Mothering Sunday: Gone a-mothering
Sermon by the Revd Dr Brutus Green
Based on readings: Exodus 2:1-10, Colossians 3:12-17, Luke 2:33-35
Today is Mothering Sunday — Importantly, we should try to avoid any ghastly Americanisms — like referring to it as Mothers’ Day. Before Mothering was a thing this middle Sunday of Lent was known as Laetare Sunday from Psalm 122, in Latin Laetatus Sum: A Royal favourite — I was glad, popularised by Mr Parry —which provided the old introit for this Sunday. Being the middle of Lent, though, it’s also known as ‘Refreshment Sunday’ and a good opportunity to take a hard-earned break for all your solemnity, austerity and Lenten devotion. For this reason in the sixteenth-century, your domestic staff were given the day off to go back to their families. People would return to their “mother” church, usually the church where they were baptised — going ‘a-mothering’; one of the few times in the year that families were actually able to get back together.
Children and young people were also given a day off because at that time they would often have jobs, usually from the age of around 10, unlike the present slackers, Gen-Z who would probably complain that it was against their human rights or something. Their little hands were useful for cleaning and fixing in factories, but equally they’d work in the country: bird scaring, sowing crops and driving horses, or holding doors down the mines, or as errand boys and chimney sweeps in the cities. Often they’d pick wildflowers along the way thus beginning the tradition of giving flowers to mothers…
And while Mothering Sunday slowly diminished over the centuries and disappeared from sight, it was reinvigorated in 1920s by Constance Penwick-Smith so it’s largely her we have to thank for bringing it back. Father’s Day, an infinitely holier and more important feast has been celebrated since the Middle Ages on March 19, St Joseph’s Day, though as usual the Americans got it wrong and put it in June.
But mothers are important too. The time I have most been in peril — and there are many — was rock climbing on the Gower near where I grew up. My elder brother, who is also a good bit taller than me, had gone ahead and before I knew it we were ascending a vertical cliff with nothing but the sea below crashing against the rocks. Well I was struggling a little having something less reach than the man ahead, but growing up as one of three boys there is no turning back or being beaten by a sibling. That is simply unacceptable. So I was out of my comfort zone. But as I swung myself up for the next handhold I suddenly came face to face with an enormous spider. Now I am quite arachnophobic. Less now than I was, but I remember a school 'friend' chasing me round the classroom with a money spider. It was that sort of school. So this was pretty much my worst nightmare. Half way up a cliff with my hands full so to speak. Face to face with the devil himself. My instinct was to let go; which would not have been a good idea. And I remember distinctly, wishing I was back with my mum at home having a cup of tea in a lovely calm house. It's funny really but the feeling was so strong and the image so strong, that I almost felt I could close my eyes turn back time and be back with her sitting on the sofa. A little like the prayer of the Hail Mary: “Mother of God, pray for us, now and at the hour of our death.”
Now there are two possible Gospel readings for Mothering Sunday. Both are terribly short. Presumably in case you’re running an all-age service. But both are also essentially about Mary grieving at the crucifixion. Which is a challenging theme for an all-age service. There is the one I read earlier. Jesus is a little boy but the old folk predict he will change the world, but with the line, 'and a sword will pierce your own soul too’. The other is literally two lines from the crucifixion where Jesus is entrusting his mother to his friend.
So, oddly, Mothering Sunday comes in Spring, the cold has gone and we’re thinking about all the little lambs coming into the world, the children do a little song, and it's all lovely; but the lectionary writers have not forgotten it's Lent and so the experience of motherhood they relate it to is the death of her son.
And if you think about it the two iconic images of Mary are firstly her with the baby on her arm; the subject of a million paintings and icons. And then her at the pieta; again, millions of paintings and icons; post crucifixion, Jesus is once again in her arms, again as most vulnerable humanity, but now as a broken adult. There’s a circularity here that Freud will pick up on 1900 years later between the womb and the tomb, two inescapable images of the Western idea of motherhood.
And we see that at the most pressing times in our life, when we're under the most pressure or threat, at the major events, we return to the place and people that are most important to us. The memory of the safe space, the recognition of dependable love draws us back.
What we can see the church doing on Mothering Sunday then is trying to draw people back to what's really important. Because it's not enough that you think of what really matters when the chips are down and your life is on the line. Why would you not always put the most important things first all the time.
Jesus of course remained close to his mission throughout. We don't really see him go off message. And, of course, to the end he stays close to his mother.
Which reminds me of one of Rhiannon's favourite jokes:
A woman goes to her rabbi and says, “Rabbi, I've done everything right, I brought up my son in the faith, gave him a very expensive Bar Mitzvah and it cost me a fortune to educate him. Then he tells me last week, he’s decided to be a Christian. Rabbi, where did I go wrong?”
The Rabbi says 'Funny you should come to me. I also brought up my Son according to the Law, paid for an expensive education, sent him to college, and now he too is a Christian.”
“What did you do?” the woman asks the rabbi.
“I turned to God for the answer.”
“What did he say?”
He said, “Funny you should come to me...”
So Mothering Sunday. A good day to take an interval, a half time break in Lent, or maybe, if it's been a bit shakey, a time to start again and try to get through to Easter. A time to bring the nest back together if you can; to stay safe and avoid spiders. And to remember and give thanks for what's most important in life, which may include our mothers, amongst other things. Amen.