It was rather lovely that last Sunday – officially my first in the parish – the parish Eucharist was followed by a Christening. Most of you will have missed it – perhaps going home and discussing the new priest-in-charge’s sermon? – but it was a great occasion: lively, a bit noisy, and chaotic too, with the church swarming with young families. But how terrific it is in our increasingly secular time to have a young family bring their child to Christian baptism!
And today we have Mothering Sunday – another of my favourite Sundays. But not everyone’s favourite. We are beginning to learn that making too great a thing of Mothering Sunday can make single people, or those without children, feel distinctly marginalised, or even somehow lacking. So perhaps we need to remind ourselves today not to idealise motherhood, and to be wary of the huge commercialisation that is now overtaking this day, turning it into ‘Mother’s Day’ from its origins celebrating both the ‘mother church’ and the opportunity for those in domestic service (as my late aunts were) to escape from the big house and get back home to see their families. Perhaps we should bring back the old title ‘Refreshment Sunday’ in recognition of this…
The difficulty with Mothering Sunday is that we are tending more and more to romanticise motherhood, when it is the most demanding and exhausting of callings. And the happy coincidence that yesterday was the feast of the Annunciation – celebrating the visit of the Angel Gabriel to Mary – may help us get motherhood back into perspective. But first, back to last week’s Christening. Using a kind of ‘roving mike’ approach, I asked the parents of the baby what feelings parenthood created for them. Anita answered that a child brought so much worry for a mother, so much concern, such responsibility; the fragile new life utterly dependent on her devoted care. For John – a firefighter – it was sleep deprivation and constant tiredness. And in those responses I had more truth than in a dozen Mothering Sunday services where as a priest I have drawn out from the young just how marvellous and all-providing their mothers were.
And the Christian tradition of pictorial art moves relentlessly towards idealisation. The Blessed Virgin becomes an idealised figure pictured patiently and serenely with the infant Jesus. Perhaps sculptors have done better. There is a lovely statue at Fontenay in Burgundy where the infant Jesus is playing with his mother’s hair, just as our eldest grandson did: a touch of human reality. And nearer home at Ripon Cathedral there is a similar bronze piece, baby Jesus toying with the Virgin’s hair; and another with the young Jesus playing at his mother’s feet. But it may be hard, once the artists get going, for reality to break in. One recent poet, though, Charles Causley, has managed to get reality and Virgin motherhood into a slightly edgy poem:
Mary stood in the kitchen
Baking a loaf of bread.
An angel flew in the window
‘We’ve a job for you,’ he said.
‘God in his big gold heaven
Sitting in his big blue chair,
Wanted a mother for his little son.
Suddenly saw you there.’
Mary shook and trembled,
‘It isn’t true what you say.’
‘Don’t say that,’ said the angel.
‘The baby’s on its way.’
Joseph was in the workshop
Planing a piece of wood.
‘The old man’s past it,’ the neighbours said.
‘That girl’s been up to no good.’
‘And who was that elegant fellow,’
They said. ‘in the shiny gear?’
The things they said about Gabriel
Were hardly fit to hear.
Mary never answered,
Mary never replied.
She kept the information,
Like the baby, safe inside.
Mary’s silence in that verse is telling, I think. There is something powerfully personal, secret even, about any pregnancy. And just as Charles Causley manages to remind us of the reality of Mary’s situation – without, I think, irreverence – so the parents at last week’s Christening told the truth about motherhood and parenting: the anxiety, the sleep deprivation. Motherhood is joyful; but also deeply painful. One of the most powerful works of art I have ever seen is Michelangelo’s Pieta: Mary cradling her dead son; and the joyful bronzes in Ripon Cathedral I referred to earlier are complemented by another pieta in bronze. No mother can ever be entirely safe from apprehension about a child she has bought into the world. And perhaps that mingling of joy and pain that is unique to motherhood tells us something about the heart of God: joy in the creation and in humanity; but deep pain about its suffering, its sin.