4th Sunday of Lent - Mothering Sunday. Readings: Exodus 2.1-10; Psalm 127; 2 Corinthians 1.3-7; John 19.25b-27
Today, the fourth Sunday of Lent, has three additional titles!
The second is Laetare Sunday, which takes its name from the Latin introit, the opening text, of the Mass of today: ‘Laetare, Ieruslem’ It means ‘be joyful, Jerusalem, and all who love her!’ That infuses some joy into the Lenten fast, and is why today rose coloured vestments are worn.
This theme of taking the edge off Lent – strong purple giving way for a day to gentler rose – gives us the third title: ‘Refreshment Sunday’. The forty days of Lent are a long slog, and Refreshment Sunday helps us to ease off the Lenten rigours ready for the remaining days of Lent and the coming Holy Week.
Finally, the fourth Sunday of Lent is also known as ‘Mothering Sunday’. Very happily it usually falls around the time of the feast of the Annunciation of the Lord, the day recalling the Archangel Gabriel coming to Mary to announce that she would be the Mother of the Lord. We celebrated that day last Friday, 25th March.
Mothering Sunday has become a very ambiguous day. The original Mothering Sunday concept - about Mother Church, Mary, the Mother of the Lord and the maternal nurture of the Faith - has changed, out of all recognition, at the hands of the greetings card, confectionary and florist industries amongst others.
Mothering Sunday has mutated into ‘Mother’s Day’ and, in the process, has put huge pressures on women, both those who are mothers – labouring under the ‘Best Mum in the World’ title - those women who might yearn for a child and not have one, those women whose child has died. Mother’s Day reveals that rawness and its sensitivity.
That said, the tradition of Mothering Sunday has always taken the pains and trials of motherhood seriously, not glossing over them.
Meditation on the place of Mary in the life of the Church cannot help but lead us there. As the hymn puts it:
Sing we, too of Mary’s sorrows,
Of the sword that pierced her through,
When beneath the cross of Jesus
She his weight of suffering knew,
Looked upon her Son and saviour
Reigning high on Calvary’s tree,
Saw the price of man’s redemption
Paid to set the sinner free.
On 15th September each year is the feast of Our Lady of Sorrows. The feast flourished in the Middle Ages, a time of high infant mortality, plague, internecine war and unremitting misery. There is a huge contemporary resonance.
The feast touches on the pain of motherhood, it evokes texts such as from the prophet Jeremiah:
A voice is heard in Ramah,
lamentation and bitter weeping.
Rachel is weeping for her children;
she refuses to be comforted for her children
for they are no more. (Jeremiah 31.15)
That text is used on the feast of the Holy Innocents, when Herod killed the children under two years old, and it is a text that echoes through the ages, not least when we consider Ukraine today.
We see the mothers and grandmothers of Ukraine seeking refuge for their children; women bearing the pain of war, sharing the pain of war with husbands, brothers and sons. Consider too the pain of the mother who child has died in knife crime, gang violence or drugs: that is all too local. ‘Best mum in the world’ seems a cheap slogan in the face of those realities. Our Lady of Sorrows helps us face the pain and know that we all, men, women and children, receive the maternal love of the Mother of the Lord and Mother of his Body, the Church.
On Friday, Lady Day, Pope Francis consecrated Russia and Ukraine to the immaculate heart of Mary. This language may be unfamiliar to many Anglicans, but it is of deep value.
The Blessed Mother’s heart was indeed pierced with pain at the Crucifixion of her Son, as Simeon had prophesied. The hymn composed for Our Lady of Sorrows, Stabat Mater, puts it like this:
At the Cross her station keeping,
Stood the mournful Mother weeping,
Close to Jesus to the last:
Through her heart, his sorrow sharing,
All his bitter anguish bearing,
now at length the sword has pass'd.
By consecrating Russia and Ukraine to the heart of Mary, Pope Francis is saying that, as Jesus is in the midst of the suffering of Ukraine, so too his Mother is close at hand, with the compassion and love of a mother who has known the sight of pain.
Russia and Ukraine are bound by
deep Christian traditions, especially veneration of the Mother of God. One of
those threads is the icon of Our Lady of Vladimir, a copy of which we have in
The original icon was painted (technically
icons are ‘written’ for they are images [in Greek ikon] of the Word of God)
in Constantinople, before being taken to Kyiv, from where it was given to the
Assumption Cathedral in the city of Vladimir. It is a dreadful parody of the
point of the icon that the one waging war against Kyiv and Ukraine today is
himself named after that holy icon: Vladimir.
The Son of God suffers today for those people, and his Mother, as she always does, stands close by gazing with eyes of compassion and love.
After the Eucharist today, go and pause before the icon: see the intimacy of Mary and Jesus, cheek to cheek; see her heavy, knowing eyes gazing at you as she presents the Saviour, who is nestled in her arms, to you and all the world. Light a candle for the mothers, grandmothers and all the people of Russia and Ukraine. And pray.
Eternal Father, in the maternal heart of the Virgin Mary you give us an image of perfect compassion with your Son’s saving sacrifice; grant us a heart like hers, and let the Russian and Ukrainian peoples, at her intercession, be blessed in justice with your peace, which is not of this world. Through our Lord Jesus Christ, your Son, who lives and reigns with you in the unity of the Holy Spirit, God, for ever and ever. Amen.