Commemoration of Harriet Starr Cannon, Religious
‘Mother, embrace your children; bring them up with gladness, as does a dove; strengthen their feet, because I have chosen you, says the Lord. And I will raise up the dead from their places, and bring them out from their tombs, because I recognize my name in them. Do not fear, mother of children, for I have chosen you, says the Lord. I will send you help, my servants Isaiah and Jeremiah. According to their counsel I have consecrated and prepared for you twelve trees loaded with various fruits, and the same number of springs flowing with milk and honey, and seven mighty mountains on which roses and lilies grow; by these I will fill your children with joy. ‘Guard the rights of the widow, secure justice for the ward, give to the needy, defend the orphan, clothe the naked, care for the injured and the weak, do not ridicule the lame, protect the maimed, and let the blind have a vision of my splendour. Protect the old and the young within your walls. When you find any who are dead, commit them to the grave and mark it, and I will give you the first place in my resurrection. Pause and be quiet, my people, because your rest will come. - 2 Esdras 2:15-24
There are a group of books in the middle of Episcopal Bibles (and some Protestant ones) that usually get glossed over. They've never been added to the canon, the officially sanctioned books of the Bible that are considered authoritative (genuine) and useful for teaching and direction. The books in the middle are called the Apocrypha, books not accepted by several church councils, including the one at Laodicea in 368AD. They were considered not genuine and therefore not suitable for reading in church. Now and then, though, we read snippets of some of them, and we find something of value in them.
The writer of 2 Esdras, whoever it might be, is speaking for God who advises mothers to cherish their children and bring them up to be strong people. Of course, Esdras is speaking metaphorically about the church as mother. The tip off is the reference to the twelve trees and springs along with seven mountains, the very numbers themselves representing the twelve tribes of Israel, twelve disciples, and seven as the number of perfection or completion.
The tasks that follow are those which God, prophets, Jesus and his disciples urged the people to remember to do, namely taking care of those who were, in the words of the Prayer Book (1928), in "...[T]rouble, sorrow, need, sickness, or any other adversity." Granted, the prayer asks God to "comfort and succor" the afflicted, but the entire Bible urges us to do those jobs in God's name.
Mothers teach their young ones basic rules like sharing their toys, not hitting their brother or sister or friend, saying "Please" and "Thank you," and being nice to people. Those basic lessons are parts of the list that Esdras set out in his list beginning with "Guard the rights of the widows, secure justice for the ward...." And Esdras is just repeating what God and the prophets had been saying for generations.
The church emphasizes the same qualities; indeed, we call it "Mother Church" because it is a place of nurturing and learning as well as a place to worship God and have contact with others of similar belief and purpose. It is a place where all should be equal and all should be welcomed and cherished. Is it a place where people in ragged denims are as welcome as those in Armani suits? Where a dirty, rusted truck can park unashamedly next to a shiny BMW? Where troubles can be forgotten for a time and the mind can focus on community in Christ? It should be--and in many times it is. If it isn't, though, Mother Church fails because her children fail, and no mother wants her children to fail.
What does failure look like in this scenario? Failure is ignoring the stranger who is not dressed as nicely or as cleanly as those with whom he/she asks to worship. Failure is paying more attention to the big givers, as important as they are to the church, and not being as welcoming to those without the material resources that make that possible. The sermons tell us to welcome the poor, and care for the needy, but there are times this part of the sermon is forgotten before the people go out of the door.
On Mother's Day, mothers are particularly welcomed in our churches. Often they are presented with flowers as thanks for their work as nurturers and teachers of their children. Mother Church uses this occasion to remind us of the sacrifices and sometimes outright hardship some mothers face, as well as giving thanks for their continued presence in our lives and in our pews.
Not all have had such wonderful mothers; there have been abusive mothers as well as neglectful ones. Some have abandoned their children (for any or all of a myriad of reasons) but others have taken in children not their own and made them members of the family, showing them the same love that their own children received. Paul, in his letters, said that we were adopted members of the Body of Christ, grafted on the tree of salvation. We become members of Mother Church through the adoption we receive at baptism. We are welcomed and we are accepted.
Mother Church continues to teach the exhortations that God expects of all of us, words that come to us from the prophets and from Jesus as well as those of 2 Esdras written in somewhere in the 200s CE. With that many repetitions, it seems we should pay attention. Mother's Day might be a really good time to do just that.
Originally published at Speaking to the Soul on Episcopal Café Saturday, May 7, 2015.