Luke 2 33-35; 1 Samuel 1 20-28
Today we reach the culmination of a period of seven days when women have been very much in the news, for both good reasons and also for tragic ones.
Last Monday we celebrated International Women’s Day, honouring women across the world from all walks of life, for the contributions they make to humanity.
I think that maybe some women don’t feel that this day is about them, believing their own lives to be insignificant in comparison with the women we read about who are doing all sorts of noteworthy things, when in fact everything women do either in their homes, the workplace and the wider community should be celebrated.
Last year IWD fell on a Sunday and indeed it was one of the last occasions we were all in church together before the first lockdown. My Facebook memories reminded me of all the photos I took of the wonderful women who make up our parish family and it made me really happy to scroll through them and see your beautiful smiling faces! Each of you has your own story, each of you is loved and valued by God.
On Monday evening you may have watched the now infamous interview on TV with the Duke and Duchess of Sussex which has elicited all sorts of responses. It is not for me to comment on these but what struck me in amongst the media furore, was that at the heart of this matter is the story of another woman and the impact that a very particular set of circumstances has had on her. A story that contains both joy and pain in equal measure.
As the week progressed, who can not fail to have been horrified at the news of the discovery of the body of Sarah Everard, brutally murdered as she made her way home one evening. Again there has been a huge response to this unspeakable tragedy as women across the UK have disclosed their stories of the times that they have felt unsafe simply for going about their day to day business. What does that say about our communities that there is such fear and anxiety among such a significant proportion of the population?
And now here we are on Mothering Sunday, or Mother’s Day as it is more popularly known. A day on which we are reminded of our own stories, of being mothered and of mothering, stories which will cover a huge range of emotions both happy and sad.
In any other year many of us would be spending time with those who have been part of those stories, with those who have mothered us, those women, not just with whom we have a biological link, who have nurtured and cared for us throughout our lives.
But of course this year our stories have not been quite as straightforward and there will be many who are separated from their loved ones, unable to convey all that they feel face to face, unable to hug those who have held them in their arms since infancy.
And for many this day is bittersweet as they mourn the loss of mums, grandmas, aunties, friends and other women who have supported them through the ups and downs of life.
And there are those for whom this day is painful, who have never experienced the love of a mother, those who are estranged, those who long to bear children.
Today is a day of so many emotions and if we turn to our scripture readings we see those emotions reflected in the stories of two other women, whose experience of motherhood brought both great joy but also involved great sacrifice.
We start with the story of Hannah, one of my very favourite Biblical women, so much so that my eldest daughter is named in her honour.
Hannah longed to be a mother. She was a woman of great faith and in her prayers she called out to God of her great longing, promising Him that should her prayers be answered she would dedicate her child to His service. God heard her and Hannah did indeed give birth to her son, Samuel. Hannah was of course overjoyed but she didn’t forget her promise and at the appropriate time she took Samuel to the temple in the care of Eli, the priest, so that he could fulfil his destiny in God’s service.
I can’t imagine how hard that must have been for Hannah. I wonder if she was in any way tempted not to keep her promise and keep her son alongside her. It would seem natural that she might indeed feel that way but regardless Hannah was obedient to the call on her life that God had made. She sacrificed the joy of raising her son to manhood and instead experienced the joy of serving the Lord.
If we were to read on into chapter 2 we would hear exactly how joyous Hannah was as she lifts her voice in praise and thankfulness to God. The words she speaks resonate with those spoken by Mary when she visits her cousin Elizabeth during her own pregnancy. Indeed Hannah’s words are sometimes termed the Magnificat of the Old Testament in recognition of their prophetic nature.
If we turn to our Gospel reading we hear another prophecy, this time spoken by Simeon when Mary and Joseph attend the temple to give thanks for their new baby son.
I am sure that some of you have spotted that we heard these words only a few weeks ago when we commemorated the presentation of Christ in the temple where they appear as part of a longer reading.
Today we hear them through a different lens. We hear them as Mary would have heard them. Words that convey both great joy but also great sorrow.
Simeon speaks of Jesus’s destiny as the redeemer of humanity but within that wonderful message of hope for the whole world, there is a personal message for Mary as Simeon tells her of the sorrow that this will bring her. How must that young woman, still the first throes of motherhood, have felt when she heard those words – and a sword will pierce your own heart too. How tempted might Mary have been to disregard her obedience to God and to hide her adored son away to avoid the inevitable pain of seeing him suffer.
But just like Hannah, Mary did not falter in keeping the promises she had made to God. Mary knew that God had called her to raise the child that he had honoured her with bearing in order that he might fulfil his destiny as God’s Son.
Two women who probably appeared as pretty ordinary to their communities but who had been chosen by God to be extraordinary parts of His plan for the world.
Two women living very unremarkable lives but whose stories of faithfulness are absolutely remarkable. Two women who were overjoyed to be mothers despite the personal sacrifices that this brought.
How do the stories of these two women relate to our stories two thousand years later? What can we learn from their experiences, not just as women, but as faithful servants of the Lord?
When I read these stories I am filled with admiration – admiration of Hannah’s patience and diligence in her prayers, admiration of Mary’s determination to fulfil God’s call on her life regardless of the way in which others judged her.
I am in awe of the courage of these two women, as I am of the courage of so many women whose stories are recounted throughout the Bible, too many to list here. I don’t believe that the lives of these women are irrelevant to our society today. The example of their discipleship is one I strive to emulate, their strength is a quality I seek to uphold.
This past year has caused many of us to reflect on that which we truly value and for many that will include their families. I know that to be true in my own life, my biological family of course, but also my wider family, my friends, my church family.
In some ways it has felt as though the Church in its broadest sense has been like a mother separated physically from her children. Indeed if we consider the origins of Mothering Sunday, that was precisely its purpose. To reunite dispersed communities with their mother church.
In this season we are a dispersed community, yet we remain united. Not just through the wonders of technology that enables us to connect by participating in online worship, that facilitates communication. We are united by our love for each other which is exemplified by the multiple acts of kindness that have been carried out throughout this year. We are united in our longing to serve God as we have in all sorts of ways. We are united in our prayers as we have upheld each other through the challenges we have each faced and have given thanks for the blessings we have all received.
Our stories include times of pain and of sacrifice but they also include times of joy and wonder, just like the stories of Hannah and Mary, just like the stories of women that we have heard this week and throughout history.
And of course there is one theme that runs through all of our stories, during good times and bad, and that is the love that God has for everyone, regardless of gender, race, age, sexuality, disability, or anything else that might be used to try and separate us, the love that is boundless and brings peace into all of our lives.
Whatever emotions this Mothering Sunday brings for you, whatever your story is, I pray that you know that love, that you know that peace and that the knowledge of this upholds you not just on this day but for the whole of your lives.