The Fourth Sunday in Lent (Mothering Sunday)
The Epistle. Galatians 4. 21.
Tell me, ye that desire to be under the law, do ye not hear the law? For it is written, that Abraham had two sons, the one by a bondmaid, the other by a freewoman. But he who was of the bondwoman was born after the flesh; but he of the freewoman was by promise. Which things are an allegory: for these are the two covenants; the one from the mount Sinai, which gendereth to bondage, which is Agar. For this Agar is mount Sinai in Arabia, and answereth to Jerusalem which now is, and is in bondage with her children. But Jerusalem which is above is free, which is the mother of us all. For it is written, Rejoice, thou barren that barest not: break forth and cry, thou that travailest not: for the desolate hath many more children than she which hath an husband. Now we, brethren, as Issac was, are the children of promise. But as then he that was born after the flesh persecuted him that was born after the Spirit, even so it is now. Nevertheless what saith the scripture? Cast out the bondwoman and her son: for the son of the bondwoman shall not be heir with the son of the freewoman. So then, brethren, we are not children of the bondwomen, but of the free.
As you all may know, St. Paul barely mentions the Blessed Virgin Mary at all. Indeed, were it not for St. Luke’s Gospel we would know precious little about Mary, let alone Our Lord’s early life and times. But this does not mean that St. Paul fails to address the role of motherhood as it relates to the Gospel; a motherhood that plays a crucial role in God’s plan for humanity; and one that calls us back to our Holy Mother Church.
In his letter to the Galatians, St. Paul offers a comparison and a contrast between the two different examples of motherhood presented in the Old Testament. In simple terms, these comparisons are between a woman whose name was Agar and another, the lawful wife of Abraham, whose name was Sarah.
Agar was a slave-woman, who was bound to follow the dictates of her master, no matter what he or she declared. Sarah was a free-woman, whose marriage to Abraham was considered to be “lawful”, meaning that it was Blessed by God (by our reckoning today, they were “legally married”).
But initially, the “lawful” union of Abraham and Sarah appeared to be unfruitful; as they aged together, they were unable to produce a son who would continue Abraham’s line. And so, Sarah decided upon a simple solution; she would send to Abraham her servant girl Agar, in the hope that she would be able to bear a son who would inherit the legacy of his father. And in this, they were successful with the birth of a boy named Ishmael. But as we later learned, by God’s Grace, Sarah herself was also able to conceive a son; whom they named Issac.
The most obvious difference here is that one union is born of the flesh, meaning that it was rooted in the ordinary needs and desires of human nature, and the other is born of the needs of humanity, meaning those same needs and desires that are rooted in God’s Plan.
And yet, ultimately, both unions produced children; both produced sons of Abraham. Both produced heirs to Abraham’s legacy. It is indeed perplexing that Sarah encouraged Abraham to first produce a child with Agar; then later implored him to reject and expel both Agar and her son Ishmael, after Sarah had given birth to Isaac. But St. Paul gives us different way to perceive these events.
“But he who was of the bondwoman was born after the flesh; but he of the freewoman was by promise “. Remember the situation that Sarah was in; she and her husband were somewhat “advanced in years”, and had long since given up any hope of bearing a child. At the same time, Sarah fully understood the necessity for Abraham to have a son who would carry on his ancestral line. Initially, the only hope for this goal was for Abraham to father a child with a woman who was younger, and therefore better able physically to produce an heir, regardless of the circumstances.
The product of such a union could only satisfy earthly requirements; and as a result, the child produced by this union could be heir only to the earthly legacy of his parents. The joining of Abraham and Agar was motivated by the human notion of the needs of humanity. “But he who was of the bondwoman was born after the flesh “; but what the about the product of the “lawful” union? What about the child produced by the union that was Blessed by God?
It is God himself who makes the distinction; “And God said, Sarah thy wife shall bear thee a son indeed; and thou shalt call his name Isaac: and I will establish my covenant with him for an everlasting covenant and with his seed after him: And as for Ishmael, I have heard thee: Behold, I have blessed him, and will make him fruitful, and will multiply him exceedingly; twelve princes shall he beget, and I will make him a great nation. But my Covenant will I establish with Isaac…(Gen. 17: 19-21). In other words; the children of Ishmael were guaranteed an earthly inheritance: but the children of Isaac would be heirs to something greater. “Now we, brethren, as Issac was, are the children of promise “.
On the most simplistic level, we begin as children of Agar. Remember, Agar was a slave; a slave to the whims of her human master, a slave to the edicts of whoever owned her at that time; a slave to human desires. Any child born to such a slave would also be a slave; and so we are likewise born as slaves to our sinful nature.
But by our Baptism, the children of Sarah are who we have become. Sarah, a woman who, even though she is skeptical, still freely submits to the Will of God; someone who acts as host for the seed of God’s Chosen people, in spite of her human faults; someone who ultimately sublimates her personal desires and suspends her disbelief to the furtherance of God’s Plan. It is Sarah, the freewoman, who bore in her womb the child of the Promise of God. It is also Sarah, rather than Agar, who reminds us of Our Blessed Mother.
It was Mary who suspended her disbelief in the furtherance of God’s Plan (“how can this be, seeing I know not a man?” [Luke 1:34]). It was Mary who freely submits to the Will of God (“Behold the handmaid of the Lord; be it unto me according to thy word” [Luke 1:38]). It was Sarah who bore the child of the Old Covenant. It was Mary who bore in her womb the Child who brought the New Covenant; the ultimate Promise of God.
And it is Mary who points us to her Son and at the same time continuously calls us to him (“whatsoever he saith unto you, do it” [Luke 2:5]) I submit to you that these are the examples of motherhood that we may discern from the Epistle lesson today.
There is the motherhood of Agar; one whose specific intention was to satisfy human desires and needs. The child born to this slave-woman could only fulfill the legalistic requirements of man for a successor who would receive only an earthly inheritance. But such a child would always be a slave to those same requirements of man; for while he may receive the earthly inheritance of his father, he would likewise inherit the slavery of his mother.
Next there is the motherhood of Sarah, which was not only promised by God, but also produced the heir to His Covenant with mankind. The child born to this free-woman fulfilled the needs of humanity by acting as the designated recipient of God’s Promise to His Chosen people. To be sure, this son also inherited the earthly wealth of his father, but he likewise inherited the “freedom” of his mother.
And finally, there is the motherhood of the Blessed Virgin. The motherhood of Mary was also promised by God; and it was likewise the motherhood of a free-woman. But whereas the child born to Sarah was the product of the union of two human beings (which was, to be sure, Blessed by God), the Son of Mary was the result of a very different union; the joining together of the human and the Divine.
This is the Motherhood that we celebrate here today; a motherhood that is Sanctified by God; a motherhood that frees us from the slavery of sin; a motherhood that directs us in the way of God; “whatsoever he saith unto you, do it “; a motherhood that calls us back to God; a motherhood that calls us back to our Holy Mother, the Church.
In England, by tradition Mothering Sunday was a day where young people were given time off from work to visit their parents and to return to their home parish; to return to their Mother Church. We are granted this same privilege by the sacrifice of our Holy Mother; the motherhood of a “free-woman”; the motherhood of the union of the human and the Divine; the motherhood that bore the Salvation of the World, to which we are all the heirs.
But he who was of the bondwoman was born after the flesh; but he of the freewoman was by promise. Now we, brethren, as Issac was, are the children of promise. So then, brethren, we are not children of the bondwomen, but of the free.