The history of Mothering Sunday goes back to the 16th Century when the practice of returning to one’s “mother” church on the fourth Sunday of lent began. The “mother“ church was either the church of one’s Baptism, or the nearest parish church, or the nearest cathedral.
Over time the focus of the day changed to that of giving special honour to the mothers of children. And that is certainly the sense in which we recognise Mothering Sunday today throughout various parts of the Christian world.
When Jesus was dying on the cross, he gave the care of his mother, Mary, over to the apostle John. Subsequently, Mary became to be regarded in popular piety as the mother of the church and therefore, of all Christians.
So on this day when we honour mothers everywhere, it makes sense that we might reflect for a short time on the woman who has come to be regarded as the mother of us all. What sort of person was Mary? What can we learn from her about how to be faithful disciples of her son Jesus?
The tradition of the early Church was that John the Apostle eventually settled in Ephesus, in western modern-day Turkey. Elements of the tradition also suggest that he was later exiled or fled to the Isle of Patmos, off the Turkish coast, where he wrote the Book of revelation. That view is contested, but it still holds a strong following amongst Eastern Orthodox believers.
And the tradition that he lived at Ephesus, and that he took Mary to his house is borne out today by the house in the hills around Ephesus which is revered as the house of Mary. While the bona fides of that claim do not stand up to historical scrutiny, it does witness to a deep appreciation of Mary amongst the people of that part of the world.
Mary is also honoured in the Eastern Orthodox tradition by her portrayal in countless icons. We need to remember the difference between an icon and an idol. An idol is something that is worshiped as if it is a god itself. An icon always points away from itself to God. So Mary is not the object of worship in an icon, but rather a vehicle for drawing our eyes off to the God whom she so lovingly served.
And if we want to reflect upon Mary’s life as a faithful witness to God, an icon of God, then we have plenty of evidence in the gospels upon which to draw.
The first few instances are found in Luke’s Gospel. In Luke 1.26-38, we have the account of the Annunciation. We can only imagine the fear of a young village girl, possibly only 12 to 15 years of age, when faced with the daunting prospect of being the mother of the Son of God. Her response to the angel Gabriel inspires us to be as open and accepting when faced with god’s call to us: “Here, I am, the servant of the Lord; let it be with me according to your word”. …” let it be with me according to your word”.
Immediately after this event, in Luke 1.39-56, we read the account of Mary’s great act of practical charity in heading off to help her cousin Elizabeth who has been blessed with pregnancy in her later years. And the evangelist sees fit to place on her lips the beautiful prayer of hope for the poor, the Magnificat, based so closely on the prayer of Hannah from the First Book of Samuel.
Luke next describes Jesus’ humble birth to Mary in a foreign town to her home. Once again, we can be struck by the fortitude required of this young girl, giving birth for the first time in the poorest of circumstances. Luke simply tell us that Mary “treasured all these words and pondered them in her heart”. What could possibly be in store for her tiny son that she had brought into the world?
Despite the hardship which Mary no doubt experienced in giving birth to her firstborn, we next find her taking her baby to the Temple in Jerusalem to present him to the Lord and for her own purification. Luke tells us that this took place in accordance with the law of Moses. And so, Mary shows herself to be a faithful Jew, living and acting in accordance with Jewish practice of the Law. And before she leaves the Temple, the old man Simeon warns her that “a sword will pierce her own soul too” as she brings up the boy Jesus.
After the passage of some years, when Jesus was twelve, we hear Luke’s next account of Mary’s parenting of this remarkable son. Luke 2.41 begins: “Now every year his parents went to Jerusalem for the festival of the Passover”. Once again, we are informed by this passing remark that Mary is a faithful Jew. She makes the journey to Jerusalem every year as Jesus is growing up. We can imagine that the household that she manages is one where the faith of Israel is to the fore in every regard. Mary expresses the anxiety that she felt in Jesus’ remaining in Jerusalem. What mother would not be terrified to think that her young son had gone missing in such a large and potentially dangerous city? Again, the episode finishes with her “treasuring all these things in her heart”.
We have other accounts of Mary’s interactions with Jesus like her bringing to his attention the wine shortage at the wedding feast of Cana. We also have instances of her and her other family members coming to get Jesus because they have heard accounts that make them think that he might be coming apart.
And then, this life of faithful motherly care for Jesus finds her standing with broken heart at the foot of the cross on which hangs this wonderful boy of hers; this son gifted to her by the Holy Spirit; this son whom she has loved with a pure mother’s love from the time of his miraculous conception. And in his agony, Jesus makes provision for her care with the younger son of Zebedee – John. And in doing so, gifts her to the world as the mother of all.
And it is good for us to reflect upon this remarkable Jewish village girl, Miriam of Nazareth, whose faith in God led her to risk everything in her willingness to carry and bear the Son of God – Jesus, the Christ. It is good for us to reflect upon her undying love for her son through all of the challenges that his life threw her way; through all of the pain that became hers because of her total love of her son.
She stands as the first among the saints and a model to us all of what the true disciple of Christ is like.
“Hail, Mary, full of grace. The Lord is with you. Blessed are you among women and blessed is the fruit of your womb, Jesus”.
Fr Allan Paulsen
Priest in Charge
St Matt’s Anglican, Holland Park