Monday, 5 March 2018

Readings, hymns and
sermon ideas for
Sunday 11 March 2018

Louis Tiffany, ‘Nicodemus Came to Him by Night’ … a window in First Presbyterian Church, Lockport, New York

Patrick Comerford

Next Sunday [11 March 2018], is the Fourth Sunday in Lent. The readings provided in the Revised Common Lectionary (RCL) are: Numbers 21: 4-9; Psalm 107: 1-3, 17-22; Ephesians 2: 1-10; and John 3: 14-21.

There is a link to the readings HERE.

There is an optional, second set of readings for Sunday as Mothering Sunday: Exodus 2: 1-10 or I Samuel 1: 20-28; Psalm 34: 11-20 or Psalm 127: 1-4; II Corinthians 1: 3-7 or Colossians 3: 12-17; Luke 2: 33-35 or John 19: 25-27.

Saint Patrick’s Day (17 March) falls at the end of the week, and the readings are: Tobit 13: 1b-7 or Deuteronomy 32: 1-9; Psalm 145: 1-13; II Corinthians 4: 1-12; John 4: 31-38.

The Fourth Sunday in Lent is also known as Laetare Sunday because of the incipit of the traditional Introit: Laetare Jerusalem, ‘O be joyful, Jerusalem’ (Isaiah 66: 10, Masoretic text).

The full Introit reads:

Laetare Jerusalem: et conventum facite omnes qui diligitis eam: gaudete cum laetitia, qui in tristitia fuistis: ut exsultetis, et satiemini ab uberibus consolationis vestrae.

Psalm: Laetatus sum in his quae dicta sunt mihi: in domum Domini ibimus.

Rejoice, O Jerusalem: and come together all you that love her: rejoice with joy, you that have been in sorrow: that you may exult, and be filled from the breasts of your consolation.

Psalm: I rejoiced when they said to me: ‘we shall go into God’s House!’

This Sunday is also known as Refreshment Sunday, Mid-Lent Sunday (in French mi-carême), and Rose Sunday. On this Sunday, mediaeval Popes blessed a golden rose to send to sovereigns. In many parts of the Anglican Communion and the Roman Catholic Church, rose-coloured vestments are worn on this Sunday instead of the violet or purple colour of Lent.

The first part of these notes looks at the Lectionary readings for the Fourth Sunday in Lent; the second part looks at the alternative Gospel readings provided for Mothering Sunday.

Part 1, The Fourth Sunday in Lent:

Sunrise on Mount Sinai (Photograph: Richard Beck)

Numbers 21: 4-9:

Throughout the Sundays in Lent, the RCL Old Testament readings this year (Year B) focus on covenantal relationships with God:

● On the First Sunday in Lent (18 February), Genesis 9: 8-17 was the story of God’s covenant with Noah, his descendants and “every living creature of all flesh.”
● On the Second Sunday in Lent (25 February), the reading (Genesis 17: 1-7, 15-16) looks at God’s covenant with Abraham and his “offspring after you throughout the generations … an everlasting covenant.”
● On the Third Sunday in Lent (4 March), the reading (Exodus 20: 1-17) looks at the Ten Commandments, the symbol of that Covenant given in the wilderness in Sinai.
● On the Fourth Sunday in Lent (11 March), the Sunday reading we are looking at this morning, we hear the story of the rebellion against that covenant and the serpent of bronze which we interpret as a symbol of the promise of Christ’s coming (Numbers 21: 4-9).

These readings are followed up in the Sundays that come next with:

● On the Fifth Sunday in Lent (18 March), the promise to Jeremiah of a new covenant that will be like the covenant between a husband and wife and that will be written in the hearts of the people (Jeremiah 31: 31-34).
● On the Sixth Sunday in Lent (Palm Sunday, 25 April), the theme of rebellion against God is addressed once again, with the promise of new covenant ushered in by the suffering servant (Isaiah 50: 4-9a).

So, on the Fourth Sunday in Lent (11 March), the Old Testament reading looks at the rebellion against Covenant in the wilderness in Sinai, just as the people were within reach of the Promised Land, and a response that is often see as a precursor or forerunner of the Cross.

During this journey from slavery in Egypt to freedom in the Promised Land, there are eight rebellions: six by the people against their leaders and God, and two by their leaders against God. The rebellion stories tell of a lack of trust in God – which led to all those of the generation that left Egypt (including Moses) dying before Israel entered the Promised Land – a punishment for lack of faith, and an example for later generations.

These stories tell too of the issues of human leadership: its qualifications, manifestations and limitations, and how really has to struggle to be an effective leader.

The setting:

The Children of Israel have come to the borders of the Promised Land. Twelve spies are sent across the river, but they return with reports of the land that are not very promising. Ten of the scouts tell them there is no way that they could conquer, much less evict, the people who live there.

On the other hand, two of the spies, Joshua and Caleb, submit a minority report, saying the people must cross over and enter the land. Ten outvote two, in any counting system, and the people return to the desert.

After forty years in that desert, their children’s children, along with a surviving Moses, Joshua and Caleb, are back near the Promised Land once again. But the second generation begin to have doubts too: ‘Let us go back to Egypt. At least there we were fed, had homes we could live in one place … Who of us has seen God? To which of us has he spoken? Who among us can say he or she believes all the tales our fathers and mothers left us? Who?’

Travel through the Desert during those many, long years, they grow impatient frequently, and they murmur or complain against both God and Moses whenever they are unhappy. Often we hear them cry, ‘Why did you make us leave the safety of Egypt in order to die in this awful desert? We never have bread and there is hardly ever water…’ and so on.

The people sin by speaking against God and against Moses. When God punishes them, they repent and ask Moses to intercede for them. When Moses intercedes on behalf of the people, God forgives them and provides a tangible way in which they can now be obedient to God and receive healing benefits from God.

The details of the account are probably based on experiences with poisonous snakes in the Sinai Peninsula and in the southern Negev region and on the popular belief that the creature that causes pain and death should also be the creature through which deliverance from pain and death are found.

This may appear like superstitious thinking to our modern ways of thinking, yet this is a principle that is similar in some ways to what happens in medicine with immunisation, and to a greater degree with homeopathy.

Saint Catherine’s monastery on the slopes of Mount Sinai (Photograph: Nick Leonard)

Looking at the reading

In this reading, the freed people of Israel are now in the desert in the Sinai Peninsula, probably near its north-east edge, south-west of the Dead Sea.

Having arrived at this stage in the Biblical narrative, it is difficult to imagine that the people have still not learned to appreciate the grace and generosity that God has bestowed upon them. At the very least, we might think, they ought to realise that their murmurings might provoke negative reactions.

In this reading, the people rebel against Moses and God. They are ‘impatient’ (verse 4) or ‘short-tempered’ because Moses has refused to engage Edom in battle and, (after being attacked) Israel, with God’s help, has won a military victory over the local Canaanites.

In criticising the manna they are receiving as detestable ‘miserable food’ (verse 5), they are resenting what God gives them freely. So God sends ‘poisonous’ (verse 6) or fiery ‘serpents’ – fiery possibly because the bites become inflamed before the victims die.

The people repent, and they ask Moses to intercede or ‘pray to the Lord’ for them (verse 7). God replies that he will heal through a symbol, a bronze snake on a pole. Those who believe in God will be healed.

The bronze serpent was preserved and honoured. But when it became a symbol of worship, separate from the worship of God, it was smashed during the reign of King Hezekiah, in the late 700s BC (see II Kings 18:4).

This story is surprising, for culturally we associate the serpent either with the temptation of Eve in Eden, or you may know of the serpent was a Canaanite symbol. Some scholars connect the snake goddess of the Minoans of Crete with the Phoenician Astarte. She was the goddess of fertility and sexuality and her temples were decorated with snake motifs.

However, remember how the staffs of Moses and Aaron were turned into snakes.

In the (Apocryphal) Wisdom of Solomon 16: 6-12, we find the bronze serpent described as a symbol of salvation. There it is said that those who gazed on the serpent were saved from the effects of the poisonous snake bites, not by the power of the bronze snake but because they were obedient to the word of the Lord given through Moses.

The Mishnah rejects any simplistic magical interpretation of the story: ‘Does a serpent really hold the power over death or life?’ it asks. And the reply comes: ‘Rather, as Israel lifted their eyes and gazed upward, they would submit their hearts to their Father in Heaven – and this would bring about their cure.’

Today, an image of two intertwined serpents on a staff flanked by wings is the symbol of the medical profession. This symbol, the caduceus, is the symbol of the cult of Aesculapius. In classical Greece, healing and medicine were associated with the cult of Aesculapius, and Hippocrates, who is regarded as the father of western medicine, was a 20th-generation member of the cult of Aesculapius. And there lies a connection with what I said earlier about yet this is a principle that is modern medicine, immunisation, homeopathy and snake bites.

Psalm 107: 1-3, 17-22:

In this psalm, the people are urged to ‘give thanks to the Lord,’ and are reminded that has redeemed them trouble and gathered his people from lands to the east and west, to the north and south (verses 1-3).

Later, the psalmist recalls the story in the Old Testament reading, and how God saves and heals them in their times of distress (verses 17-22). In response, they are to offer sacrifices of thanksgiving and to sing with joy about God’s deeds.

A stall outside the Isa Bey Camii in Selçuk near Ephesus sells souvenir statues of Artemis, Greek philosophers and the Virgin Mary (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

Ephesians 2: 1-10:

The Apostle Paul is writing to the Church in Ephesus, reminding Christians there how they responded with faith to the word of truth and Gospel of Salvation and received the Holy Spirit (Ephesians 1: 13). He has heard of their faith and of their love for fellow Christians, and he prays that they may receive ‘a spirit of wisdom and revelation’ (1: 17).

In this reading, Saint Paul speaks of the time before the conversion of these Ephesians. It must be remembered that at the time Ephesus was the centre of the cult of Artemis, which was associated with sexual licence, and the Temple of Artemis in Ephesus was one of the seven wonders of the classical world.

Saint Paul reminds these people that before they were baptised they were dead spiritually because of their sins, following a very different spiritual path that led to ‘passions’ of the ‘flesh’ (2: 1-3), which is probably a reference to the practices associated with the cult of Artemis in Ephesus.

But, he reminds us, God loves us, even when we are spiritually dead (2: 4). God loves us so much that he has seated us together with Christ (verse 5). We have been given new life and new freedom, through God’s free gift of grace and love (2: 6-9).

We are what God has made us, and we reach this through our life in Christ (verse 10).

An elaborate marble fountain was supplied with fresh waters from the channels that once brought water to the pool in the Baptistery in the Basilica of Saint John in Ephesus (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

John 3: 14-21 (NRSV):

[Jesus answered him,]

14 ‘[And] Just as Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, so must the Son of Man be lifted up, 15 that whoever believes in him may have eternal life.

16 ‘For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him may not perish but may have eternal life.

17 ‘Indeed, God did not send the Son into the world to condemn the world, but in order that the world might be saved through him. 18 Those who believe in him are not condemned; but those who do not believe are condemned already, because they have not believed in the name of the only Son of God. 19 And this is the judgement, that the light has come into the world, and people loved darkness rather than light because their deeds were evil. 20 For all who do evil hate the light and do not come to the light, so that their deeds may not be exposed. 21 But those who do what is true come to the light, so that it may be clearly seen that their deeds have been done in God.’

Nicodemus visiting Christ in the dark ... where did the light shine through?

Introduction:

The full story that provides the context for this reading, John 3: 1-21, is one that contains two of the most oft-quoted passages in Saint John’s Gospel: ‘Very truly, I tell you, no one can see the kingdom of God without being born from above’ (or ‘born again’) (verse 5); and ‘For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him may not perish but may have eternal life’ (verse 16).

The placing of this story in Saint John’s Gospel is one of the keys to understanding it.

Already, in this Gospel, we have heard about the incarnation and the Word made flesh; Saint John has borne witness to him as the Lamb of God; Christ has begun to gather disciples as witnesses to him as the Messiah; the first sign, at the wedding in Cana, presupposes the transcendence of all the established religion of the day in the self-offering of the Lamb of God, symbolised in the Eucharist; and the cleansing of the Temple, which we read about last Sunday (John 2: 13-22) shows that the sacrificial system is being replaced by the one true sacrifice in Christ’s death and resurrection.

Now we have an encounter with someone whose immediate concern is with the interpretation and the application of the law, for Nicodemus is both a Pharisee and a member of the ruling Sanhedrin.

Saint John’s Gospel is the only Gospel to tell the story of Nicodemus. He is not mentioned in the Synoptic Gospels, although some commentators try to identify him with the rich young ruler in Saint Mark’s Gospel (see Mark 10: 17 ff) or with other figures in the synoptic Gospels.

The setting:

Verse 1: Nicodemus is a leader of the Jews(ἄρχων τῶν Ἰουδαίων). In other words, he is a member of the Sanhedrin, the official Jewish court made up of seventy priests, scribes and elders, presided over by the High Priest.

Verse 2: Nicodemus comes to Christ by night. Perhaps, as a leading member of society, a very worldly figure perhaps, he did not want to be seen consulting this newly-arrived rabbi who has already caused a stir in Jerusalem. But Saint John uses poetic and dramatic ways to contrast images: heaven and earth, water and wine, seeing and believing, faith and understanding, truth and falseness. Here we have the contrast between darkness and light. The world that is in darkness is being brought into the light of Christ.

Nicodemus opens the conversation by referring to the signs, an important theme and key to understanding the Fourth Gospel. And he confesses a simple faith in Christ as a teacher sent by God. But John the Baptist has already been described as a man sent by God (John 1: 6). So that is not enough – that is simply an understanding of Christ without the crucifixion and the Resurrection. At this point, Nicodemus has seen but he does not believe; he has insight but does not have faith.

Verse 3: The reply from Christ puts the emphasis back on faith rather than understanding, on believing more than seeing. The Kingdom of God is not entered because of moral achievement, but because of transformation brought about by God.

There is a contrast between what Nicodemus sees and what those of faith may see. To ‘see’ the Kingdom of God is not possible literally at that moment in time. For Christ, in this saying, to see is to experience. To experience the world in the light of the insights of the New Testament is so radically different an experience that it is like being born anew, being born once again.

The key Greek word here is ἄνωθεν which as the double meaning of ‘from above’ and ‘again.’ The words translated as ‘being born from above’ in the NRSV (γεννηθῇ ἄνωθεν) could also be translated as ‘born anew”’(RSV). Or it may mean ‘from the upper country’ (physically or geographically) or ‘from above,’ ‘from heaven.’

A new birth, a second birth, getting a whole new take on life, a new beginning, a fresh, refreshing start … what do you think is meant here? What has been your experience?

Verse 4: As we go on in the story, we see how difficult it was for Nicodemus to understand what Christ was saying.

Verse 5: Entry into the kingdom experience, birth into the new order, is through water, or baptism (see John 1: 33; Ephesians 5: 26), through the Spirit (see Ezekiel 36: 25-27), and through water and the Spirit (Titus 3: 5-7). These are not separate actions – remember how the Spirit descended and remained on Christ at his Baptism by John (see John 1: 32-34).

Verse 6: Like begets like.

Verse 7: You – the Greek pronoun here (ὑμᾶς) is in the plural, or as it might be written in Dublin slang, ‘yous.’

Verse 8: The wind (πνεῦμα): the Greek word here means both spirit and wind, while the word ‘sound’ can also be translated as ‘voice.’ See Ezekiel 36: 25-27, where it says: ‘I will sprinkle clean water upon you, and you shall be clean from all your uncleanliness, and from all your idols I will cleanse you. A new heart I will give you, and a new spirit I will put within you; and I will remove from your body the heart of stone and give you a heart of flesh. I will put my spirit within you, and make you follow my statutes and be careful to observe my ordinances.’

Verse 9: Nicodemus has floundered around, he really fails to grasp what Christ is saying and its implications. His question is phrased ‘How can this be?’ (RSV) or ‘How can these things be?’ (NRSV). Others suggest his question should be translated as: ‘How can these things happen?’ or even more literally: ‘How is it possible for these things to happen?’

Verse 10: A teacher ought to be aware of the truth. But Nicodemus is behaving like a weak pupil.

Verse 11: In this verse, the first use of the word ‘you’ is singular … ‘you yourself’ as opposed to ‘yous,’ but the second use is plural. Notice how Christ moves from the second person singular to the first personal plural, from you to we, then you (plural) and our. Who is the ‘we’ here, who owns what is ‘our” testimony?

Verse 12: We have here a contrast between earthly things, such as the parable of the wind (see verse 8), and heavenly things, as in supreme spiritual realities. And Nicodemus is offered choice. Which choice does he make?

Verse 13: Christ descended from heaven to bring eternal life, participation in God’s life. This is the first of Saint John’s three sayings about the Son of Man being lifted up, comparable to three passages in Saint Mark’s Gospel on the Son of Man’s passion (see Mark 8: 31; Mark 9: 31; Mark 10: 33).

The Sunday Gospel reading (John 3: 14-21):

‘God so loved man (humanity)’ ... Guizhou Theological Training Centre in Guiyang Province in central China (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

Verse 14: The word ‘lift up’ refers to both Christ being lifted up on the Cross and Christ being lifted up into heaven … the cross is the first step on the ladder of the ascension. For the imagery being drawn on here see the Old Testament reading provided for the same Sunday (Numbers 21: 4-9). The writer of the Book of Wisdom calls the serpent a symbol of salvation (Wisdom 16: 6). But this verse also recalls the earlier remark to Nathanael that he would see the heavens opened and the angels of God ascending and descending on the Son of Man (see John 1: 51).

Verse 16:

For many, this verse is a summary of the whole Gospel. Martin Luther called this much-quoted verse ‘the Gospel in miniature.’

This passage is a favourite inscription to place on the outside walls of churches in China. But it is often translated in Chinese as ‘God so loved man (humanity) …’ It is not that God so loved the saved, or even all of humanity, or even the world, but that God so loved the cosmos (κόσμος), the whole created order, that he gave, or rather sent (ἔδωκεν, from δίδωμι) his only-begotten Son.

The statue of Pythagoras by Nikolaos Ikaris (1989) on the harbour front in Pythagóreio on the Greek island of Samos (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

In Pythagorean thinking – and remember that John was in exile on Patmos, the neighbouring island of Samos, where Pythagoras was born – the cosmos (κόσμος) includes the arrangement of the stars, ‘the heavenly hosts,’ as the ornament of the heavens (see I Peter 3: 3); it is not just the whole world, but the whole universe, the whole created order; it is earth and all that encircles the earth like its skin.

And this love is the beginning of Missio Dei, God’s mission – he sent (ἔδωκεν, from δίδωμι) his only-begotten Son.

To perish and to have eternal life are absolute alternatives.

By now the dialogue has become a monologue.

Verse 17:

The same Greek verb (κρίνω) can mean to separate, to select or to condemn, and to approve and to judge. God’s purpose is not to condemn but to save.

Verses 18-19:

Individuals judge themselves by hiding their evil deeds from the light of Christ’s holiness.

Nicodemus and Joseph of Arimathea, watched by the Virgin Mary, lay the Body of Christ in the tomb … Station XIV in the Stations of the Cross in Saint Mel’s Cathedral, Longford (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

Conclusion:

So what happened to Nicodemus?

This is his first of three appearances in this Gospel. We shall meet him again a second time when he states the law concerning the arrest of Christ during the Feast of Tabernacles (John 7:45-51).

The third time follows the Crucifixion, when he helps Joseph of Arimathea in taking the body of Christ down from the cross before dark, and preparing the body for burial (John 19: 39-42).

So in the story of Nicodemus, we find birth is linked with death, new birth is linked with new life, and before darkness falls Nicodemus really comes to possess the Body of Christ, to hold the Body of Christ in his hands.

Reflecting on the readings:

Nicodemus comes to Christ in the darkness, and is brought into the light. In this reading we come across, once again, the Johannine theme of the seeing and believing.

What would you miss if you could not see? What would you miss if you were blind?

So often, we take for granted not just our health and well-being but our physical senses too – our sight, speech, hearing, sense of smell and touch.

Many grieving and suffering mothers in our churches on Mothering Sunday may find themselves wondering why their children are suffering and wondering how or whether their suffering and the suffering of their children fit into God’s plans for the fullness of creation.

Indeed, many of us turn aside from the needs of other people in their plight, and how many of us still believe that those in poverty and deprivation simply need to ‘pull themselves up’ or ‘to see the light’?

Christ’s compassion, caring and non-judgmental stance are in stark contrast with some who would like to claim the ground for conservative evangelicalism today, but who ignore the example of Christ. Recently, in what looks like an interview with himself – the ultimate verbal equivalent of a ‘selfie’ – Professor Don Carson of Trinity Evangelical Divinity School arrogantly argued: ‘Christians who by their failure to proclaim the Christ of the gospel of the kingdom while they treat AIDS victims in their suffering here and now show themselves not really to believe all that the Bible says about fleeing the wrath to come. In the end, it is a practical atheism and a failure in love.’

Practical Christianity is reduced to practical atheism in this sharp judgment without any reference to the example of Christ in the Gospel.

In this morning’s Gospel reading, Christ reminds Nicodemus that he has come into the world not to condemn the world, but in order that the world might be saved. He puts this into practice into the way he heals the sick, feeds the hungry, brings sight to the blind, comforts those who mourn, putting into action what he has proclaims in the synagogue in Nazareth immediately after his temptations in the wilderness, as being the heart of the Gospel:

‘The Spirit of the Lord is upon me,
because he has anointed me
to bring good news to the poor.
He has sent me to proclaim release to the captives
and recovery of sight to the blind,
to let the oppressed go free,
to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favour.’ (Luke 4: 18-19)

He sees their plight, and responds by showing what the Gospel truly means, what the Kingdom of God is truly like.

But so often, we take for granted not just our health and well-being but our physical senses too – our sight, speech, hearing, sense of smell and touch.

Meanwhile, it is worth asking again: What would you miss if you were blind?

Some questions for reflection:

In the spiritual wilderness, is it easy to rebel and to seek quick solutions and quick cures?

Do we blame the sickness of others on their sinfulness?

Is it possible that sinfulness leads to sickness?

If the life-giving snake on the pole counters the life-killing snakes on the ground, how do we use this image to talk about Christ’s life-giving work?

Can you draw parallels between the forty years in the Wilderness and the forty days of Lent?

‘God … is rich in mercy, out of the great love with which he loved us’ (Ephesians 2: 4) ... flowers in the grounds of the Basilica of Saint John in Ephesus (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

Liturgical resources:

Liturgical colour: Violet (or Pink).

Penitential Kyries:

In the wilderness we find your grace:
you love us with an everlasting love.
Lord, have mercy.
Lord, have mercy.

There is none but you to uphold our cause;
our sin cries out and our guilt is great.
Christ, have mercy.
Christ, have mercy.

Heal us, O Lord, and we shall be healed;
Restore us and we shall know your joy.
Lord, have mercy.
Lord, have mercy.

The Collect of the Day (the Fourth Sunday in Lent):

Lord God
whose blessed Son our Saviour
gave his back to the smiters
and did not hide his face from shame:
Give us grace to endure the sufferings of this present time
with sure confidence in the glory that shall be revealed;
through Jesus Christ our Lord.

The Lenten Collect:

Almighty and everlasting God,
you hate nothing that you have made
and forgive the sins of all those who are penitent:
Create and make in us new and contrite hearts
that we, worthily lamenting our sins
and acknowledging our wretchedness,
may receive from you, the God of all mercy,
perfect remission and forgiveness;
through Jesus Christ our Lord.

Introduction to the Peace:

Being justified by faith,
we have peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ. (Romans 5: 1, 2)

Preface:

Through Jesus Christ our Lord,
who was in every way tempted as we are yet did not sin;
by whose grace we are able to overcome all our temptations:

Post Communion Prayer:

Father,
through your goodness
we are refreshed through your Son
in word and sacrament.
May our faith be so strengthened and guarded
that we may witness to your eternal love
by our words and in our lives.
Grant this for Jesus’ sake, our Lord.

Blessing:

Christ give you grace to grow in holiness,
to deny yourselves,
and to take up your cross and follow him:

‘For we are what he has made us, created in Christ Jesus for good works’ (Ephesians 2: 10) … the cross seen in archaeological remains in the Basilica in Ephesus (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

Liturgical Resources

The Collect of the Day (Mothering Sunday):

God of compassion,
whose Son Jesus Christ, the child of Mary,
shared the life of a home in Nazareth,
and on the cross drew the whole human family to himself:
Strengthen us in our daily living
that in joy and in sorrow
we know the power of your presence
to bind together and to heal;
through Jesus Christ our Lord.

Post Communion Prayer (Mothering Sunday):

Loving God,
as a mother feeds her children at the breast,
you feed us in this sacrament with spiritual food and drink.
Help us who have tasted your goodness
to grow in grace within the household of faith;
through Christ our Lord.

Apart from the Collect and Post-Communion Prayer, there are no other propers or liturgical provisions for Mothering Sunday. However, there may be circumstances when the provisions for the Annunciation, the Presentation, the Visitation and the Birth of the Blessed Virgin Mary might be adapted:

Penitential Kyries:

Lord God, mighty God,
you are the creator of the world.
Lord, have mercy.
Lord, have mercy.

Lord Jesus, Son of God and Son of Mary,
you are the Prince of Peace.
Christ, have mercy.
Christ, have mercy.

Holy Spirit,
by your power the Word was made flesh
and came to dwell among us.
Lord, have mercy.
Lord, have mercy.

Introduction to the Peace:

Unto us a child is born, unto us a son is given:
and his name is called the Prince of Peace. (Isaiah 9: 7).

Preface:

You chose the Blessed Virgin Mary
to be the mother of your Son
and so exalted the humble and meek;
your angel hailed her as most highly favoured,
and with all generations we call her blessed:

Blessing:

Christ the Son of God, born of Mary,
fill you with his grace
to trust his promises and obey his will:

Suggested hymns:

The hymns suggested for the Fourth Sunday in Lent (Year B) in Sing to the Word (2000), edited by Bishop Edward Darling, include:

Numbers 21: 4-9:

647, Guide me, O thou great Jehovah

Psalm 107: 1-3, 17-22:

683, All people that on earth do dwell
353, Give to our God immortal praise
128, Hills of the north, rejoice
30, Let us, with a gladsome mind
484, Lift high the cross, the love of Christ proclaim

Ephesians 2: 1-10:

250, All hail the power of Jesu’s name
642, Amazing grace, how sweet the sound!
258, Christ the Lord is risen again
352, Give thanks with a grateful heart
583, Jesu, my Lord, my God, my all
99, Jesus, the name high over all
56, Lord, as I wake I turn to you
277, Love’s redeeming work is done
557, Rock of ages, cleft for me

John 3: 14-21:

352, Give thanks with a grateful heart
353, Give to our God immortal praise
226, It is a thing most wonderful
484, Lift high the cross, the love of Christ proclaim
227, Man of sorrows! What a name
102, Name of all majesty
106, O Jesus, King most wonderful
237, O my Saviour, lifted
241, Sing, my tongue, the glorious battle
373, To God be the glory! Great things he has done!

‘Go, make the tomb as secure as you know how’ ... Christ is laid in the tomb by Nicodemus, from the Stations of the Cross in the Chapel of Saint John’s Hospital, Lichfield (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

Part 2, Mothering Sunday:

The optional, second set of readings for next Sunday as Mothering Sunday are: Exodus 2: 1-10 or I Samuel 1: 20-28; Psalm 34: 11-20 or Psalm 127: 1-4; II Corinthians 1: 3-7 or Colossians 3: 12-17; Luke 2: 33-35 or John 19: 25-27.

The Presentation in the Temple, carved on a panel on a triptych in the Lady Chapel, Lichfield Cathedral (Photograph: Patrick Comerford/Lichfield Gazette)

Luke 2: 33-35:

33 And the child’s father and mother were amazed at what was being said about him. 34 Then Simeon blessed them and said to his mother Mary, ‘This child is destined for the falling and the rising of many in Israel, and to be a sign that will be opposed 35 so that the inner thoughts of many will be revealed – and a sword will pierce your own soul too.’

This short Gospel reading is part of a longer reading normally linked with the Feast of the Presentation or Candlemas [2 February].

Nevertheless, the prophetic words of Simeon, which speak of the falling and rising of many and the sword that will piece Mary’s heart, are appropriate in Lent too, leading us on to the Passion and Easter.

TS Eliot’s poem A Song for Simeon is put in the mouth of an old man, the prophet Simeon in the Temple in Jerusalem. Here Eliot draws on a Christmas sermon by the great 17th century theologian and bishop, Launcelot Andrewes (1555-1626), one of the early Caroline divines and one of the translators of the King James Version of the Bible.

In this poem, Eliot uses significant images to explore the Christian faith, images that are also prophetic, telling of things to happen to the Christ Child in the future. He focuses on an event that brings about the end of an old order and the beginning of a new one.

The Presentation of the Christ Child in the Temple ... a window in Christ Church Cathedral, Dublin (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

A Song for Simeon (TS Eliot)

Lord, the Roman hyacinths are blooming in bowls and
The winter sun creeps by the snow hills;
The stubborn season had made stand.
My life is light, waiting for the death wind,
Like a feather on the back of my hand.
Dust in sunlight and memory in corners
Wait for the wind that chills towards the dead land.

Grant us thy peace.
I have walked many years in this city,
Kept faith and fast, provided for the poor,
Have given and taken honour and ease.
There went never any rejected from my door.
Who shall remember my house, where shall live my children’s children
When the time of sorrow is come?
They will take to the goat’s path, and the fox’s home,
Fleeing from the foreign faces and the foreign swords.

Before the time of cords and scourges and lamentation
Grant us thy peace.
Before the stations of the mountain of desolation,
Before the certain hour of maternal sorrow,
Now at this birth season of decease,
Let the Infant, the still unspeaking and unspoken Word,
Grant Israel’s consolation
To one who has eighty years and no to-morrow.

According to thy word.
They shall praise Thee and suffer in every generation
With glory and derision,
Light upon light, mounting the saints’ stair.
Not for me the martyrdom, the ecstasy of thought and prayer,
Not for me the ultimate vision.
Grant me thy peace.
(And a sword shall pierce thy heart,
Thine also).
I am tired with my own life and the lives of those after me,
I am dying in my own death and the deaths of those after me.
Let thy servant depart,
Having seen thy salvation.

‘Woman, here is your son ... Here is your mother’ ... Mary and the Beloved Disciple in a crucifixion window in Christ Church Cathedral, Dublin (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

John 19: 25-27:

25 Meanwhile, standing near the cross of Jesus were his mother, and his mother’s sister, Mary the wife of Clopas, and Mary Magdalene. 26 When Jesus saw his mother and the disciple whom he loved standing beside her, he said to his mother, ‘Woman, here is your son.’ 27 Then he said to the disciple, ‘Here is your mother.’ And from that hour the disciple took her into his own home.

‘Woman, here is your son ... here is your mother.’ These words from the dying Christ on the cross are the third set of words in the traditional way we count the Seven Last Words, often used to shape Good Friday commemorations.

This phrase is traditionally called ‘The Word of Relationship.’

In these tender words, the dying Christ entrusts his weeping mother Mary to the care of the Beloved Disciple. But Christ is not creating a one-way relationship. He immediately follows this by creating a new relationship for the Beloved Disciple: ‘Here is your mother.’

He entrusts her to him – and him to her. Relationships always have at least two dimensions. But the best of relationships are three dimensional – one to another, and each other to God.

And that central truth about relationships is at the heart of the events of the Cross. As Saint Paul says, on the cross Christ was reconciling us to God and to one another (see Ephesians 2: 15-22).

There are some relationships we cannot create, there are others we cannot control, and others still that we have no choice about.

We cannot create our family. Our families are already given, even before we are born or adopted.

And those relationships survive though all adversities. They are fixed. They are given.

Even though my father and mother are dead, they remain my parents.

Even though a couple may divorce, each one in the old relationship remains a sister-in-law or a daughter-in-law, a brother-in-law or a son-in-law – albeit qualified by the word ‘former.’ In time, they may find they have new relationships: when their children have children, they share grandchildren they never expected. They may want to forget their past relationship, but it remains on the family tree for some future genealogist to tell everyone about.

I like to imagine that one of the untold stories in the aftermath of the Wedding at Cana is the new network or web of family relationships that have been created. After the wedding feast, the first of the Seven Signs in Saint John’s Gospel, Christ ‘went down to Capernaum with his mother, his brothers, and his disciples; and they remained there for a few days’ (John 2: 12).

On the way, or back in Capernaum, one finds he is now a brother-in-law, another that she is a sister-in-law, some, perhaps, realise they have a new aunt or uncle, or perhaps a new niece or nephew by marriage.

We cannot create family, yet family often creates us, shapes us, gives us identity and allows others to decide where we fit socially.

There are relationships we cannot control.

Most of us cannot control who we work with. That is the choice of our employers, and even for employers that is legislation to make sure they are not discriminating. Clergy cannot, and should not try to, control who are their parishioners.

If we try to control who is and who is not a member of the Church, depending on the relationships we like to have and the relationships we do not like to have, we will find we have a church that has an ever-decreasing number of members, so that eventually we become a dwindling sect, wanting to make God in our own image and likeness, rather than accepting that we are all made in God’s image and likeness. And that eventually becomes a sect of one, where there is no place for the One who matters.

There are relationships we have no choice about. I cannot choose my friends and I cannot choose my neighbours.

Have you ever noticed that when a house is on the market, both the vendors and the estate agents tell you the neighbours are wonderful? It is only after you move in that you are likely to find out if you have, as the recent ITV television documentary series describes them, ‘the neighbours from hell.’

I cannot choose my friends. No matter how much I want to be friends with someone, if they do not want to be my friend, that’s it. I cannot force friendship. When I have a friendship, I can work on it, nurture it, help it to grow and blossom. But I cannot force a friendship. If you don’t want to be my friend, that is your choice, and if you do, and I don’t nurture that friendship, then you are going to change your mind.

Christ knows all about relationships, and he shows that on the Cross.

Relationships define us as human. Without relating to others, how can I possibly know what it is to be human? From the very beginning, God, who creates us in God’s own image and likeness, knows that it is not good for us to be alone. And in the Trinity, we find that God is relationship.

Relationship is at the heart of the cross. And there, on the cross, even as he is hanging in agony, the dying Jesus is compassionately thinking of others and of relationships.

His mother Mary is the only person throughout the Gospel narratives who has been with Christ from the beginning to the end, from his birth to his death. She has been with Christ throughout his whole life.

Saint John, the Beloved Disciple, is the disciple whom Jesus loved. We are blessed if we have a very best friend, a person to whom I am closer than any other. John is such a best friend for Jesus throughout the Gospel narrative. In the Fourth Gospel, we hear that John was ‘the beloved.’ John was the person to whom Christ was the closest. John was the best friend of Jesus.

In the midst of his dying, pain-filled moments before his death, Christ is heard thinking of the needs of the two people who love him most during his life: his mother and his best friend.

As the soldiers are gambling over his clothes and casting lots to divide them among themselves, Jesus sees three women – his mother Mary, Mary the wife of Cleopas, and Mary Magdalene, standing near the cross, and his mother is standing with the Beloved Disciple.

He turns to his mother and he says to her: ‘Woman, here is your son.’

He then turns to the Beloved Disciple and says: “Here is your mother.”

It is not a command, it is not a directive, it is not an instruction. It is a giving in love, just as his own death on the cross is self-giving. And in giving there is love and there is life.

And from that hour, we are told, the disciple took her into his own home.

Later, we find Mary and John together in the Upper Room when the Holy Spirit is given to the Church (see Acts 1: 14).

Tradition says the Virgin Mary and Saint John later travelled to Ephesus, and that she lived in his house to her dying days.

Jerome, in his commentary on the Epistle to the Galatians (Jerome, Comm. in ep. ad. Gal., 6, 10), tells the well-loved story that John the Evangelist continued preaching in Ephesus even when he was in his 90s. He was so enfeebled with old age that the people had to carry him into the Church in Ephesus on a stretcher.

And when he was no longer able to preach or deliver a long discourse, his custom was to lean up on one elbow on and say simply: ‘Little children, love one another.’

This continued on, even when the ageing John was on his death-bed. Then he would lie back down and his friends would carry him back out.

Every week, the same thing happened, again and again. And every week it was the same short sermon, exactly the same message: ‘Little children, love one another.’

One day, the story goes, someone asked him about it: ‘John, why is it that every week you say exactly the same thing, ‘little children, love one another’?’ And John replied: ‘Because it is enough.’ If you want to know the basics of living as a Christian, there it is in a nutshell. All you need to know is. ‘Little children, love one another.’

If you want to know the rules, there they are. And there’s only one. ‘Little children, love one another.’

As far as John is concerned, if you have put your trust in Jesus, then there is only one other thing you need to know. So, week after week, he would remind them, over and over again: ‘Little children, love one another.’ That is all he preached in Ephesus, week after week, and that is precisely the message he keeps on repeating in his first letter (I John), over and over again: ‘Little children, love one another.’

Christ teaches us to love, even when he is dying, even when we are dying. That is what relationships are about, and that is what the Cross is all about.

The cross broadens the concept of family - the family of God. Jesus changes the basis of relationships. No longer are relationships to be formed on the basis of natural descent, on shared ethic identity, on agreeing that others are “like us.”

Our shared place beneath the cross is the only foundational space for relationships from now on.

Mary gained another son. And the Beloved Disciple gained a new mother.

Beneath the cross of Christ, Christian fellowship is born not just for Mary and John, but also for you and me, and for everyone else who believes, for all who believe.

Beneath the cross of Christ, we become a new family.

Beneath the cross of Christ, we become brothers and sisters in Christ.

Beneath the cross of Christ, we realise that we are now part of the family of God.

On the cross, Christ entrusts us as his children to one another, to love one another.

‘Little children, love another.’

Saint John the Divine on his deathbed ... from a window in Chartres Cathedral

Additional liturgical resources:

Additional liturgical resources and service ideas for Mothering Sunday are available HERE and HERE.

Suggested hymns:
The hymns suggested for Mothering Sunday in Sing to the Word (2000), edited by Bishop Edward Darling, include:

Exodus 2: 1-10:

541, God of Eve and God of Mary
569, Hark, my soul, it is the Lord

I Samuel 1: 20-28:

391, Father, now behold us
651, Jesus, friend of little children

Psalm 34: 11-20:

657, O God of Bethel, by whose hand
507, Put peace into each other’s hands
372, Through all the changing scenes of life

Psalm 127: 1-4:

63, All praise to thee, my God, this night
481, God is working his purpose out as year succeeds to year
543, Lord of the home, your only Son
288, Thine be the glory, risen, conquering, Son

II Corinthians 1: 3-7:

361, Now thank we all our God
508, Peace to you

Colossians 3: 12-17:

346, Angel voices, ever singing
294, Come, down, O Love divine
550, ‘Forgive our sins as we forgive’
454, Forth in the name of Christ we go
300, Holy Spirit, truth divine
360, Let all the world in every corner sing
525, Let there be love shared among us
503, Make me a channel of your peace
361, Now thank we all our God
369, Songs of praise the angels sang
601, Teach me, my God and King
374, When all thy mercies, O my God
458, When, in our music, God is glorified

Luke 2: 33-35:

691, Faithful vigil ended
125, Hail to the Lord’s anointed

John 19: 25-27:

523, Help us to help each other, Lord
226, It is a thing most wonderful
495, Jesu, Jesu, fill us with your love
472, Sing we of the blessed mother (verses 1-2)

Scripture quotations are taken from the New Revised Standard Version Bible, copyright © 1989 by the Division of Christian Education of the National Council of Churches of Christ in the USA, and are used by permission. All rights reserved.

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