. Amen.