With you always
Peter Gallagher SJ discusses gratitude and forgiveness as we reach Laetare Sunday in the middle of Lent, which this year falls on Mothering Sunday
Our mother stands beside us
Two images of Our Lady are part of our shared memory of the death of her son, Jesus Christ. The first is of her standing beside the cross. Stabat Mater. When almost everyone else had abandoned the Lord, Mary stood beside him as he suffered. Her own sufferings in those hours must have been very great. Like Mary, many other mothers do not flee from their children enduring some painful defeat but remain, despite their own agony, to show love and care.
The second image of Our Lady on Calvary is of Jesus taken down from the cross and put into her arms. The Pietà. The great artists strove to portray this moment. All those Christmas pictures of the Madonna holding her little one are paralleled by this afflicting moment when she once again cradles her child. Whatever age we are, whether our mother is around or not, there is a way in which she stands beside us as we go through our most difficult times. Even if everyone else is rejecting, mothers often find the strength to accept and to hold tight.
Ancient devotion to the Blessed Virgin Mary in this country has left a trace in the placing of Mothering Sunday within a few days of the Feast of the Annunciation. On Lady Day we think gratefully of Our Lady and, on the heels of that thought, we are thankful for own our mother. Laetare Sunday, the joyful anticipation in the middle of Lent of the great celebration at its end falls by chance on the same day as a collective expression of thanks to our mothers. There is great gratitude in both Laetare Sunday and Mothering Sunday. Our thanksgiving for our salvation is joined to our love and our respect for our mother.
Be it done unto me according to thy will
The Madonna of the Annunciation is often represented in art as untroubled and utterly at peace. In some canvasses Our Lady seems hardly to notice the impact of the Holy Spirit. She is praying.
The word falls on her attentive ear. A dove flutters in a corner. The angel is sent. Light shines. Mary listens. She speaks: Be it done unto me according to thy will. She accepts. And the Word was made flesh. Not every one of our mothers has or had the serenity of Our Lady. Nevertheless our mothers teach us something about the Marian acceptance of God’s will. They received us within themselves. They brought us into the world. They have loved us. In addition to all the other things that they have done for us, they also show us God. He too accepts us and loves us. God also brings us into world. He also stands beside us whatever happens. God will receive us again at the end.
His father saw and was moved to pity
The Pietà shows us what God is like. He sent us into the world. He will receive us again at the end of our time. He welcomes us back at any time when we turn back to him. The parable of the prodigal son shows us all this very clearly. While the prodigal was still a long way off his father saw and was moved to pity.
People can have drifted very far from the right path and yet the forgiving eye of God is always on them. We are all of us on our way home to him, though our route may be circuitous. We long for the forgiveness and the welcome of our loving creator. We are searching for the place where the Lord awaits us. Our search is often not very focused. A hesitant step back towards the parent was the best the prodigal could manage at first. Pride can inhibit repentance. Fear can also hold us back. More bizarrely, we sometimes hesitate to return because we have grown accustomed to our trouble. People, strange as it may seem, get used to husks.
For anyone who is in Christ there is a new creation
We are all on the way back from our time away. In mid-Lent we realise ruefully how we have squandered what was given to us generously. Now, however, there is to be an extravagant renewal. We were made by God and now he is re-making us. He comes towards us to welcome us. The prodigal lost everything and was allowed to retrieve at last what was truly valuable. God longs to see us prodigals on the horizon coming home. He comes towards us to welcome us.
Resentment is no more spiritually nourishing than debauchery
In the parable, there is also some understanding and forgiveness for the elder sibling’s jealousy and anger. Grace is needed to get out from under the burden of such resentments also. God helps us to turn back from self-righteous anger and envy which fascinate and then disgust as much as any husk. Resentment is no more spiritually nourishing than debauchery. The new creation of both the prodigal and, we hope, his brother is, in both cases, built on ruins of the old. The father hurries out to meet one who has plucked up courage to return from his distant wandering. He also gently coaxes the reluctant elder brother to join in the happiness.
This Laetare Sunday we turn back to God with happiness and relief. The welcome is warm. The joy is sincere. Our hope is strong. This compassionate Lord of ours even goes along to some degree with our estimate of how things are, skewed as that probably is. We have slaved for him and never once disobeyed his orders but he has not so far given us the reward which we judge we are due.
Indignant not repentant
There is an ungenerous assessment of how things are which leaves us indignant not repentant. Others have squandered what God has been preparing for everyone while we have been working hard. We persuade ourselves that we have received little in return for our efforts. Our gratitude can be quite heavily qualified. To some extent, God goes along with all of this. He does not rebuke our complacency or our ingratitude: you are with me always, he says to us.
We are learning from Our Lady how to stand by the cross and not to run away. We are learning from her how to receive Jesus devoutly, reverently and gratefully. We continue this Lent and all through our life of discipleship to learn to rejoice at God’s mercy and forgiveness. From today we are, with his help, making the right use of our inheritance. For all of this we give profound thanks.
We invite you to light an online candle and leave a message for your mother on Mothering Sunday.
Light a candle for your mother
Peter Gallagher SJ