Motherhood Writ Large

Reading 1:

Reckless Poem

Today again I am hardly myself.
It happens over and over.
It is heaven-sent.
It flows through me
like the blue wave.
Green leaves -- you may believe this or not -- 
have once or twice emerged from the tips of my fingers
somewhere deep in the woods,
in the reckless seizure of spring.
Though, of course, I also know that other song,
the sweet passion of one-ness.
Just yesterday I watched an ant crossing a path, through the
          tumbled pine needles she toiled.
And I thought: she will never live another life but this one.
And I thought: if she lives her life with all her strength, is she not wonderful and wise?
And I continued this up the miraculous pyramid of everything
          until I came to myself.
And still, even in these northern woods, on these hills of sand,
I have flown from the other window of myself
to become white heron, blue whale, red fox, hedgehog.
Oh, sometimes already my body has felt like the body of a flower!
Sometimes already my heart is a red parrot, perched
among strange, dark trees, flapping and screaming.

Mary Oliver

 

Reading 2:

Luke 1:26-38

26 In the sixth month the angel Gabriel was sent by God to a town in Galilee called Nazareth, 27 to a virgin engaged to a man whose name was Joseph, of the house of David. The virgin's name was Mary. 28 And he came to her and said, "Greetings, favored one! The Lord is with you." F2 29 But she was much perplexed by his words and pondered what sort of greeting this might be. 30 The angel said to her, "Do not be afraid, Mary, for you have found favor with God. 31 And now, you will conceive in your womb and bear a son, and you will name him Jesus. 32 He will be great, and will be called the Son of the Most High, and the Lord God will give to him the throne of his ancestor David. 33 He will reign over the house of Jacob forever, and of his kingdom there will be no end… The Holy Spirit will come upon you, and the power of the Most High will overshadow you; therefore the child to be born F4 will be holy; he will be called Son of God… 38 Then Mary said, "Here am I, the servant of the Lord; let it be with me according to your word." Then the angel departed from her.

 

Sermon

Despite the signs in many shops, despite the permeation of Americanisms into correct English, today is not Mother’s Day. Today is Mothering Sunday.  Traditionally, this celebration – unlike the one observed in the US – has been religious. It has a history of more than two thousand years – in the third century BCE, the Romans celebrated their mother god at this time of year.

Later, the Christian church adopted the celebration and changed the emphasis.  It became a day to honour Mary, the mother of Jesus and also a day when people would try to return to their mother churches – usually the nearest cathedral rather than their more local place of regular worship

One of the customs from this “mother church” tradition has the members of a congregation form a circle around their church building, and then, with hands held, they embrace the building. It’s a nice thought, isn’t it? We know that this community is not its building – that the essential thing is its ever-changing congregation. But we do love this wonderful old building with all its oddities and memories. Well, we can’t encircle this building, but if you feel like giving the old building a nice hug or a kind word after the service, please do – it can certainly use some reassurance as we struggle with the endless tasks of preservation and renovation.  

On this Mothering Sunday, we find ourselves with two powerful stories to consider.

At last, after that long, dark, winter, spring officially arrived Friday night with the spring equinox. Equinox literally means “equal night.” It is the day when the hours of light and dark come into balance.  The spring equinox is also the beginning of the season of new life. We’ve seen the signs of it for weeks now – the flowers slipping silently out of the ground here and there to show their sweet, bright faces; leaves unfolding brightly from green buds of potential on the delicate tips of tree branches. 

It is hard not to love spring. It is the beloved subject of hymns, poems, and other warm tributes. Summer can be a relaxing playtime and autumn beautiful, but spring is the season that gets the Alleluias – as we sang in two of our hymns this morning – hymns I glance at longingly all winter waiting for that day when we can finally pull them out! 

Spring is the time when the earth itself, mother to every kind of life we know – from bacteria to buffalo, minnow to mastodon and hummingbird to human – the Earth shows once again its generous fertility as life emerges from seemingly barren ground.


And there is also another story to consider. In the Christian tradition, this Wednesday is Annunciation, or Lady Day. It is the day when Christians celebrate the story – told in the Gospel according to Luke – of the angel Gabriel visiting Mary to proclaim that she would carry and give birth to a son and that he would be a great king and be called “son of God.”

Mary has become an object of reverence herself – almost a female God. But until the annunciation, Mary was a nobody. She doesn’t even appear in the Bible until that fateful day when Gabriel appeared to call her “favoured one” and to declare “the lord is with you.”  “Who me?” she must have thought – perhaps wondering if there had been some kind of mistake – all these hovels look alike after all. Isn’t this sort of thing supposed to be reserved for those of royal blood – the messiah was to be born into the line of King David.  But Mary said simply "Here am I, the servant of the Lord; let it be with me according to your word."

And with that, Mary would become mother to one who, for Christians, was the divine incarnate – God walking among us as a man. She would be the mother to he who would bring salvation to humankind.

In her poem, “Annunciation”, Denise Levertov writes of Mary:

“Called to a destiny more momentous than any in all of Time
she did not quail…
perceiving instantly the astounding ministry she was offered:
to bear in her womb Infinite weight and lightness; 
to carry in hidden, finite inwardness, nine months of Eternity; 
to contain in slender vase of being,
the sum of power – in narrow flesh, the sum of light.”

Mary accepted her divine mission, a mission that would bring suffering and darkness, before it could bring light.

Two stories at spring’s arrival – two ideal images of motherhood: the earth as generous and bountiful mother to life, and Mary, the mother to a future of salvation and reconciliation to the God of love.  Both are powerful, inspiring stories of creation and conception.  Both have a global and an eternal sense to them.  Both have something to tell us.

Mary Oliver writes:

“It is heaven-sent.
It flows through me like the blue wave.
Green leaves -- you may believe this or not -- 
have once or twice emerged from the tips of my fingers”

Try if you can to put yourself in the images that Mary Oliver paints for us. You might want to close your eyes for a moment.

“somewhere deep in the woods, in the reckless seizure of spring.”

“It is heaven-sent.
It flows through me like the blue wave.
Green leaves -- you may believe this or not -- 
have once or twice emerged from the tips of my fingers”

“I have flown from the other window of myself
to become white heron, blue whale, red fox, hedgehog.
Oh, sometimes already my body has felt like the body of a flower!”

We are connected, deeply, lovingly, to all life, in a way that seems almost impossible to put into words, but the green leaves emerging from the tips of my fingers is an image that comes close for me.

Please forgive a slight digression from the nerdy scientist side of me:

You are not the same person you were yesterday. Many millions of the molecules that defined you yesterday, are no longer part of you. Perhaps they have moved on to another person, to the air, the water…  They will come around again. The molecules in your body are continually in flux.  You are made up of almost completely different stuff than you were 10 years ago. And all that stuff has gone elsewhere – much of it is the stuff that now makes up other living beings. 

The wood you are sitting on, the clothes you are wearing, the paper near you – everything around you – is composed of the same stuff that you are. It is star-stuff – all of it coming from a cataclysmic explosion at the beginning of our universe.  Given enough time, the wood, the paper, the planets, stars -- everything, will return to being one. At this level, there is no difference between us – people, animals, plants, even inanimate objects. Look at us at enough magnification and we are the same. We are simply the way matter has been arranged for this moment.  Give enough time and we will merge and separate and merge again.

Sages and mystics through the ages have felt a sense of connection, of unity, of a oneness of things. You may feel it too – perhaps only for an instant when you are most at peace. Perhaps you can rest in that awareness for a few moments longer.

“Green leaves have once or twice emerged from the tips of my fingers.” Perhaps we sense that we are not only our isolated selves but also tree, human, ant, heron, whale, fox, hedgehog… everything.

When the earth turns to life again after the sleep of winter, that new life is with us and in us too. We are awakened and we give birth again to life.

Let’s return to Levertov’s poem, Annunciation:
“Aren’t there annunciations of one sort or another in most lives? 
Some unwillingly undertake great destinies, 
enact them in sullen pride, uncomprehending.  
More often, those moments when roads of light and storm open from darkness in a man or woman, are turned away from in dread, in a wave of weakness, in despair and with relief.”

As a part of this life, we are not immune to annunciations and to the urgings of the spring rain and growing sunshine

The calls come to us in many forms: in the music that makes our feet tap, in the beauty of wild flowers in spring, in the eyes of a lonely friend, in the cry of a child, in the chance to help those in need

The everyday annunciations bring us challenges and opportunities:
Opportunities to be connected
Opportunities to grow
Opportunities to understand
Opportunities to bring joy and love to life
Opportunities to offer salvation from the torment of separateness

This is what a mother does
When spring brings its light
Or Gabriel speaks those incredible words
A mother says yes
A mother says yes, I will give

We close with these words from Charlotte Perkins Gilman:
So when the great word "Mother!" rang once more,
I saw at last its meaning and its place;
Not the blind passion of the brooding past,
But Mother - the World's Mother - come at last,
To love as she had never loved before -
To feed and guard and teach the human race.

May it be so.