A Sermon from Sherborne
Love in the coinage of tears
A sermon for Evensong on Mothering Sunday, preached in Sherborne Abbey on 26 March 2017 by the Vicar, Canon Eric Woods
I cannot hide the fact that I try to avoid preaching on Mothering Sunday. The only reason I am in the pulpit tonight is that the appointed preacher is unable to be here. Of course, Mothering Sunday was never meant to be solely about mothers – and its fate was only sealed when it was overtaken by the American “Mother’s Day”, which in the States is a different day entirely. In that change is my sadness.
The original Mothering Sunday grew out of the medieval tradition of an annual visit to one’s Mother-church, taking an offering for presentation at the altar there. That this was done at the mid-point of Lent made it something of a break in the penitential season. So Midlenting Day, as it was called, became a special treat, and was also known as Refreshment Sunday or Laetare Sunday, from the Latin word for ‘rejoice’. It was only in Victorian times that this evolved into the custom of sons and daughters living and working far from home joining their families for the day, bringing small gifts for their mothers.
So far, so good. And I would certainly want today to give thanks not just for Mother Church, but also for my mother, and for all that she did for me, and for all that she meant (and still means) to me. I would want to celebrate the joy and fulfilment of motherhood, and family life, and marriage. All these things are (or should be) life-enhancing, life enriching. They deserve to be celebrated and affirmed more often than they are. They also need to be guarded from the constant attacks of those who appear to resent or despise ordinary, normal, stable married and family life.
And yet, and yet: as a pastor I know that for many women (and men too) this day underlines their silent, personal, griefs and sorrows. Quiet tears are being shed by many on this day: tears for children who have died, tears for children who have rejected their parents, tears for the relationships that never happened, tears for the children that never were.
Children that never were: that is a condition my wife and I know well, which is why I find this day so painful. I always remember on this day a poem by that famous Anglican poet-priest Geoffrey Studdert-Kennedy – the First World War padre known as ‘Woodbine Willie’ (who was ultimately a father of three) in which he captures the emotions of a woman who has waved her husband to war, never to see him again. She sits and imagines a child – their child – on her knee:
I can see two eyes that soften as they seek to fathom mine,
I can see two strong lips trembling to a smile,
I can see a dear face lighten with a human love divine,
And sweet mem’ries bear my burden for a while.
Then a downy head comes seeking for the pillow of my breast,
And a gleeful voice calls chuckling for its Dad,
And with two small arms around it my soul sinks back to rest,
Singing nonsense to the child we never had.
So yes, there will be tears today. And I haven’t finished yet. What about the words of the late and much-lamented rabbi Lionel Blue about the longing of so many gay people for the joys of children and family life? His comment haunts me, that at a time when religious leaders pontificate about the public’s lack of enthusiasm for marriage, home and family, so many lesbians and gays are eager for all three. They ask for bread. We give them a stone.
There will also be tears for mothers who have loved and been loved and are now sorely missed; but there will also be tears for mothers who have loved too much and for those who have not loved at all. So much heart-break: is it any wonder that so many of our folk absent themselves from church on this particular day? I know so many of them. I am their pastor too.
Nevertheless, for all that, Mothering Sunday remains the celebration of something which is part of the tissue and fabric of our lives. Of course family relationships go wrong. Of course they can be maddening. Of course they cause us pain. I vividly remember as a pompous seven-year old reminding my long-suffering mother that I hadn’t chosen her, that I hadn’t had a say in the matter at all, and the implication was, of course, that given the chance I would have chosen better. But it is precisely the freedom to say these silly spiteful things that makes the family so special. Mother, father, son or daughter: we all put up with each other’s foibles and peculiarities, moods and tempers – the things which we couldn’t endure for five minutes in anyone else. We know each other’s weaknesses and failings better than anyone else, and that mutual knowledge ought to be enough to keep us from any false idealism about Mothering Sunday. If only we would realise it, we have something more precious: a real perception of the way in which we are part of one another. So the important thing to hold on to is that respect for one another as individual human beings without which even the most loving of families can be possessive, claustrophobic and eventually self-destructive.
Which brings us to the Holy Family itself, that icon of family relationships as overlaid with glitter and sickly-sweet sentiment as the worst ‘Mother’s Day’ card. How utterly absurd that this should be so. A teenage girl, pregnant before her marriage; forced onto a long journey on the back of a donkey in the last stages of that pregnancy; compelled to flee with her betrothed and the baby as refugees to a foreign land: it’s not exactly chocolates and roses. And then the chilling prophecy ‘a sword will pierce your own heart too’, a prophecy fulfilled on that first Good Friday as Mary waited at the foot of the Cross and watched the terrible agony of her dying son. Throughout all that time she never tried to manipulate him, to prevent him from fulfilling his destiny, or to protect herself from the hurt of motherhood. It is in this sense that we can find in her mother’s love an icon for all our loving. She teaches us that love is vulnerable, that love suffers, that love takes risks. If we didn’t love, if we couldn’t love, then sickness, death, broken relationships, infidelities, rows – all these would matter far less to us. But we do love, and so they hurt acutely.
Mothering Sunday, placed so near to Holy Week, reminds us that a relationship, any relationship, without pain is likely to be a relationship without love. In fact if we love, then we put ourselves in the very path of pain and suffering. To love is to put yourself at risk, and your heart will often be wrung and sometimes it will be broken. But we cannot wish it any other way, for we are made in the image of a God of love – and love, real love, costs: it is a very expensive commodity, and sooner or later we have to pay for it in the coinage of tears. But we cannot wish it any other way.