Embrace One Another... – Lent Sermon Series 5 – Mothering Sunday

Our sermon series theme through Lent, 'You Are the Temple', has focused over the last three weeks on postures which are common in Christian worship: kneeling, sitting, standing. Today our trajectory turns somewhat as we take up actions that aren't so much characteristics of worship, as they are basic human actions. So they say important things about what it means to be human, and what it means to be created in God's image and likeness, and yet these same actions, in turn, say something about what it means to be redeemed by Christ, and called into the fellowship of his Body, the Church.

Let's begin with a question.

If you were to chose a particular posture or bodily act for each of the great religions of the world, what would you chose? What posture or bodily action, in your view, most characterizes, say, a faithful Jew, a pious Muslim, a devout Buddhist? In my mind's eye I see a faithful Jew standing with his family around the table with the Scripture in his hands; I see a pious Muslim prostrating himself on the ground in the direction of Mecca; I see the Buddhist sitting with eyes closed, palms up, in solitary meditation. You, of course, might have different images in mind as you consider that question.

Let's now turn to Christianity. What do you consider its characteristic posture, or bodily action? My answer is pictured on the cover of today's Newsletter: an embrace. Hence the title of today's sermon, 'Embrace one another...'. I take the phrase from the end of St Paul's First Letter to the Corinthians (16.20). St Paul was writing, as you know, to one of the first communities of followers of Jesus' 'Way'. What we often forget, though, is how radically new the community of the church was amid the societies of the day.[1] Those first believers stepped over the boundaries that typically separated people from one another and from God. St Paul emphasizes that in Christ there is neither Jew nor non-Jew--no ethnic or racial barriers; there is neither male nor female--gender differences don't affect access to God's acceptance, love and grace; there is neither slave nor free--social differences can't block our oneness through faith and baptism  in Jesus Christ.

So, St Paul's exhortation 'Embrace one another!' carries with it a new way of understanding one another. Was that St Paul's own idea? No. It grew out of his faith; I mean, it grew out of the extraordinary truth which he explained in one of his other letters.

                  ...when the fullness of time had come, God sent his Son,

                  born of a woman, born under the law, in order to redeem

                  those who were under the law, so that we might receive

                  adoption as children. (Galatians 4.4-5)

We could put that truth like this: God embraced humanity by becoming one of us--'born of a woman', like we all are--so that we, in our turn, might embrace God, and embrace one another in God.

That's just what Christians through the ages have sought to depict in their various renderings of Mother and Child, like we see on the cover of the Newsletter.[2]

Here are some of Bishop Rowan Williams' words about the meaning of this image of embrace between the Virgin Mother and her child Jesus:

                  Instead of the effort to bridge the enormous gap between

                  here and there, between God and sinful self, we have a

                  movement--direct, intimate, overwhelming, even embarrass-

                  ing--from God to us...we can image Mary in this image half-

                  embarrassed by the urgency and overexcitement of the

                  child. Behind the stately postures...we can see something

                  intensely untidy. This is a child who cannot bear to be

                  separated from his mother...here...it is as if [God] is

                  positively shameless in his eagerness, longing to embrace

                  and be embraced.[3]

 

That's what St Paul, and all the other first Christians, had discovered through Jesus of Nazareth--God eager to embrace and be embrace--; and they wanted that truth to be true in practice in their 'new community of love'.[4]

So, the act of embrace tells us something mightily important. The embrace of Mother and Child, so embedded in Christian art, and St Paul's exhortation that his fellow Christians 'embrace one another', seek to overturn 'the myth of the distant God',[5] whom we someone have to entice or cajole to be near us. No. 'In him we live and move and have our being' (Acts 17.28).

If the embrace tells us that important truth about God, then it telsl us an important truth about ourselves too. The embrace reminds us about what it means to be human.

For the word 'embrace' in the New Testament signals as well the experience of welcome.[6] The opening of the arms, in other words, signals also an opening of the inner self to another. The embrace signals both the capacity and the desire to be open to others.[7] It signals availability, from the first embrace by which people become acquainted, to the exchanges of family members, friends and spiritual companions, to the deepest and closest of embraces that express the depths of human intimacy and love. It's about reciprocity, the giving of selves to one another, for to embrace genuinely is also to be embraced.[8] That is the privilege, both painful and joyful, of being human.

The angel's Annunciation to Mary set a new and high value on the act of embracing. Through the conception, birth, and childhood of Jesus, and then through his life, death and resurrection, a simple, physical gesture became a kind of enacted word, a message in action: that God is eager to embrace us and to be embraced by us. Beyond that, our growth into full humanness as well as into the full stature of Christ doesn't just allow but requires us to 'embrace one another' as a way of embracing our God. Remember that no one can love God without loving his brother.

It's probably true that mothers first show us the way of embrace. It goes along with the very first cuddle after birth, and continues in the first weeks of nurture and nourishment, when we're being formed for life in ways of which we're not consciously aware. But the result of those first embraces is our capacity, as we grow and mature, to embrace others and be embraced by others with joy, tenderness, and satisfaction. Even those who, on the surface of things at least, seem the most unlikely people to embrace and be embraced can surprise us.

I think, for instance, of the learned, wing-collared, forbidding intellectual and spiritual guide of the Edwardian age, Baron Friedrich von Hügel. In mid-winter 1922 he wrote to his favourite niece from his home in Vicarage Gate, Kensington, W8. He ended his long, serious letter like this:

 

                  And now, my Child, one good hug, and another good hug,

                  and a third good hug. And Christ bless you, guard you, ex-

                  pand, pacify, and give you genial joy, here, now, and for-

                  ever. Loving old Fatherly One. H.[9]

Amen.

 

 

Sermon preached by The Revd Dr Charles Miller, Team Rector

St Helen's Church, Abingdon-on-Thames

March 26th - The Solemnity of the Annunciation/Mothering Sunday

 


[1] See Rowan Williams' discussion in Meeting God in Paul (London: SPCK, 2015), pp. 43ff.

[2] 'Icon Madonna' in Bath Stone by Emma Maiden; see www.emmamaiden.com. Her stone rendition clearly takes inspiration from the Orthodox 'Virgin of Loving Kindness' (Eleousa, in Greek).

[3] Ponder These Things. Praying with icons of the Virgin (Norwich: Canterbury Press, 2002),  pp. 24-5.

[4] Brian Wren's phrase in his hymn 'I come with joy, a child of God' (Common Praise, no. 305).

[5] Ibid., p. 37.

[6] The Greek noun haspasma means 'embrace'; the related adjectives, haspastos and haspasios mean 'welcome' or 'welcomed'.

[7] Catholic Philosopher Gabriel Marcel's notion of disponibilité

[8]  I take cues here from Ralph Harper's discussion in On Presence. Variations and Reflections (Philadelphia: Trinity Press International, 1991), pp. 43-4.

[9] Baron F. von Hügel, Letters to a Niece (London: HarperCollins, 1995), p. 125.