John: Mother, love, home | text / image

Mothering Sunday: John: Mother, Love, Home The Rev’d Matt Drummond

Scripture tells us virtually nothing of the early life Jesus prior to his arrival at the banks of the Jordan, there to be baptised by his cousin John. Outside of the Nativity stories we have only one incident, that of his visit to the Temple in St Luke, and his revelation to his parents that this and not Nazareth is his father’s house (2.41-52). The apocryphal gospels have tried to fill in the gaps, but their stories leave us with a nasty taste in our mouths as we meet a Christ who is fickle or downright dangerous: a Christ who perform a miracle to prove a point, and who kills an acquaintance over of a slight. Rather all we can do is guess at what Christ’s early (and hidden) life must have been like.

So what do we know of Christ’s early life? That Jesus was resident in Nazareth. That he had siblings (whether step-siblings from an earlier marriage of Joseph, or biological ones: I personally prefer the former explanation). That St Joseph was a tekton, a jobbing carpenter or builder though not a rich one, as the offering he and the Blessed Virgin made at her purification show. It is quite likely that Jesus followed St Joseph into that trade. (It would not have been unusual for a teacher to have a trade, St Paul himself was both a Pharisee and a tent maker.) I do wonder whether Jesus gained some of his turns of phrase from Joseph’s workshop. One can imagine the sign above his shop: ‘Joseph the Carpenter: My yokes are easy, and my burdens light’.

Artists like the apocryphal gospels have also tried to imagine the early life of Jesus, and perhaps more successfully. In this image by John Everett Millais we meet the child Jesus in the workshop of Joseph. At the time of its unveiling it was controversial because it moved away from a pious view into a normal and homely one, but for all its homeliness the image looks forward to the Passion.

As we view it for the first time the image is outwardly a simple one, one that tells us a simple story. Jesus has hurt his hand on a nail sticking out of a piece of wood: Joseph and Mary express concern, and a fellow apprentice rushes forward with water to cleanse the wound. However, the image is filled with deeper meaning if we care to look more closely:

– First there are the instruments of the Passion scattered throughout the picture: a ladder; a hammer, and the nail on which Jesus has pierced his hand; wood.

– Jesus presents his hand, as though showing it to as if to be viewed. In this I am reminded of Jesus’s meeting with St Thomas in which he tells Thomas to place his hand in Christ’s side, and in the nail hole in his hand.

– The young boy who rushes forward with water isn’t an apprentice, rather it’s John the Baptist (note his hairy garments), and he is holding a bowl of water: is it to baptise Jesus? Or is it a reference to the bowl of water in which Pilate will wash his hands following the trial of Jesus?

– Outside sheep peer in through the open doorway. Lambs reminding us of Christ the Paschal Lamb who is sacrificed on our behalf. They also represent ourselves the church, the flock of Christ. (As Psalm 95 puts it ‘we are the people of his pasture, the flock that is led by his hands’.) And just as these sheep are silent, so are we are we gaze into the life of Christ.

It is worth noting that Jesus forms the still quiet and centre of the image, something that is typical of images that depict the Passion of Christ prior to his crucifixion. In this image he does not struggle or complain despite the pain he must be in, rather he accepts quietly his suffering and pain, and submits to his mother’s care. Around him others rush in and out, only the sheep (that is us) watch with interest what is happening.

Whilst this is a quiet and domestic image, the Cross is already casting its long shadow across the life of Jesus. Each step that Christ takes from this moment onward is one that will lead him closer to Calvary and the tomb. Each moment under the long shadow of the Cross.


We can be sure of is that God entrusts Christ to loving parents, ones who will care for him and nurture him and guide him until the time comes for him to step centre-stage on the banks of the Jordan. God is not uncaring or unseeing, something both the Psalmist and Christ reminds us of: he forms us in our mother’s womb (Ps.139) and he knows every hair on our heads.

I want to end with U.A. Fanthorpe’s poem ‘I am Joseph’. It’s a poem that gives Joseph a voice (he is silent in the 4 gospels), and which speaks of his hopes for fatherhood, and for Jesus.

I am Jospeh

I am Jospeh, carpenter,
Of David’s kingly line,
I wanted an heir; discovered
My wife’s son wasn’t mine.
I am an obstinate lover,
Loved Mary for better or worse,
Wouldn’t stop loving when I found
Someone Else came first.
Mine was the likeness I hoped for
When the first-born man-child came.
But nothing of him was me. I couldn’t
Even choose his name.
I am Jospeh, who wanted
To teach my own boy how to live.
My lesson for my foster son:
Endure. Love. Give.