Sunday 14 March 2021
Fourth Sunday in Lent / Mothering Sunday
Readings: Exodus 2:1-10, Luke 2:33-35
This is, tragically, our second Mothering Sunday of not being together here in the church building. That is slightly skewed by the fact that Easter is a bit earlier than it was last year. Nonetheless, when we were put into lockdown last March and, at that time, barred from being in church at all, I am sure that none of us thought, in our wildest speculations, that we would still not be here a year later. Not much longer, God willing.
I always enjoy our normal Mothering Sunday services – especially when we have the school choir sing and the uniformed organisations attend and there are lots of parents and then, of course, there is the wonderfully chaotic time of the blessed flower posies being taken around the church. It is truly a joy and I do pray that we can recapture some of that spirit next year and rebuild it into the future.
However, I am acutely conscious that service does run the risk of perpetuating or amplifying a certain image of motherhood, childhood, parenthood which may not be true for all and may even be a cause of real pain for many.
Like most of us I receive an awful lot of marketing emails from loads of companies but this year, for the first time ever, I have noticed that many of them have given the choice of opting out of Mother’s Day marketing on the basis that some may find them difficult to see.
The reality is that apple pie and posies of flowers are not a universal experience of motherhood or parenthood.
It can be a hard time for those who have lost a parent.
For those who may have had a difficult relationship with a parent.
For those who may have been abused by a parent.
For those who may have lost a child.
For those who may never have had a child.
Today we do think about the love of mothers but our readings from the bible both illustrate that it is more complex, and can be more painful, than we often like to admit.
Last week we had the ten commandments which were brought down Mount Sinai by Moses, but today we step back a little in time and hear the story of Moses’ infancy.
The story of Moses in the basket which is a story with which most of us have been familiar since childhood. It is a wonderful story of a mother’s protective love for her child but, like most of the bible stories that we learnt as children, again a bit like Noah’s ark from a few weeks ago, there is always more to the story than we may first appreciate.
The story of Moses as a child takes place in ancient Egypt at the time of the Pharaohs and there had been a substantial Hebrew community living in Egypt since the time that Joseph had been sold into slavery by his brothers. However, as the generations passed, Joseph was forgotten, the community of Hebrews grew and a new Pharaoh became afraid that this ethnic minority was becoming too numerous to be controlled. First he put the Hebrews into slavery and then he ordered that all male babies be killed at birth by the midwives. I did warn that it wasn’t all apple pie and posies. But it does get better because this is the point when a female conspiracy of resistance to Pharaoh’s inhuman orders kicks in. First the midwives failed to carry out the order and claimed that the Hebrew women were much stronger than Egyptian women and always had their children before the mid-wives had time to get there!
Pharaoh then ordered that all male babies be thrown into the Nile and that brings us to the starting point of this morning’s reading. Moses’ mother gave birth to him and, rather than obeying Pharaoh’s command, she hid him from the authorities for three months. However, as we know, babies have a tendency to get bigger and more noisy and thus Moses became more difficult to hide. We aren’t told precisely the conditions that these people were living in but the conditions must have been tough because eventually Moses’ mother decides that she has no option other than to put Moses into the Nile. But, as we know, she does not throw him into the Nile as Pharaoh intended; rather she put him in a waterproof basket.
I mentioned Noah’s ark a moment ago and, when God gave Noah the building instructions for the ark he said that it should be coated with pitch (Gen 6:14). When Moses’ mother made the basket for him to go in we are again told that it was coated in tar and pitch (Ex. 2:3). We could think of Moses’ basket as a mini-ark. God had saved his people from destruction through a Noah’s ark, and now he was saving them again through Moses in a mini-ark. If one wanted to take that further it also got me thinking about the ark of the covenant which housed the ten commandments, intended to save the people, Mary as the Ark of Jesus and then Christ’s body the Church as the Ark of the world. But that may be for another day.
Moses’ mother created this mini-ark, put her 3-month-old baby into it and placed it strategically amongst the reeds.
Some of the children’s books and films make it look as though Moses’ basket floated down a torrential river and was only caught up in the reeds and was found quite by chance. In fact nothing could be further from the truth and Moses’ mother was much more careful and loving than that – she placed the basket where she knew it would be found and she had her daughter watch over the basket to make sure that it was alright. How did she know it would be found? Well, Pharaoh’s daughter came down to bathe in the Nile at exactly the right place to see the basket. Now, I suspect that Pharaoh’s daughter coming to bathe in the river was not a random event but, rather, it probably happened either every morning or evening and everyone would know where and when it took place. It certainly looks to me as though Moses’ mother knew exactly what she was doing and that she meant Moses to be found by Pharaoh’s daughter.
That probably sounds like a high-risk strategy – entrusting your baby to the daughter of the person who ordered all such children to be killed. However, it seems that Moses’ mother was a good judge of character. And this the where the next level of female resistance to Pharaoh kicks in – Pharaoh’s own daughter is not fooled for a moment about the racial identity of this baby (which is a little bit topical at the moment but I am not going there) and she immediately says: “This is one of the Hebrew babies”. She would have known about her father’s orders and she could, of course, have thrown baby Moses into the river. But she didn’t and, although it was a risk, I suspect that Moses’ mother knew that she wouldn’t.
In some ways the next part of the story is even better – Moses’ older sister, who was watching over the basket the whole time remember, approaches Pharaoh’s daughter and offers to fetch a Hebrew women to wet-nurse the baby. Of course, she fetches Moses mother and Pharaoh’s daughter then pays her to nurse Moses until he is old enough to be taken into the palace. So not only has Moses’ mother saved his life with her bold plan but in one fell swoop she has gone from hiding her baby from the Egyptians to being paid by them to nurse him! A huge transformation brought about by a mother’s love for her child. This whole episode is a great story of women cleverly resisting the immoral commands of men in order to save the lives of children and to bring life out of death.
On one reading that sounds like a happy ending – Moses lived, his mother continued to care for him and was even paid so to do. But it still had its fill of pain. Moses’ real mother only wet-nursed him, possibly only for a short time, and he then went to Pharaoh’s daughter and was brought up as her son. So there was still separation and his real mother would still have had to watch her son grow up from afar – possibly only catching glimpses of him as part of the royal retinue from time to time. We don’t hear of them meeting again in a Hollywood-style slow motion and tear jerking finale. This was not apple pie and posies.
You will doubtless recognise our short Gospel reading as it is not long ago that we celebrated Jesus being presented in the temple at Candlemas and this is a part of the reading we have that day.
Although the circumstances of Jesus’ birth were unusual it appears that Mary and Joseph were doing all they could to be a normal family and to bring Jesus up fully in accordance with the Jewish laws and customs. They took Jesus to the Temple to present him to God and to make the customary sacrifices. Then they had the prophetic encounters with Simeon and Anna. Simeon declared Jesus to be the promised saviour not only of Israel but also to be a light to lighten the gentiles. Joseph and Mary marvelled at what was being said, and Simeon blessed them. So far so good. Then we have today’s words, which foreshadow that love is not without pain:
“…This child is destined to cause the falling and rising of many in Israel and to be a sign that will be spoken against, so that the thoughts of many hearts will be revealed and a sword will pierce your own soul too.”
A sword will pierce your soul.
We only have to think of Mary at the foot of the cross, as Jesus handed her over into the care of another disciple before he died, to imagine that sword piercing her soul.
We know that wasn’t the end of the story, but it must have felt like the end of the story for her.
I said last week that love for God and love for neighbour is not simply about fuzzy feelings of good will, but can be truly costly. When God in the person of Jesus Christ went to the cross he was paying the ultimate price both of God’s love for humanity and of humanity’s love for God and for neighbour. But there was other costly love there too – the costly love of a mother.
We are called to love those around us, whoever they are. But real love is not just apple pie and posies – real love brings the risk of real cost, real hurt and real pain. We can’t hide from that anymore that Moses’ mother could, Jesus’ mother could or Jesus himself could.
But we can offer our pain to God as the price we pay for being human and pray that, when we are most vulnerable, that those around us will sit with us when we need it as we would sit with them. We love one another by being able to share both our times of joy but also those times when a sword pierces our soul.