For some reason I found myself quite literally laughing out loud at a facebook page regarding Biff and Chip. For the uninitiated, Biff and Chip are the rather bizarre names given to two characters in the first books children are given to ‘read’ at school. They are dull, boring and involve children who are named after 1970s American TV cops. Except Kipper, who is named after a fish. The gist of the joke was around the detailed way in which children are taught grammar, specifically in this case, fronted adverbials (and no, I don’t know either). Which somehow brought me to a place of wondering just how important grammar is in every day life, and then for today.
Traditionally known as Mothering Sunday but if you try to find a card for your mother with this greeting outside of a Christian bookshop you will most likely find yourself on a wild goose chase. I know because I have tried. Just like her mother before her, my own mum is only satisfied with a traditional card, but it is not for the sake of tradition that she is so stubborn, rather because there is a huge difference between Mothers’ Day and Mothering Sunday: one celebrates a person,the other an action. Nouns and verbs.
Mothers’ Day is stems from the states and is celebrated in May. Other countries follow this pattern too. It is a day for giving thanks to mothers for all they do, and for one day to stop taking them for granted. It is a day in which mothers can expect to be brought breakfast in bed, flowers, gifts and lunch out. Schools and pre-schools will have been planning homemade gifts and cards for weeks and months in the lead up, and little ones will have great difficulty in keeping the secret. The same happens for dads in June. In the lead up to both events shops, pubs, restaurants all try to encourage us to spend our Mothers’ Day pounds with them, which means that wherever you turn you will be faced with reminders of the day. This also means that if you are not a Mother it is easy to feel ostracised by society.
Not all ‘career women’ are career women by choice. They may joke that they took the money option, and perhaps that is true, but perhaps it is also a way of covering up the years of negative pregnancy tests, of early miscarriages, of diagnosis of infertility, of failed IVF treatments. Some mothers’ have buried their children or are estranged from them. Some women never met the right person to have a child with. Some may be waiting to hear if they have been accepted as foster or adoptive parents, some may have been turned down. In amidst the celebrations of the ‘perfect family’ there is pain and grief and sorrow.
Then again there are women who should be delighted with the celebrations, having a brood of their own children and shelves filled with homemade cards and unidentifiable gifts, and yet this day casts a shadow over their own hearts. Women, and men, whose parents abandoned them, or were unfit, or who died far too soon, or maybe just recently.
Mother’s Day is not always a happy occasion, not for everyone.
But the church doesn’t celebrate Mother’s Day, it celebrates Mothering Sunday, and all those who have ‘mothered’ us. Mothering Sunday is celebrated half way through Lent, and was a time when everyone was encouraged to return to their Mother church – especially those who had moved away from home to work in service or in industry. It is also known as Refreshment Sunday, a time when the Lenten fast can be relaxed, and those fresh eggs that the chickens have started to lay again, can be baked into delightful treats to be enjoyed before embarking on the second, more serious half of Lent.
Of course, for those returning to their Mother Church it was also a time to return home and visit ‘mum’ as well as ‘Mother’, and so the tradition of Mothering Sunday posies began with flowers picked from the hedgerows on the journey home.
The Bible reading set for Mothering Sunday, brings all these themes together. It is not a joyful one, we are not reminded of the ‘perfect woman’ in Proverbs 31, but of heartbroken women who never stop mothering our Lord.
We are brought to the foot of the cross. When most of Jesus’ friends had abandoned Jesus out of fear, four women remain. Jesus’ mother is there not able to let go of her firstborn son, her heart breaking as she had been warned it would, her soul indeed being pierced. There is nothing she can do to ease his pain, not wipe his brow or hold his hand as she once did when he was a child. She is a helpless observer of her son’s torture and murder. Her sister is there also, supporting and mothering her as well as her son, being present when her own son, also a fisherman and disciple, cousin even of Jesus, couldn’t face being present and feared for his life. Then there is Mary the wife of Clopas, followers of Jesus from Emmaus; little is known of them, perhaps they had no children of their own, perhaps they had viewed Jesus as the son they never had and had given him all the practical support they could afford, and had ‘mothered’ him in this way? And finally there is Mary Magdalene. The single woman who had found her meaning in Jesus and had followed him. Nurturing, mothering, him by pouring out the costly ointment to anoint and prepare him for all that was to come.
But there is one man, John, the other cousin, with whom Jesus had a much closer relationship. To this man Jesus gives a special job to do, a special role to play.
Meanwhile, standing near the cross of Jesus were his mother, and his mother’s sister, Mary the wife of Clopas, and Mary Magdalene. When Jesus saw his mother and the disciple whom he loved standing beside her, he said to his mother, ‘Woman, here is your son.’ Then he said to the disciple, ‘Here is your mother.’ And from that hour the disciple took her into his own home.
We know that Jesus had other brothers, and that his own mother would not have become completely destitute at the death of her eldest son. We also know that John was not in need of a Mother as his was very much alive, and present. Jesus, however, knew that what these people, so dear to him, needed wasn’t another figure in their lives, a noun, but the loving and nurturing relationship that perhaps Jesus had fulfilled in their lives: someone to love and to be loved by. Someone to nurture and be nurtured by. In their grief and loss and faithfulness to the end, Jesus knew that what was needed in this darkest of places was the security of ‘mothering’. A verb.
So this Sunday, spoil your mums if you can. Bring them breakfast in bed if they aren’t up at the crack of dawn looking after others, take them out for lunch if they aren’t serving behind the bar. It’s OK to do so. Just, don’t leave it there. Remember all those who have mothered you. Whether they are male or female, related to you or not. Be thankful for all those who have nurtured you in the past and continue to do so, whether they are still wit you or have gone on ahead. Feel free to grieve the mothers who have gone and those who were never there. And perhaps feel the challenge to reach out and mother others who need to be loved, nurtured and supported too.