Mothering Sunday, 18 March 2007
Exodus 2.1-10, Colossians 3.12-17 & John 19.25b-27
St Peter-ad-Vincula, Coggeshall
May I speak +IN THE NAME OF THE FATHER, SON AND THE HOLY SPIRIT
Mothering Sunday marks the half way point in our journey through Lent. To mark this important milestone and, in a sense, to give encourage us on our way towards Holy Week, this day has a much less penitential flavour then the rest of Lent. Today we celebrate the fact that God created us out of Love and that human beings become fully alive human persons in the midst of relationships of Love. In particular our readings today encourage us to celebrate the bond of love of mothers for their children and of children for their mothers. As a man I appreciate that this is not “inclusive” language and I also appreciate that not everyone will have had experiences of either motherhood or childhood which were entirely positive and that today may even be a difficult time for some. In a sense I can only acknowledge that those issues exist and move on but if Mothering Sunday is not a happy time for you then I am sorry and I will hold you in my prayers.
Today’s reading from Exodus is the story of Moses in the basket and it 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, there is always more to the story than we may first appreciate.
To put the story into context it is set 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 (he of the many coloured coat) 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 males babies be killed at birth by the midwives. Sorry, I know this is a bit tough for Mothering Sunday 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! Not only did they get away with disobeying and deceiving Pharaoh in this way, which could not have been easy, but God rewarded the mid-wives with families of their own.
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 (I am very familar with that at the moment) and thus Moses became more difficult to hide. We aren’t told precisely the conditions that these people were living in but as slaves there must have been guards watching over them in some fashion, maybe houses or huts were being searched and maybe there were even rewards offered for turning in hidden boy babies, we just don’t know 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; rather she put him in a waterproof basket and she placed it strategically amongst the reeds. I don’t know about you but some of the children’s books and films that I have seen depicting this story make it look as though Moses’ basket floated down the 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.
Actually, put like that, 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 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. I am no feminist theologian but 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.
As mothers love and care for their children so, over time, children learn to reciprocate that love and, eventually, to take care of their mothers. For people of my age and slightly older it is becoming increasingly common to be responsible for looking after one’s children and one’s parents at the same time. Fortunately my parents have not reached that stage yet but they sometimes show some worrying signs! Our gospel reading today shows that even as Jesus hung on the cross he was concerned to ensure that his mother was not left alone following his death and he commended Mary into the care of his beloved disciple.
But, as touching and as profound as that moment on the cross is, we know that Christ’s love went much further than love for his mother and, as Christians, we should not forget that our call to be persons of love is much more radical than just loving our immediate family. In our reading from Colossians we are told that as God’s chosen ones we should “clothe ourselves in love” and elsewhere we are told to “love our neighbours as ourselves” and we know from the parables that our neighbour does not just include those who are like us but, rather it includes our enemies and those who are profoundly different from us. Thinking back briefly to the story of Moses in the basket – Moses’ mother acted boldly and cleverly out of love to save her child but, speaking as a parent, I can say that her actions were entirely natural and understandable. However I would suggest that it was the mid-wives and Pharaoh’s daughter who demonstrated the more radical sort of love to which we are called as Christians – they risked retribution from an absolute monarch to save the lives of children that were not their own and, in the case of Pharaoh’s daughter to save the life of a child of another race that had been condemned by her own father. This love did not manifest itself in ethereal feelings of goodwill towards the Hebrew baby boys but involved action and even parting with money to ensure that the poor were looked after. That is Christian love. We should of course love our children and our parents but we should not forget our call to offer love in practical ways to other people’s children and other people’s parents, even if those others are very different from ourselves.
Holding that thought in mind I would like to close with the final words of our reading from Colossians:
“And whatever you do, in word or deed, do everything in the name of the Lord Jesus, giving thanks to God the Father through him”
+IN THE NAME OF THE FATHER, SON AND HOLY SPIRIT