"There stood by the cross of Jesus, Mary his mother."
The gospel reading we listened to today is the shortest you will ever hear read in church. But it wasn't chosen for its brevity, rather for its aptness.
That bleak scene on Calvary hill has exercised the imagination of artists down through the centuries. Painters such as El Greco, Titian, Sassoferato and Murillo have all given us their grief-torn 'Mother of Sorrows' canvases, the Madonna swooning in the arms of her companions or prostrate in sorrow at the foot of the cross. Sculptors such as Michelangelo have captured the pathos of that day in their renderings of the Pieta. Film-makers as diverse as Mel Gibson, Robert Marcarelli, Pier Pasolini and Franco Zeffirelli have brought their version to the screen. And over 200 musicians, from Palestrina and Pergolesi to Haydyn, Rossini and Dvorak have stirred the emotions with the mournful strains of their Stabat Mater Dolorosa.
But it is all just a figment of their imaginations, pious tear-jerking. It certainly does not represent the gospel, or the good news it proclaims.
Listen again to John's succinct picture. Mary "stood". She doesn't swoon and fail. Rather she stands tall in the face of a terrible evil; she is a pillar of strength in time of trial; she refuses to be cowered and to surrender to the worst her Son's enemies can do. More than that: Mary "stood by". Yes she stood by her man; she joined herself to him in his confrontation with this world's sin. She stood by her Son when even his heavenly Father seemed to have abandoned him. She gave him strength and encouragement to the end.
And what explains this extraordinary demonstration of love and support? That one word that John adds: 'mother'. Here on Calvary we see motherhood canonised and given to us as an exemplar of the Christian life.
Irene McKeirnan's life can be fairly summarised in that same one word. Some, like Mary Mackillop, live out their life on a broad and very public canvas; most, like Mum, dedicate themselves to the smaller and more private bounds of family and neighbourhood. Yet it is the same spirit of motherly care and concern that inspires.
Irene Daphne May McMillan was born in the small central Queensland town of Aramac in 1915. Her parents were the town's first motor mechanic, 20 year old Dick McMillan and his 19 year old bride from Barcaldine, Annie Cliffe. Mum's memories of those early days are actually of growing up with her paternal grandparents on Kismet, their sheep station 90km east of Aramac. Mum never knew why she was farmed out to her grandparents: I suggested she must have been an uncontrollable child, but probably it was to ease her mother's burden as the young family expanded rapidly. Her early schooling was with a governess at Kismet.
The family moved to Gin Gin where her father operated a garage and picture show. Mum boarded with the Sisters of Mercy in Bundaberg to complete her commercial Junior, then worked as accounts clerk in the local butchery. God help anyone in later years who tried to pass off blade steak as first class rump! Her mother contracted cancer, and Rene cared for her in her last months, travelling to Brisbane for the primitive radium treatment of those days. She then helped care for her younger siblings, and so began her mothering experience.
With her sister Lor, Rene was versed in piano and violin; they teamed with the local chemist as drummer to provide accompaniment at the silent movies and the wrestling matches her father sponsored in the nearby country halls.
Then onto the scene came an itinerant car salesman cum journalist cum vaudeville artist cum minerals fossicker cum commercial teacher. Matt McKeirnan had worked his way north during the depression years from his native Victoria. A romance blossomed and they were married in the Holy Rosary Church in Bundaberg in early 1938.
Their first home was Mount Morgan where Dad worked in the goldmine. I was born there, and soon after they returned to Gin Gin to help with the family business and there Ellen was born. Then came the Bundaberg years. Matt returned to journalism at the News Mail, whilst Mum extended her mothering duties as Margaret, Maureen and Patricia were added to the family.
These were the war years, and Mum became skilled at stretching a tight budget to clothe and feed her growing tribe. She sewed all our clothes and school uniforms, as well as her own and household items such as curtains. Her CWA cookbook became heavily notated and added to - my sisters still refer to it. Over the years her recipes were shared far and wide: just a couple of weeks ago I caught Sr Karen checking out Mum's boiled fruit cake recipe with her.
And she was always trying something new in competition with her accomplished daughters. I'd often be served lunch with the aside that 'this was a dish she'd seen Huey do on the TV'.
Mum was never a very social person, but in Bundaberg she made lifelong friends through bridge parties with the likes of the Connollys, Fitzgeralds, Shadforths and Hempenstalls. In later years her neighbours became her best friends. She wasn't into joining clubs or attending functions: family picnics were her preference.
In 1949 the family moved to Brisbane where Dad joined the Brisbane Telegraph as court and parliamentary reporter, then sporting editor. Judith and Jan rounded out the family which lived at Holland Park and Rochedale before moving finally to Wellers Hill which was to be Mum's home for the next 53 years. Her mothering tasks expanded to include mediating Dad's rather Victorian strictures on his daughters and moderating the ups and downs of their romances.
Dad died in 1968, leaving Mum to be the rock on which her family remained firmly planted. She stood by her children in troubled times, and rejoiced with them in the joyful ones. Whether assisting with grandchildren, helping through marital difficulties or dealing with death, she was always a faithful standby for her children and their partners.
As her dynasty grew, now numbering 11 grandchildren and 7 great-grandchildren, Rene turned back to crocheting and knitting as her way of being there for new arrivals. In recent years and months she has overcome arthritis to knit for needy children overseas. An unfinished sweater still lies on the arm of her easy chair.
Mum could be obstinate and one-eyed. She only ever voted Labor, whatever came. Despite three of her daughters working at the ABC, 7 and 9 were the only buttons that got use on her TV. I learned very quickly what brands of groceries were unacceptable. She read a lot, but mostly romance of the Jackie Collins, Danielle Steele and Barbara Taylor Bradford type.
In later life Mum learned that a part of being a mother is to be cared for herself. Fiercely independent, she found this a difficult lesson. To the end she handled her own business matters, but increasing frailty forced her to rely more and more on her daughters and others. She was always grateful for their care, even if at times she refused to submit to others ideas. Her neighbours, Sister Mary Foster and her Flexicare ladies were dear to her. She valued her weekly contact with the parish as Keith brought her Communion. And she always delighted in visits from her grandchildren, nephews and nieces.
Irene's memory was legendary and she was blessed with undiminished faculties to the very end. A short illness in hospital taxed her frail condition beyond its limits, and she left us peacefully last Friday, alert to the end.
Irene McKeirnan in her own way lived out that mother's love that John pictures for us in the gospel - a life just as much in the background as was Mary's, and just as powerfully enlivening.
Traditionally we end with the invocation "May she rest in peace". Another piece of bad theology! Housebound and increasingly confined to an easy chair and bed, Mum has had enough rest to last her for an eternity. Rather, freed now from the limitations of this life, may she live completely and enjoy utterly that fullness of life that was won for her by the Cross near which that other mother stood.
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