Sunday, 3 April 2011

Happy Mothering Sunday!

I'm one of those who think we should keep it as ‘Mothering’ Sunday rather than ‘Mother’s Day', because for me, it’s not just about mothers, it’s about mothering. ‘Mothering’ is inclusive; whether or not we’re mothers ourselves, ‘mothering’ is something we all experience and engage in, including men; it’s part of being made in the image of God. Much of the time the bible contains masculine imagery of God as Father, but it also contains feminine imagery of God where God has ‘mothering’ qualities like nurturing support, patient understanding and compassion. The Hebrew word for compassion is related to the word ‘womb’. In the book of Job, God asks Job ‘From whose womb comes the ice? Who gives birth to the frost from the heavens?’ Well, the answer is God. And through the prophet Isaiah, God says to Jerusalem, ‘As a mother comforts her child, so will I comfort you’. So in both the creative sense and the spiritual sense, our God is both a fathering God, and a mothering God.

‘Mothering’ is risky; it involves the risk of suffering, pain and loss. Our Old Testament reading (Exodus 2:1-10)about baby Moses adrift in the bulrushes tugs at our emotions in many ways. We can hardly imagine what Moses’ mother went through, when, out of circumstances that were beyond her control, she was forced to give up her baby.

The beginning of the book of Exodus tells us that ‘the Israelites were fruitful and multiplied greatly and became exceedingly numerous’. The Israelites, also called Hebrews, had been living in Egypt from the time when Joseph ruled Egypt. In the present story, however, Joseph is long dead and a new king is in power in Egypt. This Pharaoh decided that the Hebrews were posing a threat to Egypt’s security, so he forced them into slavery and oppressed them. Pharaoh was so worried about their population growth, he told the Hebrew midwives to kill all newborn boys, but this didn’t work – the midwives couldn’t do it because they ‘feared God’ – so Pharaoh decreed to all his people: ‘every boy that is born you must throw into the Nile, but let every girl live.’

Into this terrible situation, baby Moses was born. We don’t know his Hebrew name – he was named Moses after he was adopted by Pharaoh’s daughter; our text tells us that the name Moses means ‘to draw out’, as Pharaoh’s daughter ‘drew him out of the water’ – and it also fits with Moses later being the one who draws Israel out Egypt through the Sea of Reeds.

There are three moving acts of ‘mothering’ here. First, in the birth-mother of Moses; this was a mother who was determined that her boy would live in spite of the death sentence from Pharaoh. She hid him for three months. When she realised she couldn’t keep him secret any longer, she was forced to do the unthinkable: to place him in the river Nile. But she gave him the chance to survive – she made him a little waterproof basket to lie in - his very own little ark. We know from the book of Numbers, chapter 26, that this woman’s name was Jochebed. It’s impossible to know exactly how Jochebed felt when she had to give up her child, but we can imagine after 9 months carrying this baby in her womb and three months of caring for his every need, it would have been terrible.

The baby’s sister, whom we later know as Miriam, stays near the Moses basket watching to see what might happen to him – Miriam’s watchful eye and her courage is our second example of ‘mothering’ action. She sees the baby being drawn from the water by Pharaoh’s daughter, so she quickly and shrewdly asks, ‘Shall I go and get one of the Hebrew women to nurse the baby for you?’ This allows Jochebed to continue for a while to nurse her baby. Wonderful for them both, but this also leads to a second heart-break, for after he is weaned, the babe is returned to Pharaoh’s daughter, as we assume they agreed. The bible says, ‘he became her son’ – in other words, he was adopted by Pharaoh’s daughter, and she is our third ‘mothering’ figure from this passage.

Our Bible doesn’t give us the name of Pharaoh’s daughter, but the Midrash, which contains the traditional teachings of Rabbi’s, identifies her as Bithiah - the same Bithiah mentioned in 1 Chronicles 4:18 in the Bible. The Midrash says that Pharaoh actually exiled Bithiah for bringing Moses into his household. You can imagine the scenario, the ultimate act of teenage rebellion: Pharaoh decrees all Hebrew babies should be killed, and then his own daughter brings one home! Whereas today’s teenager might get off lightly, maybe getting grounded for a week or two, eviction was Pharaoh’s choice of punishment. Bithiah and Moses were probably both lucky to escape with their lives. The Midrash says that when the Israelites left Egypt in the mass Exodus, Bithiah left with them. It was because of her compassion and pity in rescuing the baby Moses, she received her name Bithiah, which means ‘daughter of the Lord’.

So Moses went on to lead his people out of the bondage of slavery and towards the Promised Land. Not only was a boy spared, but a whole people; the salvation of Moses was the salvation of Israel. Not only did Moses owe his life to Jochebed, Miriam and Bithiah, but the Israelites owed their liberation to them as well, placed as they were by God’s providence.

The Israelites have told this story for generations because the boy was Moses, their liberator and Law giver. They also tell it because regardless of how bleak things might look, it gives hope that God is able to bring salvation out of despair. This was the story of the Israelite’s deliverance. And in our Gospel reading (Luke 2:33-35), when we hear Simeon’s prophetic words to Mary, the deliverance of the whole world through Jesus is foretold.

Simeon said, ‘this child is destined to cause the falling and rising of many in Israel, and to be a sign that will be spoken against, so that the thoughts of many hearts will be revealed. And a sword will pierce your own soul too.’ At the time, Mary must have wondered what that meant. She didn’t yet know the pain that would come from watching her son die on the cross. She didn’t understand that God would bring deliverance to the whole world through his death and resurrection. But while Jesus was still a small child, we read in Matthew’s gospel of a kind of reversal of the journey that Moses and the Israelites took, as Mary and Joseph have to flee with baby Jesus to Egypt to escape King Herod’s death decree for all boys under the age of two.

Throughout his life, the mission and ministry of Jesus and the opposition that he stirred up must have been worrying for Mary. We see in John’s gospel the love Jesus had for his mother when he was dying on the cross and he worried about leaving her behind so he asks his closest disciple John to look after her. They became family. Jesus said, ‘whoever does the will of my Father in heaven is my brother and sister and mother’ - Matthew 12:50. Mothering Sunday is family time. In the church, we are the family of God: brothers, sisters, mothers and fathers – let us serve one another with love, compassion, kindness, patience and forgiveness, through the times and seasons of joy and of sorrow as we see this journey through. Amen.


  1. Wonderful preparatory reading for our American Mother's Day! Just fascinating information and meaning here--thanks!

  2. I think mothering Sunday is a very good name.There are many mothers who have never bothered to mother..some have aborted, others walked away. As you say, some women are not mothers yet know how to is a gift. I never knew the name of Moses mother. And the meaning is so wonderful, and also that she left Egypt with the children of Isreal and her adopted son. Thank you Karen, Many blessings to you..


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