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Mothering Sunday and language

Lent 4 BCP

02 March 2008 11:00 | Fr. Roderick Leece

Happy Laetare Sunday. Be joyful Jerusalem was the ancient introit this Sunday, the fourth in Lent. Refreshment Sunday. A time when people returned to their ‘mother’ church, and these days, as we know, a time to celebrate with thanksgivings our own mothers whether living or departed.

We read in today’s epistle from St. Paul to the Galatians that Jerusalem which is above is free; which is the mother of us all. Mention of Jerusalem at this mid-point of Lent points us forward to the annual Passover gathering at Jerusalem…towards the crisis of passion tide during which transpire the wondrous events concerning our salvation.

I went to the opening night of a new production of Berg’s operatic masterpiece Wozzeck in Brussels this last week. It is bleak stuff. A poor child not only witnesses his mother with her lover, but then after his jealous father Wozzeck has killed his mother and later drowned in trying to retrieve the weapon, the boy is teased nonchalantly by other children who pass on the news to the orphan. We had a parallel situation in my last parish on the day the Queen Mother died, when a jealous father killed one of the kindest and brightest members of the congregation and the Jewish lover she must have started up with, whilst he had been in prison. Left behind were the most lovely eight year old twins. The black community are often exemplary in the shared and extended care of children. But in this case, sadly, I had only buried granny just a few months prior to her daughter’s murder, and a young and frail aunt was landed with an added layer of responsibility…though of the most wonderful girls, as I said.

Mothering in these cases, is shown to be a much wider need than what mum does (or did) for us, for not everybody has a mother to bring them up. These days the father can take the lead role, and increasingly we speak of ‘parenting’. I wonder therefore what we think the difference is between mothering and fathering? Modern liturgies and services often employ what is called ‘inclusive language’ and even blur gender specific terms in some translations of the Bible. How they deal with descriptions of the Church as Mother and God as Father must present a real problem for them.

Jesus of course referred to God as Father. More than that, he called him Daddy…Abba in language that through familiarity has lost the shock value it had when he first used it. Jewish people of the time would have been scandalised by such intimate language for God. But Jesus knew what he was saying. Therefore anybody who wishes to mess about with how we talk about God, and import language about the milk of the Goddess, must reckon with Jesus. Sceptics may question whether Jesus turned water into wine or walked on water. They may doubt that He was born of a Virgin or that He rose from the dead. But practically no one denies that Jesus called God Abba or Father (Daddy if you prefer)

Most mainstream protestant denominations use inclusive language, whilst Evangelicals, Catholics and the Orthodox have maintained traditional language. We share this latter tradition here at St. George’s. Time and again Jesus addresses God as Father…indeed we can say Jesus’ name for God is Father. If Jesus was wrong about that, so fundamental a thing, then what, really, does He have to teach us? That God is for the poor and the lowly?… The Hebrew prophets already taught this. That God is loving?…They taught that as well… Whatever else we say about God, we cannot say that He is Jesus’ mother, for Jesus’ mother is not God but Mary. Jesus’ mother was a creature…His Father…the Creator. Therefore Father and Mother are not interchangeable terms for God in relation to Jesus.

The present pope made a similar point in The Ratzinger Report:

Christianity is not a philosophical speculation; it is not a construction of our mind. Christianity is not ‘our’ work; it is a Revelation; it is a message that has been consigned to us, and we have no right to reconstruct it as we like or choose. Consequently, we are not authorized to change the Our Father into an Our Mother: the symbolism employed by Jesus is irreversible; it is based on the same Man-God relationship he came to reveal to us.

There is in the Bible of course the occasional use of feminine similes for God. We read in Isaiah (ch42v14) for example that God will cry out like a woman in travail. Yet the Bible does not say that God is a woman in travail. Rather it likens His cry to that of a woman.

Even liberal minded commentators have warned of the folly of obscuring masculine and feminine language in the Bible. Following a debate at the Church of England General Synod urging easy access to Bibles in churches (it is the law that one should be on the lectern in any case) I read this comment on a blog just a few days ago:

Putting ‘Gender neutral language’ into a collection of pre-Modern books (the pre-Modern World wasn't Gender Neutral, but Patriarchal at best…and often Hierarchical!) is a grave mistake leading into ERROR.

Whatever the differences between mothering and fathering, and the peculiar situation of confusion that seems to reign in modern society which likes to talk simply of parenting, the image which must reign today is of mothering. We think of nourishing the infant, training the child, and fostering the disciplines and virtues which make us civilised human beings. And mother Church has this same role in relation to the development of our spiritual lives.

We all need the nourishment of Word and Sacrament, the Incarnate Word, Who has come down from heaven to be the life of the world, the divine nutriment of which the miracle story in today’s Gospel speaks to us. We all need guidance and comfort in the childish confusions and distresses which are part of our growing up. We need the inculcation of those virtues of faith and hope and charity that will make us mature citizens of God’s city. We all need to be civilized in God’s kingdom, and that requires a lot of mothering.
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