Since the Christian faith is meant to make a difference to our relationships and since today (13 May) is on the calendar as Mothers’ Day I have a question…for all of us. Has our faith actually made a difference to the way we treat not only our mothers, but other family members and those we encounter from day to day? You see studying the Bible can only take us so far towards living the Christian life. Sooner or later we have to decide for ourselves which parts of our faith are important enough to give direction to our life’s journey, and it is good to pause every now and again to ask ourselves how we are going on this journey.
It is actually quite easy to lose one’s way when it comes to Christianity. Sometimes the arguments over the details of interpretation and what the earnest minded and even the fanatical might call the basics of belief, draw attention away from something Jesus claimed to be at the heart of his message. As far as I can tell the message Jesus emphasizes is essentially a call to relationship. Remember his two key commandments. The relationship commitment is first to embark on a life-long journey to seek that mysterious creative and elusive “God” force which draws us to journey with a sense of wonder, and the second to find and use a human setting for the awakened sense of love and compassion. Without this commitment to Love, as Paul so eloquently put it in chapter 13 of his first letter to the Corinthians, we are nothing.
Jesus is very clear about the attitude required for this commitment and, according to the gospel accounts he himself was prepared to die for this principle. In our reading today from the gospel of John, we discover Jesus telling his disciples that they are to love, but not just love in general, they are to love as he has loved them. Although that sounds straightforward, to find meaning in his statement we must first be sure we know how Jesus expressed his love.
Before we reflect on how Jesus loved the disciples we might pause and think for a moment as to who the disciples were. According to all four gospels the disciples were most assuredly not clones of Jesus. The list seems to have included a tax collector, a carpenter, a zealot rebel, some fishermen apparently encountered at random and no doubt others. One by tradition, James was actually a brother to Jesus but there is no indication that he was treated differently or given special privileges as a consequence. As for the rest, loved they may have been but they were not all portrayed as particularly loveable. Peter for example comes across as impetuous and when it came to the crunch even cowardly. There were those who were ambitious vying for places of honour in heaven, and of course the largely illiterate majority who are portrayed as slow to understand Jesus’ message, not to mention the potentially dangerous Judas – and as a group, none of whom who are necessarily worthy recipients of Jesus compassion and concern. After all they are all recorded as deserting Jesus at the very time he most needed them.
For all their potential problems, Jesus did not appear to have gone out of his way to choose as followers those like himself. The implication then that by talking of love for ones fellows as Jesus himself had shown love, was referring to something which in retrospect was actually a novel form of relationship.
Jesus commitment with his disciples was one to those who happened to be close-by. Dr Liz Carmichael from Oxford University, herself one who committed her efforts to working with the afflicted, saw this radical Messianic friendship of Jesus as: “Making friends with people who are not my sort”. Or perhaps even in Bishop Desmond Tutu’s words “an enemy is a friend waiting to be made”.
Not all of us have the confidence to commit ourselves to strangers, but there is nevertheless, for most of us another form of relationship thrust upon us by force of circumstance. “You may choose your friends” goes the adage, “but you can’t choose your relatives”. If, as the history of Christianity’s saints suggest, it is possible to commit oneself to those who might even have a different view-point or different culture, then how much easier should it be to share commitment to those whose connection is that of a relationship by birth.
This brings us to Mothers’ day, celebrated in this country on the second Sunday in May, and now called “Church and Family day”.
We might note in passing that in this country at least, Mothers’ day was born from a different age. The ancient Greek Holiday of Cybele and the equivalent Roman holiday of Hilaria, both in their own ways a recognition of motherhood, have undergone many changes. Although the form of Mothers’ Day is very variable across the nations the current traditions affecting this country seem largely influenced by England and the US.
The Anglican Church organisation in the English countryside was normally that of a Cathedral based in a city or large town with satellite Churches scattered through the countryside – each serving its local community who needed to be within walking distance of their church, particularly during the winter when the roads were virtually impassable. The first Sunday in May which generally coincided with a time at which the roads had become passable, the snow melted and the worst of the puddles dried, was set aside as the day where the small congregations could make their way in to the town and there join in celebratory worship in the cathedral. As this Mother Church Day (or Mothering Sunday) developed through the years, since it was also a time when the spring flowers returned, it became customary to gather flowers and give posies of flowers and small gifts to the Mothers as they gathered with their families.
Another part to the modern tradition of Mother’s Day as the second Sunday in May comes from the US. As is now relatively well-known, Julia Ward Howe as a means of avoiding further war, made a Mothers’ Day proclamation in 1870 as a means of encouraging women in her call to disarmament. In 1908, one Anna Jarvis further suggested that an annual holiday be declared to honour mothers and eventually convinced President Woodrow Wilson to make such a national holiday which he did for the first time in 1914. The idea rapidly caught on, but the commercialisation of Mothers day with cards and expensive gifts became so extreme that a disillusioned Anna Jarvis began calling it Hallmark holiday and claimed she regretted ever having started the commemoration.
The day has evolved in different ways in different societies. In most modern Western countries with the changes in society, the original simple acknowledgement of mothers in a setting of a close nuclear family worshipping together with their local community is now a light year from the reality that many mothers face. With the constraints of the modern economy, even finding an entire family that stays together and worships together is increasingly uncommon. Employment opportunities are often transitory and geographically wide apart. Sunday trading and a diverse society encompassing many beliefs and interests mean that Church itself is now a much more minor part of this Nation’s Sunday scene.
Not all of the changes have been negative. If we think back to Jesus’ day the male role was considered much more important than that of the woman, and women, including mothers, were expected to play a much more subservient role. It was also an age when roles of family members were much more defined than they are today. Jesus in his recorded dealings with women outside his family showed much more respect for women than was required but we should remember that this would not have been the norm for his day. While there are still places in the world, and even within subsections of our own society where women are given subservient roles, relatively rapid changes have been occurring.
Some of these changes are no doubt a consequence of advances in technology. For many homes, the drudgery of household tasks such as of cooking, washing and cleaning, once immensely time-consuming, is now largely a thing of the past, and there are many more roles now available in the workforce to women. In today’s society, which still far from perfect, women play a far more significant role and enjoy many more freedoms. Unfortunately with those freedoms come far more potential for disaster.
Just to take one area of concern. In Jesus day when home schooling was the norm and the mother would have many more hours contact with the child than would be the case today, the mother’s influence would be preeminent in the child’s upbringing. These days the norm is to have many more influences on a child’s upbringing.
These make the role of the mother much more problematic. You may have heard of the German proverb that roughly translated says: “to become a mother is easy, to be a mother more difficult”.
If you want evidence of this difficulty look around. Solo parenthood in some parts of this city is now almost the norm. Youth gangs, youth pregnancy, accessibility to drugs and alcohol, statistics showing an increase of violence in the home, youth suicide, the insecurity of short term employment, youth unemployment, divorce, custody battles … we should not pretend that all is sweetness and light.
Marriage itself is now seen as optional and often far from permanent, and solo parents are increasingly the norm. This calls for a different form of community support. Jesus himself foreshadowed one aspect of this change by suggesting that the Church family rather than nuclear family should be a point of support. This has a modern ring. Loving those who circumstances bring our way is a commonsense solution in a fractured and uncertain society where there may be no immediate family to fill this role.
In practice we should be truthful with ourselves and admit while John records Jesus as making the ideal of love key to his message, since few if any of the saints were able to achieve this ideal in all aspects of their lives, so while clearly it is an ideal worth striving for, it is probably best understood as a goal rather than as a prerequisite for the Christian journey. Ethics are inevitably situational in that we cannot know in advance what the calls upon the best of our intentions are going to be.
“Greater love has no man than this, that he is prepared to lay down his life for his friend” said Jesus. The catch is that in the real world we have no knowledge of whether or not such a dilemma is going to confront us and still less how we will respond in practice. We do know that such situations are uncommon. The one who dashes into the burning building to save a trapped child, the one who responds to the call for help against the armed assailant, or the one who swims out in treacherous surf to the drowning swimmer are inspiring but rare examples of Jesus’ injunction, but in the same way the disciples were found wanting when the soldiers came for Jesus, the truth is that we do not know how we would be found in such circumstances.
We know from history that the practice of prayer and Bible reading would not automatically equip us for such an occasion. The small percentage of clergy prepared to stand up against unfair provisions for families, or the few who speak up against inhumane Government policy, or show leadership resulting in tolerance for unpopular minorities suggests that even Church position is no guarantee of loving and sacrificial attitude.
Nevertheless Jesus places this ideal squarely before us so what should our response be? If we are to take his message seriously perhaps the most sensible reaction is to make a determined effort to begin by shifting our first loyalty from ourselves, to those around us. Of course we can never be certain that our commitment to others is going to win through when the unexpected arises, but it does seem to me that until we see those about us as worthy of attention, worthy of sympathy and worthy of sacrifice we have not begun to understand how to honour those we claim to love.
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