Easter 6 / Mother’s Day / Rogation Sunday
by Fr. Blake
The following sermon was preached on May 10, 2015, at S. Stephen’s Church in Providence, Rhode Island. This year the day was both Mother’s Day and Rogation Sunday. The liturgy began with an outdoor procession of Our Lady, an image on a plinth bedecked with flowers and carried by members of the parish; a brass band brought up the rear and led us in singing festal songs. Back inside, music for the day included Palestrina’s “Missa ‘Ave Maria'” setting of the Mass Ordinary, and Ockeghem’s setting of the Salve Regina.
Collect: O God, who hast prepared for those that love thee such good things as pass man’s understanding: Pour into our hearts such love towards thee, that we, loving the in all things and above all things, may obtain thy promises, which exceed all that we can desire; through Jesus Christ our Lord, who liveth and reigneth with thee and the Holy Spirit, one God, for ever and ever. Amen.
Readings: Acts 10:44-48; 1 John 5:1-6; John 15:9-17
If there’s one thing that the modern phenomenon of Mother’s Day proves, it’s that Love sells. We buy Mother’s Day cards, flowers, candy, and gifts, make reservations at restaurants and buy gift certificates, all to tell our mothers we love them. According to the National Retail Foundation, in 2014 Mother’s Day surpassed Valentine’s Day in total spending, making it the second largest commercial holiday of the year. At twenty billion dollars, it’s a far cry from the six hundred billion claimed by Christmas, but it’s certainly nothing to sneeze at.
Before you think this is modern phenomenon though, recall that the same very same issue has attended Mother’s Day almost from the beginning. Anna Jarvis is in some ways the “mother of Mother’s Day.” Early in the twentieth century, she campaigned tirelessly for Mother’s Day to be proclaimed a holiday, which it was, by Woodrow Wilson, in 1914. Almost immediately, though, she regretted what she’d done. She saw Hallmark and other companies profiting on the new holiday, and began a new campaign, this time to stop its commercialization. (Jarvis even crashed a candy makers convention in Philadelphia in 1923.) When she realized this wasn’t working, she finally started fighting to have the holiday rescinded altogether. But the genie was already out of the bottle, and we haven’t turned back since. Mother’s Day has spread to 166 countries around the world. It is one of the few truly global holidays.
Despite its commercialization, however, I don’t think we need to feel guilty about observing Mother’s Day. Love sells for a reason, especially when it comes to our mothers, persons for whom many of us would be willing to do anything.
Still, we always find it difficult to pick out a card. For all their poetry these days, and their beautiful designs, none of them quite seems to say exactly what we mean. Love sells, and it animates our affections more than anything else on the planet, but it always seems to defy articulation. Today’s Gospel is another great example. Jesus tells his disciples he loves them. But Jesus, too, seems to have trouble saying hat he wants. He takes several attempts to articulate to his disciples what his love for them means.
First of all he says, “These things I have spoken to you, that my joy may be in you, and that your joy may be full.” Most of us have some sense of what we want from our various loves. Whether they be family, friends, or romances, we each have various kinds of desires, and needs. And most of the time, when we think about articulating our love, we think in terms of how these needs are met by the person we’re thinking of. Or, conversely, when we contemplate loneliness or love’s lack, we think in terms of desire, of how this or that missing relationship would help complete the picture we have of ourselves. But Jesus doesn’t speak in these terms. “So that my joy may be in you, and your joy may be full.” He offers his disciples another set of criteria than need, desire, and expectation. Instead he gives them joy: gratuitous generosity, planted within us, that grows to encompass our whole selves.
Even so in each of our own loves. It’s not always what we expect or even want, and so our favorite words of fulfilled desire necessarily fall short. Instead, where love is genuine, there is always a gratuity to it, that grows beyond its original source and its original object to encompass them both, and begin something new.
In his second attempt to say just what he means Jesus says, “Greater love hath no man than this that a man lay down his life for his friends.” Jesus is clearly talking about sacrificial love here, and is clearly foreshadowing his own death. But it’s also a further development of his command both to abide in his love, and to love one another. This is his second point: Love, if it is genuine, does not shrink from the cross; it is willing to be crucified. Mothers know a lot about this I think, probably more than most. What makes this even more difficult is that there is the real possibility of rejection here. What if the one for whom we sacrifice everything doesn’t seem to want our sacrifice? What happens when relationships break down to the point where this kind of sacrifice is no longer possible? What happens if death, or abuse, or betrayal amputates us from essential relationships which others take for granted? There is an immense degree of disintegration in our world — so much that sometimes, the greater love which lays down its life for its friendsappears as a foreign agent, a miracle, rather than the natural state of things. And yet this is exactly what Jesus calls us to do: “Love one another as I have loved you.” Be willing to be crucified for one another. This requires serious resolution to be vulnerable; a willingness to be rejected even for our best qualities. And it requires a willingness not to let our current state of disintegration obscure our hope for what is possible. Self-giving, sacrificial love is the natural state of things, and the character of eternal life. Simeon told Our Lady in the temple that a sword would pierce her own soul too. We have to be prepared to accept the same sword.
The paradox, and this is the third point, is that in such vulnerability and sacrifice as this, even in the midst of disintegration all around, to abide in the love of Jesus and to love one another with his love, is to join an ever-widening family. Love, where it is genuine, is not just about you. It is not just about the one you love. It is about being called to greater communion with a particular person for the sake of a greater communion among the entire human family. Couples I have married sometimes tell me months later that one of things that surprises them is how differently they interact with the other people in their lives. They are now something of a stable point for others, a source of reliability, and of joy. There is a kind of holy fertility at work here, that grows and nurtures everyone in its orbit.
This isn’t limited to married people either, though it exists in a special way for them. “No longer do I call you servants; but I have called you friends.”
For all of us, and especially for those who bear particularly painful losses, to abide in the love of Jesus is to become a member of his own household. It is to receive a new family, and a new vocation to nurture and extend his family wherever we may be.
The fourth and final point Jesus makes about love in this passage I s about fruitfulness. “I have appointed you that you should go and bear fruit, and that your fruit should abide.” Today is Rogation Sunday, the day in the Church Year when traditionally, fields are blessed in anticipation of the new growing season. We aren’t surrounded by fields anymore here on College Hill. But fertility is still an appropriate theme. We often think of love in the same terms as commodities: there’s only so much to go around, and we’d better get before we’re gotten or left behind — or so the thinking goes. But for Jesus, Love, when it is genuine, grows. There is always more to be given, more to be had. It is not a zero-sum game. There are always further heights to which the love of God carries us. There are always deeper mysteries which it reveals, there are always more persons to win to our fellowship. This is the love that abides: it does not stand still, it does not tolerate mere possession. It drives us ever onward “into the regions beyond.” The fruit it produces is its own perfection: our hearts, our souls, purified in holiness, made partakers of his divine life who humbled himself to share our humanity, having taken flesh from his Virgin Mother.
Joy is Love’s first and final criteria. It does not shrink from the cross, but dies there and rises again. Its resurrection creates an ever-widening family drawn into its life-giving Spirit. It carries us on, through this world in which we see as through a glass darkly, into that place where we shall see face to face, and know fully even as we are fully known. This is the love with which Jesus loves his disciples. This is the vocation of the blessed Mother who welcomes us into the family of her Son. This is our vocation as the Body of Christ: to love one another with an honest love, joyful and sacrificial and generous. May Christ who has given us his word of love, give us grace and power to live it forever. Amen.