Surely one of the most powerful pieces of art in the world is a sculpture by Michelangelo in St Peter’s in Rome, known as the ‘pietà’. Those who dismiss Mothering Sunday as sweet sentimentality should stand in front of this representation of motherhood. ‘Pity’, the literal translation of the Italian ‘pietà’, is too weak a word in English to describe what it must feel like for a mother, any mother, to hold her dead son, let alone Mary holding the crucified Jesus. The depth of emotion so wonderfully expressed by Michelangelo takes us immediately to the heart of the words of Simeon in Luke’s Gospel: “a sword will pierce your own soul too”. Listen to any mother remembering a son brought home dead from battle, or any mother bereft in one of a thousand refugee camps around the world, or any mother aghast at the impact of an earthquake or a flood as her children are lost.
Mothering Sunday today marks the fourth Sunday in Lent. Few of us make significant changes to our routines for Lent these days; if we give up anything it is probably something we should give up anyway to stay healthy. But when Mothering Sunday was established more than a thousand years ago this day marked a genuine relief from the privations of the extended fast. It was sometimes called ‘Laetare Sunday’ ‘A Sunday for rejoicing’, because it was like an oasis in a barren season, a modest celebration with family amid the weeks of serious self-denial. Even so, we can glimpse something of the mile-post signified by today. Half-way through Lent we turn for home. Even for us comfortable Christians it gets serious. These next weeks are overshadowed by the inevitability of suffering and death facing Jesus and the connected fact of our own suffering and mortality. Of course we cannot really appreciate the sense of impending crisis facing the disciples who had heard Jesus foretelling nothing but death and dishonour at the end of the road. On another occasion Jesus compared his suffering to the birth-pangs of a mother; yes there is joy at the new birth but back then many women died in labour. Such mother-love is as far from sentimentality as you can get, whatever it says on the cards today.
The 14th century mystic Julian of Norwich famously and bravely likened Jesus to a mother: “Our Saviour is our true Mother in whom we are endlessly born and out of whom we shall never come”. Such ‘mother love’ is the hallmark of Jesus and should be imprinted on us, and through us onto the world. It is this love which God vindicated by raising Jesus from death. One reason we cannot fully share the horror of that journey to Jerusalem is that for the Christian followers of Jesus these same weeks are back-lit by Easter hope. ‘Though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death…’ But here is a great mystery: what part does our suffering play in the purposes of a Christ-like God?
Why should we suffer now that Christ is raised? Has God not won a victory? Many of the Letters in the New Testament tackle this question, including the whole of the Book of Revelation which was written to raise the morale of the persecuted church. Where is this almighty God, where is this risen Jesus, where is this life-giving world-transforming Spirit we were promised? Paul writes to the church in Corinth about one of his darkest times when he felt “utterly unbearably crushed”: “we felt we had received a sentence of death so that we would rely not on ourselves but on God who raises the dead”. Even more starkly – and strangely – he writes elsewhere that his own sufferings somehow complete the sufferings of Christ and that they have a part in the overall plan of human salvation. This is not merely the age-old problem of why suffering exists at all in a world created by a loving God; that is difficult enough. But the fact that Christians suffer too, sometimes more than others because they are Christians, is doubly problematic, and has been so from New Testament times.
Which brings us back to where we are, half-way through Lent, thinking ahead to the suffering and death of Jesus himself, the labour pains of eternal life, to use our Lord’s own metaphor. Deep down we know that unless our suffering is bound up with that of Jesus and unless his suffering is bound up with ours, there is no meaning to any of it as far as faith or hope are concerned. Unless this is the action of a Christ-like God the story of Jesus of Nazareth would merely take its place among the great tragedies in history or fiction, alongside that of Socrates or King Lear. Worse still, we would be left desperate at the emptiness and perversity of evolutionary progress on this extremely lonely and vulnerable planet. What we need to know is not only that God in Christ somehow took our part in the suffering and death of Jesus of Nazareth back then, but that God continues to share with us human beings in this present time. For here is the only light that can be shone on this matter: in addressing what may be called in shorthand ‘the problem of suffering’ God does not answer the question – it is unanswerable within time and history. But God does respond to the questioner.
There is no logical way through the dilemma of what Paul calls ‘the sentence of death’, the awareness of mortality, and the dark side, the sheer frustrating finitude of it all, good and evil, light and dark. But there is an almost foolish way through the darkness and that is the way of a relationship with God himself, inside our human story for the duration of time and space, God here and now. Just as Easter is not only about the future, so the present darkness may be navigated with faith and hope and love. It is not in the end a matter for debate but for experience. God in Christ gives us not an answer but a partnership. Jesus remains Emmanuel, God alongside, through everything. This is the kind of God God is. Love drives a sword through the heart of God, not only through Mary’s heart. Mothers can glimpse this. Love hurts; but love prevails. Let this be your treasure, received with thanks and shared with all, for Jesus our mother’s sake who has brought us to life.
Revd Peter Brain