There are a lot of comments being made about the need to share faith with others, to witness to the faith that is so important to us. And these assume that finding the right words is the key to this. Today, as we celebrate the twin festival of Mothering Sunday and also in my church kept the Feast of the Annunciation as well, I want to take that a step back. With the angel appearing to Mary, and today being a moment to think about carrying the child, the emerging life, then today becomes more about how we carry faith without knowing it, before we know it and the importance of those who assist this.
The Annunciation is the story of the Angel Gabriel paying a visit to Mary to tell her that she was to be the mother of Jesus (Luke 1:26-38). More than just a positive pregnancy test, the shock at what the line of the ClearBlue test tells her, from this moment life changes. We know so much more about the gestation of life, that conception is more of a process than a moment. From single cells dividing into a more complex structure, which becomes embedded in the mother’s womb and then grows and develops so that it gradually becomes visibly a distinct life. At first it is almost insignificant and indistinguishable, a collection of cells. It is vulnerable and so many do not make it beyond this moment. Hence conception being more of a gradual process over time than a single moment.
The mystery that is life is truly a wonder, a miracle that emerges and comes into being. Annunciation is a moment to reflect on that coming into being.
This carrying, this nurturing into being inside, which is such an amazing aspect of motherhood, is also a model we can see reflected in other areas. There are people who prepare us before we know it, before we see it, before we are conscious of it, or even have any memory of it. There are people who do this for us in faith and Mothering Sunday is also about how we are nurtured in faith as well as how we are mothered in life. Faith grows and is nurtured long before we may be aware of it, even if we have come to it later in life, or indeed drifted away from it and come back to it later. Hope is grown and nurtured within us long before we become aware of it, and love grows long before we become aware of it. We are carried by others and in turn carry others long before they may know it. This is how the Annunciation becomes a sign of the mothering of faith, hope and love for us all, of the coming into being of these.
All of us play a part in this. Justin Welby, the Archbishop of Canterbury, has published a new book called ‘Reimagining Britain: Foundations of Hope‘. This begins with a model of how values and virtues are shaped and what contributes to this shaping. These are the foundation of hope and they stem from love in action, a deep honouring and respect for all, from everything that strengthens and maintains the bonds between us. These values and virtues are important for hope and holding hope. Justin Welby sees these as being hardwired into creation, what Aslan in ‘The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe’ calls ‘Deep Magic’. When these are fractured all hell breaks loose. These values and virtues as the basis for a hopeful future seem to me to be the main contribution of his book.
We learn what is shown to us, when it is stirred within us. What used to be referred to as faith being taught on a mother’s knee, is a recognition that we can love and wonder, we can learn virtue when it is shown and stirred within us. And often that begins with a primary carer, so often a mother, and long before it is given a system or structure that we can identity. Celebrating mothering and Annunciation together is a moment to reflect on those whose love has assisted the growing within us of love, of values and virtues. It is also a day to think about how we might do that in and for others, not least those we have the most closest involvement with.
Families are complex. Not everyone’s experience of their mothers is positive. Sometimes the primary relationships do not function as they should. But we will only know that we are loved if someone has shown us what it means to be loved, and that could well be someone else – foster carers, adopters and those who are blessing to us. We will only know that we are valued and have an inherent dignity if someone has shown this to us. And so churches, which seek to mother faith in others, to mother hope in others, it is a vital virtue and value for us to be people who display love and dignity to those we meet, to those we come into contact with. in doing this we become people of the Annunciation, where love and hope grows long before we are aware of it, before we can name it, before faith is brought to birth.
It can be popular to talk about the church as being a midwife of the gospel. Today I find myself reflecting on a prior calling, to be like Mary and carry it and nurture it, to be a place where hope is shown so that it may grow to be a place where it can be born. For some this is where they are, not at the point of it being born yet. And all of us have been there at some point in our lives, may even find we are there now.
There are the marginalised, the excluded, the vulnerable and ones who are hardest to reach. There are those who have been injured by other Christians and I am proud of my own church for its long history of open and inclusive love. We were talking about this at the Parochial Church Council meeting on Thursday and I was touched that it was something they regarded as a taken for granted – they had stopped thinking about it. And the more I have got to know them over the year, the more I have seen this. It is refreshing, and sadly not the case everywhere. We can also have our horizons expanded, but it starts from a good base.
So today, on this Mothering Sunday mixed with the Annunciation, we take a step into the foundations of faith, of hope and love, and look at those who help it come into being long before it is seen, or named or recognised. This is the gestation period and it begins with God’s love being hardwired into creation, spoken by his Angel, by his voice. We learn it by being shown it, by experiencing it. And we help others learn it in the same way. We are called to be, like Mary, those who allow it to come into being, This aspect of mothering is unseen, but vital. Today we are thankful for those who have assisted our coming into being in life, in love, in hope and in faith.
An adapted version of a sermon preached at Peterborough Parish Church, Sunday 11th March 2018