The Jerusalem which is above is free,
which is the mother of us all.
Some might say that Lent is a season to be sorrowful for our sins, a time of mourning, and certainly there are times within Lent where that might be a greater emphasis – especially in Holy Week, leading to Good Friday. But my Christian teachers have stressed that Lent is a time of the lightening of burdens as we cast off sin, about the recovery of joy, about the breaking in of new life, new love, as we take time to refocus on what is most essential in life – our personal and corporate relationship with Jesus Christ. When you fast, don’t have a sad countenance, says our Lord, but anoint your head and wash your face, so that it may not appear that you are fasting, and your Father who sees in secret will reward you openly. May joy be the consequence of our Lenten disciplines!
This past week at student breakfast, Dorien told me about a Dutch tradition I’d never heard of – Koeiendans (cows dance)! She sent me a video which you can see here and here is another example. After the cows have been in the barn for the winter, they are let out around this time to the fresh green pasture. When the farmer opens the door of the barn the cows come out hesitantly, walking on the asphalt leading to the field – then suddenly, when their feet get onto the soft green field, they start to leap in the air, not just calves but the full grown cows – koeiendans – it is remarkable, and predictable, some people gather around to see it, it is an event! (And I’m told the milk from that first week is the very best!)
We share this experience as God’s creatures, it is something deep, something innate in us, when we experience new found freedom. It made me think of the people of Israel – what did they do after they passed through the Red Sea? Miriam and the women picked up their tambourines, they sang and danced – their joy could not be contained inwardly, but they were moved by joy to outward displays.
Think of our own experiences of being freed up from some besetting sin, of no longer sensing the condemnation over our head for our failures – was not joy the consequence? Come to me all who labour and are heavy laden, and I will refresh you, says Jesus. The freedom from condemnation, by the Cross of our Lord, leads to joy, deep inward joy that brings real change in lives, a real new birth, surprising changes in ways of relating to others, and of an abiding peace.
But in Exodus, we know that the result of new found freedom for Israel was not always one of joy – but of discovering new hardships in that freedom, hardships so frightening and life threatening, thirst in the desert, hunger in the wilderness, that the people grumbled against Moses and Aaron. And the new liberty they experienced was quickly forgotten – would that we had died by the hand of the Lord in the land of Egypt, when we sat by the meat pots and ate bread to the full.
In the first video I saw of the Koeiendans, the cows came out of the barn and began to leap and dance – but then, the farmer was explaining that when the weather is not so good, when it is raining, as it was, their joy is soon quelled, they don’t like to be wet and cold and want to return to the barn.
Last week, Jesus reminded us that it is not enough for us to cast out a vice. If we simply stop doing something that was hurting ourselves and hurting others, and find our soul more ordered, we will be subject to greater temptation and other vices. Unless we fill our souls with Love, with God’s Holy Spirit, to redirect our desire to the love of God and the love of our neighbour, we will find ourselves in a worse place.
How will we not turn as Christians to a complaining spirit, to grumbling against one another and even grumbling against God, while on this earth, in the newfound freedom of a Christian? Where did the joy go, why can it evaporate so quickly?
This Sunday in the middle of Lent in the Anglican Tradition is called Mothering Sunday. It is a time to remember our mothers – the origin in the West of Mother’s Day. But also it is about the Church as our mother – there was a custom in England that the Cathedral hosted a service for all Christians from the Diocese to attend – the Cathedral being the seat of the bishop’s chair, the mother church. That’s impossible for our Diocese given the distances of our chaplaincies from Brussels, but thankfully today our Bishop has come to us! We are very grateful for your presence with us today, and are being greatly blessed through your ministry to us yesterday and today! And thank you, Helen, for joining us also this weekend.
The Mothering Sunday tradition comes from the readings that we heard, which have been read on this Sunday in churches since the 5th century.
In the Epistle [Galatians 4:26-5:1] is the phrase, “the Jerusalem above is free, and she is our mother.” The heavenly Jerusalem is the Church invisible, of all times and in all places, a mystical body, in heaven and on earth, not strictly within the bounds of the visible church (some outside are in it, some inside are not), but formed by Christ, and being adorned and beautified by Christ over time. The Church nurtures us in the Christian life. She is our mother. She brings new souls to birth in Christ through baptism, and she nurtures those souls in an ongoing way by the Word written and the Sacrament of Holy Communion. She raises children not to enslavement but to a place of freedom, so that even on “cold wet days”, we are reminded of our joy, of our new freedom in Christ, our eyes are kept looking heavenward, to the promises, being renewed inwardly daily and sending us out to serve.
Mothers are concerned about their children as they grow – what will their children do with the new liberty as they grow in ability and strength? Now he can walk, new guards go up in the house so that the child doesn’t go down stairs; now she can run, let it be on the grass so there’s a soft landing; now she has a drivers licence, fervent prayers goes up that she returns home safely; now he has left home, prayers go up that he will use that new liberty wisely. A mother takes care to allow as much freedom as possible at each stage so as not to squelch her child’s independence and imaginative and creative spirit, but also not to be negligent in warning or protecting against very real dangers, and to call her child to account in ways that do not humiliate. Even so, the Church seeks to help us in our spiritual walk in this world – and can look to the examples of great mothering in our midst so that she is not overbearing, nor negligent, but nurturing the true liberty of a Christian.
The Church is a divine institution, founded by Christ Himself, but it is led by Christians still on their journey of sanctification. It is called to help in that nurture in practical ways: such as taking the greatest care in the selection and the guiding of its ministers – ordained and lay; providing frameworks for how to govern ourselves in local congregations (as we’ve been reflecting a lot on recently with the establishment of All Saints Amersfoort); giving solid guidance in the Safeguarding the vulnerable. But also the Church is responsible on the more spiritual levels, providing solid teaching that unveils the Gospel to each generation and helps set the bounds of the moral life, guided by Scripture, shaping our loves, helping us to understand what is the high call of holiness, of love to our neighbour, of the Way to glorify God. She makes mistakes, she doesn’t always get her discipline right, and yet, she is the Mother of us all. And as we pray for mothers today, so are we to pray for the Church in her most vital tasks.
Each one of us, as members of the Church, bears part of the responsibility in that role of mothering – we don’t just come here to receive grace or to mumble against the imperfections of the Church, but looking at the ways each one of us is helping to build up one another up in love. Today we must ask ourselves in what ways are we being truly supportive, nurturing, and in what ways are we being overbearing or being negligent in pointing out the very real dangers to our brothers and sisters in Christ? Are we ourselves experiencing the true inward joy that Christ brings? if not, it is a time for us to recollect ourselves before God through the ways he gives us (prayer, retreat, fasting, seeking counsel, being fed by the Word), because only then can we lead others to know that true joy.
This morning in our Gospel [St John 6:5-14], Jesus feeds five thousand, with the meagre resources that a boy in their midst had – five cheap barley loaves and two small fish. And Jesus engages the disciples in that distribution of the miraculous multiplication until they had as much as they wanted.
This morning our Bishop, following the very actions and words of Jesus and His apostles that day and at the Last Supper, will continue what that miracle pointed to: the feeding of the flock of Christ with the Bread of heaven, with every Word that proceeds from the mouth of God and with the Body and Blood of Jesus Himself. God’s grace is offered here in the Church, as much as we want!
We are called now to prepare our hearts for this great gift. Let us repent of our sins, let us put our full trust in our Lord – Jesus will wash our faces and renew our joy. It is the fulfilment of the promise of God through the last prophet of the Old Testament – Malachi:
For you who fear my name,
the Sun of righteousness shall arise with healing in its wings.
And you shall go out leaping [with joy]
like calves from the stall!