Opening our arms

March 11, 2018

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Preached by Canon Sue Wallace using Romans 5:1-11 at Mattins on Sunday 11th March 2018, Mothering Sunday, the Fourth of Lent.

May I speak….Today I brought an icon with me to church as a sermon illustration and I have placed it upon the lectern. I hope you are able to catch a glimpse of it, either now, or later as you leave the service. I have been struck by it ever since I brought it back from Egypt last week. It shows, of course, the Virgin and child, and is a picture of serenity and bliss, showing the perfect relationship of mother and child. And yet, of course, there is more to this story than that, both in the icon itself and in the story of its writing, and of course, the reason that I brought it is that today is Mothering Sunday.

Today is a day which many people look forward to, and others dread. For weeks the card shops have been promoting the occasion and most of the cards proudly proclaim that this is Mother’s Day. Yet for those who have lost a mother, or lost a child, or for those whose family relationships are difficult it can be a painful day too. For the church though, there is a profound difference between Mother’s Day and Mothering Sunday. Mother’s day is primarily for mothers and grandmothers, and it is a good thing. Yet Mothering Sunday is something that concerns all of us. This difference is important, because the church herself is profoundly and deeply called to the ING of mothering Sunday. For the church (that is you and I – we are the church) the church is called to be mothers to those who need our care – yet we are also called to be lovingly accepting of the maternal care of others.

Which brings me back to the icon. We picked it up when we visited the nunnery of St George in Coptic Cairo and it was painted by one of the nuns in the convent, who was so thrilled to hear that someone had bought it, that she dashed down to the convent shop and put it in its case herself, loving treating it like a child as she carefully wrapped it telling us to use the ribbon to take it from its case rather than damaging the gold front of the icon.  In Matins in January I told you something of the sufferings of the Coptic or Ancient Egyptian church founded by St Mark, which has suffered a number of terror attacks in recent years. The church in Cairo’s most recent attack was a shooting in December in the suburbs of town and only last month a new church was dedicated in Al-Aour to the  21 Coptic Christians beheaded only three years ago on a beach in Libya. Yet this pain has not prevented the church meeting together or made them bar their doors to visitors. Although it has made them install sensible security precautions such as body and luggage scanners and security guards. For them, the words of St Paul’s letter to the Romans are not simply cerebral, they are living the experience of the endurance of suffering producing hope and perseverance, and God’s love really has been poured into their hearts, that love which enables them to still share their lives openly with others. This nunnery and shrine to St George, who was reputedly tortured for seven years before being martyred on the site is open to all, Muslim, Christian, those of all faiths and none and Muslims still visit in droves as St George is an important saint for them too, linked to Al Khadir in the Koran. There is no dragon in the earliest stories of George from the Coptic tradition, but there are instruments of torture on display in the Greek church next door and the chain which he was bound with. There are also plaques on the walls of the Greek church crypt giving thanks to St George for answering various prayer requests for healing. This is such an example of the church as selfless mother who opens her arms, fully aware that others may hurt her and yet opens her arms anyway, knowing that she follows a master who wept over Jerusalem and longed to gather her children in his arms as a mother hen gathers her chicks under her wings.

As Julian of Norwich once wrote “The Mother’s service is nearest, readiest, and surest: nearest, for it is most of nature; readiest, for it is most of love; and surest  for it is most of truth. This office none might, nor could, nor ever should do to the full, but He alone. We know that all our mothers’ bearing is bearing of us to pain and to dying: and what is this but that our Very Mother, Jesus, He—All-Love—bears us to joy and to endless living blessed may He be! Thus He sustains us within Himself in love;”

Thus it is that our ability to love and comfort others comes from Christ himself, using us as channels that his love may overflow to a parched world.

So for a moment let’s revisit the icon. It shows Jesus sitting in the lap of the Virgin Mary, and despite the bliss and serenity, there is pain too if you look for it, in the eyes of the Virgin who will see her son die upon the cross and the cross itself within the halo of Jesus. The pain is part of her calling as mother, and it is part of our calling, the church’s maternal calling too. We cannot truly love without being willing to be hurt. If we wall ourselves off from the very world in need of our help because of the fear of being wounded then we become useless, like salt that has lost its saltiness.

The eyes of these two figures both gaze towards us with large eyes and small mouths. This is deliberate. A reminder that our eyes should be wide in gazing upon spiritual things. On  the other hand, our mouths can often be the source of empty or harmful words to others and these small mouths are a reminder that we should spend time listening and praying before we speak. Finally these figures are gazing straight at us, not at each other. Perhaps in the steadfastness of that gaze there is a challenge, and for me today in that icon I read a question. “How will you open your arms? How will you share my comfort,love and hope this day?  How will you allow yourself to be loved in order that you too may pour out love to others?” The answer to that question will be different for each one of us, but may it be the means of peace and a blessing to all.

A prayer of Edward Pusey

Good Jesus, Fountain of Love, Fill us with thy love.

Absorb us into thy love; Compass us with thy love,

That we may see all things in the light of thy love,

Receive all things as the token of thy love,

Speak of all things in words breathing of thy love,

Win through thy love others for thy love,

Be kindled day by day with a new glow of thy love,

Until we be fitted to enter into thine everlasting love,

To adore thy love and love to adore thee, our God and all.

Even so come, O Lord Jesus.