These poems and readings were presented in the services for Mothering Sunday in Hardwick and Dry Drayton on 31 March 2019. With their short introductions, each piece was allowed to speak for itself. We began with a prayer that God’s Spirit would enable our ears, hearts and minds to be open.
Christina Rossetti dedicated a whole collection of poems to her mother and this one describes an uncomplicated love between a grown up child and a parent.
Sonnets are full of love, and this my tome
Has many sonnets: so here now shall be
One sonnet more, a love sonnet, from me
To her whose heart is my heart’s quiet home,
To my first Love, my Mother, on whose knee
I learnt love-lore that is not troublesome;
Whose service is my special dignity,
And she my loadstar while I go and come
And so because you love me, and because
I love you, Mother, I have woven a wreath
Of rhymes wherewith to crown your honored name:
In you not fourscore years can dim the flame
Of love, whose blessed glow transcends the laws
Of time and change and mortal life and death.
We know of course that relationships between parents and children are not always so uncomplicated, for many different reasons. This next piece is a story from the book of Exodus. It concerns the Hebrew people who were living as immigrants in Egypt at the time. The pharaoh of Eqypt was worried about the strength and size of this immigrant population and as a way of dealing with the threat had just ordered the killing of all the new born Hebrew boys. This is a story of an unnamed Levite mother who risked everything for the sake of the safety of her child, and of Pharoah’s daughter -a woman who had no children of her own, – taking a different risk as she choose to become responsible for another’s child.
2 Now a man of the tribe of Levi married a Levite woman, 2 and she became pregnant and gave birth to a son. When she saw that he was a fine child, she hid him for three months. 3 But when she could hide him no longer, she got a papyrus basket[a] for him and coated it with tar and pitch. Then she placed the child in it and put it among the reeds along the bank of the Nile. 4 His sister stood at a distance to see what would happen to him.
5 Then Pharaoh’s daughter went down to the Nile to bathe, and her attendants were walking along the river-bank. She saw the basket among the reeds and sent her female slave to get it. 6 She opened it and saw the baby. He was crying, and she felt sorry for him. ‘This is one of the Hebrew babies,’ she said.
7 Then his sister asked Pharaoh’s daughter, ‘Shall I go and get one of the Hebrew women to nurse the baby for you?’
8 ‘Yes, go,’ she answered. So the girl went and got the baby’s mother. 9 Pharaoh’s daughter said to her, ‘Take this baby and nurse him for me, and I will pay you.’ So the woman took the baby and nursed him. 10 When the child grew older, she took him to Pharaoh’s daughter and he became her son. She named him Moses,[b] saying, ‘I drew him out of the water.’
Sometimes the complexity of love comes from longing for a child. This is the story of Hannah from the first book of Samuel. When we pick up the story, Hannah had been longing for a child for many years.
1 Samuel 1:9-17
9 When they had finished eating and drinking in Shiloh, Hannah stood up. Now Eli the priest was sitting on his chair by the doorpost of the Lord’s house. 10 In her deep anguish Hannah prayed to the Lord, weeping bitterly. 11 And she made a vow, saying, ‘Lord Almighty, if you will only look on your servant’s misery and remember me, and not forget your servant but give her a son, then I will give him to the Lord for all the days of his life, and no razor will ever be used on his head.’
12 As she kept on praying to the Lord, Eli observed her mouth. 13 Hannah was praying in her heart, and her lips were moving but her voice was not heard. Eli thought she was drunk 14 and said to her, ‘How long are you going to stay drunk? Put away your wine.’
15 ‘Not so, my lord,’ Hannah replied, ‘I am a woman who is deeply troubled. I have not been drinking wine or beer; I was pouring out my soul to the Lord. 16 Do not take your servant for a wicked woman; I have been praying here out of my great anguish and grief.’
17 Eli answered, ‘Go in peace, and may the God of Israel grant you what you have asked of him.’
This poem by Carol Ann Duffy, called the Light Gatherer, from the perspective of a parent or carer looking back at the joy of a child’s growth.
The light gatherer by Carol Ann Duffy
When you were small, your cupped palms
each held a candleworth under the skin, enough light to begin,
and as you grew,
light gathered in you, two clear raindrops
in your eyes,
warm pearls, shy,
in the lobes of your ears, even always
the light of a smile after your tears.
Your kissed feet glowed in my one hand,
or I’d enter a room to see the corner you played in
lit like a stage set,
the crown of your bowed head spotlit.
When language came, it glittered like a river,
silver, clever with fish,
and you slept
with the whole moon held in your arms for a night light
where I knelt watching.
Light gatherer. You fell from a star
into my lap, the soft lamp at the bedside
mirrored in you,
and now you shine like a snowgirl,
a buttercup under a chin, the wide blue yonder
you squeal at and fly in,
like a jewelled cave,
turquoise and diamond and gold, opening out
at the end of a tunnel of years.
Malcolm Guite wrote in this sonnet a thanksgiving for all parents, especially for those who bear or have born the fruitful pain of labour and more particularly in this poem those heroic single parents who for whatever reason have found themselves bearing alone the burdens and sharing with no-one the joys of their parenthood.
At last, in spite of all, a recognition,
For those who loved and laboured for so long,
Who brought us, through that labour, to fruition
To flourish in the place where we belong.
A thanks to those who stayed and did the raising,
Who buckled down and did the work of two,
Whom governments have mocked instead of praising,
Who hid their heart-break and still struggled through
The single mothers forced onto the edge
Whose work the world has overlooked, neglected,
Invisible to wealth and privilege,
But in whose lives the kingdom is reflected.
Now into Christ our mother church we bring them,
Who shares with them the birth-pangs of His Kingdom.
Guite ends the sonnet touching on the role of the mother church, a community which walks with us in the challenge of parenthood and in providing a place of nurture. This is Paul’s vision, writing to the Colossians, of a nurturing community in a world crying out for hope.
12 Therefore, as God’s chosen people, holy and dearly loved, clothe yourselves with compassion, kindness, humility, gentleness and patience. 13 Bear with each other and forgive one another if any of you has a grievance against someone. Forgive as the Lord forgave you. 14 And over all these virtues put on love, which binds them all together in perfect unity.
15 Let the peace of Christ rule in your hearts, since as members of one body you were called to peace. And be thankful. 16 Let the message of Christ dwell among you richly as you teach and admonish one another with all wisdom through psalms, hymns, and songs from the Spirit, singing to God with gratitude in your hearts. 17 And whatever you do, whether in word or deed, do it all in the name of the Lord Jesus, giving thanks to God the Father through him.
One of the ways we, as Christian companions nurture our children in the ways of the Christian faith is through the family. I know that there are grandparents amongst us who have the joy and the challenge of involvement in their grandchildren’s lives, and the privilege of teaching them about the Christian faith. Here is a poem by Wendy Cope about a gift given her by her grandmother.
Present by Wendy Cope
On the flyleaf
of my confirmation present:
‘To Wendy with love
from Nanna. Psalm 98.’
I looked it up, eventually –
I knew the first two verses
and skimmed the rest.
Thirty-five years afterwards,
at evensong on Day 19
the choir sings Nanna’s psalm.
At last, I pay attention
to the words she chose.
O sing unto the Lord
a new song. Nanna,
it is just what I wanted.
It is remarkable how many of us here as Christians now had grandparents who prayed for us. That was the experience of Timothy a friend of the apostle Paul. Here is Paul writing to him. This is a snippet from the start of his second letter.
2 Timothy 1: 1-5
1 From Paul, an apostle of Christ Jesus by the will of God, in keeping with the promise of life that is in Christ Jesus,
2 To Timothy, my dear son:
Grace, mercy and peace from God the Father and Christ Jesus our Lord.
3 I thank God, whom I serve, as my ancestors did, with a clear conscience, as night and day I constantly remember you in my prayers. 4 Recalling your tears, I long to see you, so that I may be filled with joy. 5 I am reminded of your sincere faith, which first lived in your grandmother Lois and in your mother Eunice and, I am persuaded, now lives in you also. 6 For this reason I remind you to fan into flame the gift of God, which is in you through the laying on of my hands.
Mary the mother of Jesus, expected to care for and nurture her child. She may or may not have expected to learn quite so much about costly love. This vignette comes from Mary and Joseph’s visit to the Temple when Jesus was still a baby.
33 The child’s father and mother marvelled at what was said about him. 34 Then Simeon blessed them and said to Mary, his mother: ‘This child is destined to cause the falling and rising of many in Israel, and to be a sign that will be spoken against, 35 so that the thoughts of many hearts will be revealed. And a sword will pierce your own soul too.’
This poem, Where was Mary? by John Piper, imagines Mary’s experience at the other end of Jesus’ life, after the last supper.
Where was Mary? by John Piper
“After singing a hymn, they went out to the Mount of Olives.”
Where was Mary, Jesus’ mother
When he sang his final song?
Where was Mary on the evening
Of the world’s most wicked wrong?
Where was Mary at the moment
Jesus broke the tender bread?
Where was Mary when he blessed it
With his mercy and his dread?
Where was Mary in the darkness
When he poured the cup of wine?
When he spoke of blood and promise,
And he whispered, “This is mine”?
Where was Mary when the Sovereign
Put his garment to the side,
When he washed the feet of sinners
On his knees before he died?
Where was Mary on the night when
Jesus sang his final song?
Where was Mary on the evening
Of the world’s most wicked wrong?
* * *
She was in the lower chamber
By the window open wide;
She was list’ning; she was praying
On her knees before he died.
When she heard the word “remember”
She remembered everything:
How she quoted from the Psalter
And she taught him how to sing;
How the bread was baked in ovens
With a blazing fire below;
How the grapes were crushed and beaten
For the blood-red wine to flow.
Where was Mary Jesus’ mother
When he sang his final song
She was kneeling by the window
Where through tears she sang along.
The idea of God as like a mother is not a new one. In Isaiah 49, God uses the metaphor and experience of a mother to describe the depth and steadfastness of his love.
15 ‘Can a mother forget the baby at her breast
and have no compassion on the child she has borne?
Though she may forget,
I will not forget you!
16 See, I have engraved you on the palms of my hands;
your walls are ever before me.
17 Your children hasten back,
and those who laid you waste depart from you.
18 Lift up your eyes and look around;
all your children gather and come to you.
In the 12th century Julian of Norwich writes of God like this.
“It is a characteristic of God to overcome evil with good.
Jesus Christ therefore, who himself overcame evil with good, is our true Mother. We received our ‘Being’ from Him and this is where His Maternity starts And with it comes the gentle Protection and Guard of Love which will never ceases to surround us.
Just as God is our Father, so God is also our Mother.
(From Revelation of Divine Love by Julian of Norwich (1342-1416) (LIX, LXXXVI))
Jesus himself describes his love for the wayward Jerusalem as like a mother hen.
Luke 13: 34
34 ‘Jerusalem, Jerusalem, you who kill the prophets and stone those sent to you, how often I have longed to gather your children together, as a hen gathers her chicks under her wings, and you were not willing.
In this final poem, Allison Woodward reflects on the experience of mother towards child as the experience of God in Jesus towards us his children.
To be a Mother by Allison Woodward
To be a Mother is to suffer;
To travail in the dark,
stretched and torn,
exposed in half-naked humiliation,
subjected to indignities
for the sake of new life.
To be a Mother is to say,
“This is my body, broken for you,”
And, in the next instant, in response to the created’s primal hunger,
“This is my body, take and eat.”
To be a Mother is to self-empty,
To neither slumber nor sleep,
so attuned You are to cries in the night—
Offering the comfort of Yourself,
and assurances of “I’m here.”
To be a Mother is to weep
over the fighting and exclusions and wounds
your children inflict on one another;
To long for reconciliation and brotherly love
and—when all is said and done—
To gather all parties, the offender and the offended,
into the folds of your embrace
and to whisper in their ears
that they are Beloved.
To be a mother is to be vulnerable—
To be misunderstood,
For the heartaches of the bewildered children
who don’t know where else to cast
the angst they feel
over their own existence
in this perplexing universe
To be a mother is to hoist onto your hips those on whom your image is imprinted,
bearing the burden of their weight,
rejoicing in their returned affection,
delighting in their wonder,
bleeding in the presence of their pain.
To be a mother is to be accused of sentimentality one moment,
And injustice the next.
To be the Receiver of endless demands,
Absorber of perpetual complaints,
Reckoner of bottomless needs.
To be a mother is to be an artist;
A keeper of memories past,
Weaver of stories untold,
Visionary of lives looming ahead.
To be a mother is to be the first voice listened to,
And the first disregarded;
To be a Mender of broken creations,
And Comforter of the distraught children
whose hands wrought them.
To be a mother is to be a Touchstone
and the Source,
Bestower of names,
Influencer of identities;