This Lent we’ve been following the Churches Together in Britain and Ireland Lent course. You can find out all about it on the Internet, and also the BBC Radio 4 Sunday Morning Service is following the same themes. Last week - as you will know if you listened to the Service - the focus was on Mother’s Day.
My daughter often posts little stories and pictures on Facebook about her children - the latest thing they’ve said, or the most recent milestone they’ve reached, or a photo of them looking cute. Recently she posted a picture of my younger granddaughter smiling straight into the camera while in the middle of breast feeding.
Now pictures on Facebook can only be seen by family and friends, but nonetheless I thought this was fairly avant-garde. It’s typical of my daughter, though, because she is a great advocate of breast feeding. She’s a volunteer breast feeding adviser and goes to breast feeding groups to encourage and support the new Mums. I don‘t think she’s ever taken part in ‘breast feeding in public’ day, but she’d be in sympathy with those who do.
The fact that I’m a bit dubious about this picture of my granddaughter might suggest that I’m rather old-fashioned, except that the person who wrote our poem from the Book of Isaiah was keen on breast feeding imagery too, and he - or she - lived about two-and-a-half thousand years ago. So maybe it’s just me!
Poetry in the Bible sometimes describes Jerusalem as a woman. Often she is a woman in distress, dressed in rags or stripped naked and crying for her lost children. But here the womanhood of Jerusalem is described in an upbeat, even exuberant way.
Her exiled citizens are coming home again from captivity in Babylon and it’s such a surprise that it’s a bit like a mother having her baby in the post office, or in the hospital reception area. Before her pain came upon her, before she realised that she was even in labour, Jerusalem gave birth, delivering a son.
And who is the son? The poem goes on to tell us it is the restored nation of Israel. ‘Shall a land be born in one day? Shall a nation be delivered in one moment?’ asks the Prophet. Well, the answer is yes! Sometimes it takes years of struggle for a nation to re-emerge from captivity and subjugation, but in this case ‘as soon as Zion was in labour she delivered her children.’
And that’s because, says the Prophet, once God has promised to do something it is in his nature to get on and do it. God had promised to restore to Jerusalem her former glory, so why hang around?
The exiles, and the people left behind in Judah to mourn the destruction of their state and its capital, can now dry their tears and rejoice with Jerusalem, sharing her gladness. In fact, it will be to their advantage to rally round and join the party because not only is God planning to bring home her lost citizens but also he has promised an economic revival in Jerusalem’s fortunes too. Prosperity and the wealth of nations will flow through her like an over-flowing stream and the people of Judah will be able to drink deeply with delight from her glorious bosom and be satisfied by her consoling breast. No wonder then that being dandled on her knees or carried on her arm will be a comfort to them.
Did all this actually happen? Well the sudden and unexpected return from exile certainly did, and the fortunes of Jerusalem were certainly restored, but I think there is a certain amount of exaggeration here about the extent of her new wealth and prosperity. Maybe things weren’t quite as marvellous as the Prophet had envisaged. However, these are still wonderful images of motherhood.
St Paul picks up the same theme in his letter to the church at Galatia. Here he claims that the story of Sarah and her servant girl Hagar is an allegory with a hidden meaning underneath or behind its literal one.
What had literally happened was that Sarah, discovering that she was apparently unable to conceive a baby by herself, had persuaded her husband Abraham to have a son by her servant girl instead. They then adopted the boy. But - to her great amazement - Sarah had a baby boy of her own, even though she was well past child-bearing age. Cruelly and despicably, she now persuaded Abraham to drive Hagar and her son Ishmael out into the desert, so that only Sarah’s son Isaac would inherit God’s promises.
Well, don’t worry about that, says St Paul, because the story has a mythic quality. Its importance lies not in the sordid details but in their deeper and enduring meaning. Whether or not Sarah really did force Abraham to drive Hagar and Ishmael into the desert and abandon them there isn’t the important thing. For St Paul it is what the characters in the story point to that really matters. And, for him, Sarah symbolises the New Jerusalem, the place where faith in God’s promises of sudden and unexpected childbirth is fulfilled, whereas Hagar represents Mount Sinai deep in the desert, where God gave Israel the Law, and the old temple on Mount Zion.
Just as Abraham had imagined that it was through Hagar that he would become the father of many children and nations, so his Jewish descendants imagined that it was only through obedience to the Law - given on Mount Sinai and celebrated in the Temple - that human beings could become part of God’s chosen people.
However, Abraham was destined to have many more descendants than he could ever have had through insisting - as some Jewish Christians continued to do - on obedience to the Jewish Law. Because he and Sarah had faith in God’s promise to her, and went on hoping against hope that she would have a child, they became the spiritual ancestors of all those who believe that putting our faith in God, and simply trusting in God’s promises, is more important than being obedient to this or that part of the Law.
In some ways these are two quite strange passages. What they have to say seems rather remote from our situation. But their significance lies in something that was recognised by Christians a long time ago, when the Catholic Church first chose these passages as lectionary readings for Mothers’ Day. They are readings which put a great emphasis, and a very positive spin, on being a mother.
We often imagine that the Bible is a book written largely by men for men, with women on the touchlines as it were, allowed to share in the good news which the Bible has to proclaim but never central to it. These passages - among many others - remind us that this is not so. Women, femininity and motherhood are crucial to the way that the Bible describes and explains salvation and our relationship to God. Motherhood and the specific examples of giving birth and breastfeeding are perfect metaphors for the way that we are brought into relationship with God and nurtured by the Holy Spirit.
Once we are aware of the importance of women and femininity to the Biblical narrative we can, of course, find them everywhere. Someone said on the radio last week that there were no women in leadership roles in the New Testament church. But that is total nonsense. If we look through the letters of St Paul we can find perhaps a dozen examples of women in leadership roles, and there are also examples in the Acts of the Apostles. It’s just a matter of being in tune to what the Bible really says, rather than what men have sometimes claimed that it says.
But there’s more to the Bible’s celebration of motherhood than a reminder that women are central to the Bible story. The German theologian Dietrich Bonhoeffer, who was imprisoned for taking part in a plot to assassinate Adolf Hitler, wrote a letter to his parents after an Allied air raid in which he said:
I will certainly not forget the view through my cell window of the ghastly night sky. I was very happy to hear from the captain right away in the morning that everything had gone well for you... It is remarkable
how in such night hours my thoughts revolve quite exclusively around those people without whom I wouldn’t want to go on living. Thinking of myself recedes entirely into the background or as good as disappears.
Only then do I sense how interwoven my own life is with the life of other people, indeed I realise how little I think of myself as an isolated individual... Human life extends far beyond our own bodily existence. A mother probably feels this more strongly than I do.
Here is Bonhoeffer seeing motherhood not simply as a wholesome image like apple pie but as much more central to human existence. He says that all human beings are hardwired from birth to worry as much, if not more, about other people than we do about ourselves. And he says that mothers are the ultimate example of that natural human feeling - by and large they instinctively care more about their children than they do about themselves.
Bonhoeffer believed that we are created by God to be not just individuals but persons in relationship with others. ‘Freedom,’ he wrote, ‘Is not something that people have for themselves but something they have for others... Freedom is something you find in relationship or not at all.’
In the film “Breakfast At Tiffanys’” the lead character - Holly Golightly - chooses her name, which is not her real one, because it typifies the way she feels about herself. She believes that she is a free spirit who can only be truly happy when she is liberated from all all the relationships and responsibilities that might otherwise tie her down. But the hero tells her that she’s completely wrong. In reality she is imprisoned in a cage of her own making which she carries with her wherever she goes. And Bonhoeffer agrees that we can never be free when we try to distance ourselves from caring for other people.
The proof of this is motherhood. If most mothers didn’t feel that they belong with their children, and need to make sacrifices for them, where would we all be? Mothers prove that caring for other people is the natural human condition and anyone who wants to be free of those cares and responsibilities is just being self-indulgent and is missing out on an important aspect of being human.
Of course, Christians have sometimes gone on to talk about Mother Church, as well. In some countries an explicit link is made between Mothers’ Day and the church community from which we - as believers - have sprung. For instance, in some traditions Christians make a pilgrimage back to their home church, or to the local cathedral, or they join hands in a circle around the church to say thank-you prayers for the way their spiritual life has been nurtured.
Bonhoeffer knew about this idea of Mother Church but he warned that we shouldn’t be sentimental about it. ‘A great disillusionment with others, with Christians in general, and with ourselves, is bound to overwhelm us,’ he said, if we expect our local church, or the denomination or even the wider Church to which it belongs, to be a ‘genuine Christian community’ for much of the time. To believe this, even for a moment, would be to live in a dream world. Only congregations which recognise their imperfection, and the imperfections of their members, can ‘begin to grasp in faith the promise that is given to them. So the sooner this moment of disillusionment comes over us as individual Christians and as a community, the better for both.’
Believing in the Church is not about pretending the Church is perfect and wonderful, or that Christians get on better with one another than other people do. It’s about understanding that the Church is made up of ordinary, frail human beings and yet still not giving up on it but seeing it as a way that God can use us to work together - despite our differences and occasional squabbles - to create a better world. We are a communion of sinners who are called to forgive one another in Jesus’ name.
It’s right that we should have high expectations of ourselves and should want to set a good example to others and be a model of good community living, but we have to remember that this is an impossible ideal. Churches will always be divided about something: what music to sing, how to vote, what to believe about human sexuality, even whether to have pews or chairs, organs or guitars. In that sense we’re just like other people and other communities.
But what we do have to offer is acceptance. Once we have recognised that we are not perfect, and that we’re not going to agree with one another all of the time, and that disagreements do happen, we can - by the grace of God - learn to accept one another and to accept other people too.
We ask ourselves the wrong questions. Instead of asking, ‘How can we turn ourselves into the ideal community and get people to join us?’ we need to start asking, ‘Where are new communities being born or shaped in our neighbourhood and how can we join with God in helping to make that a good experience?’
So someone has suggested forging a new sense of community with other people on Twitter, or on local neighbourhood Internet forums, where we might meet and talk to people we would otherwise never get to know. And if that sounds a bit alarming and impractical, what about joining a scheme to help young people and children learn from the memories and experiences of older generations - at our local school or in our local gardening club or allotment society, for instance? Or what about befriending newcomers from other parts of Europe or the world who have recently become your neighbours?
Love, like death, hath all destroyed,
Rendered all distinctions void;
Names and sects and parties fall,
Thou, O Christ, art all in all.
Someone has said that when people see Christians as being simply there to love them, rather than trying to manipulate or cajole them into a different way of living, then the Church will have learnt to take seriously the gospel of love and it will be filled with Christians who have learnt the art of being rather than doing.