I regularly refer to the ‘Church Year’ and how it has helped me this past twelve months. As so many secular celebrations and commemorations have either not happened or happened in a very different way, the Church Year has followed the same pattern, even if we have observed the same in a different way.
Today I am vividly taken back twelve months, not to the calendar day but to the Church day. The last service I held in Church before the first lockdown was on Mothering Sunday, but even then it was only my father and I that were there. It was that last Sunday that I was allowed into the church building (not that I knew it then) and in order to celebrate the Eucharist I needed another person present, and my father was a willing volunteer!
Mothering Sunday is always a joyful day, or should be at least, for all children and mothers, however old and regardless of whether or not our mothers are still alive. It is a day to give thanks to God for what should be that special bond between mother and child and child and mother. ‘Should be’ because alas the reality does not always mirror the ideal, and the relationship between mother and child can be painfully bitter which is always desperately sad.
Keeping Mothering Sunday is something which retail forces have very much embraced and promote. Celebrating Mothering Sunday is something which the church has had to catch up on, because it isn’t really a festival of the church, despite the fact that like so many other things, it has its origins in the Church.
The Oxford Dictionary of the Christian Church suggests three possible origins for Mothering Sunday. Firstly, and perhaps somewhat surprisingly, the custom in some parts of England of paying a visit to one’s mother on this day! Well it’s from Oxford so it must be right, albeit a little inane and superficial and doesn’t really take us much further forward!
Secondly, and more substantively, it refers back to the custom which developed in the Sixteenth Century of returning to the mother church to worship on this day – be that the local church, the church in which a person was baptised or their Cathedral Church. Something of an annual pilgrimage back to the starting point of the individual’s Christian journey, giving thanks for the sustenance of the Church over the last twelve months, and to pray for the ministry of the Church throughout the year ahead.
Finally, the Epistle reading set in the 1662 Book of Common Prayer for this Sunday is taken from the fourth chapter of St Paul’s Letter to the Galatians and refers to “Jerusalem above … the mother of us all”. The Book of Common Prayer which has been so influential over many centuries, shaping the way in which communities have kept High Days and Holy Days from one generation to another.
Both the Book of Common Prayer and the Holy Bible abound in familial references, the most obvious being ‘our Father’. We also often hear of ‘the family of the Church’; God of ‘all the families of Israel’, the new Jerusalem being ‘the bride of the Lamb’ as well as ‘mother’. Plenty to think about, not only in terms of the relationship between mother and child, but wider relationships, family relationships, and the relationship between God and his people – past, present and future.
The truth is that all of these references are telling us so much more than what we hear superficially, if we only take the words at face value. The words ‘the family the Church’ immediately make us ask, who are members of this ‘family’? A question which is specifically answered in the Church’s Baptism service – the prayer of thanksgiving immediately following baptism speaks of the person being born again and grafted in to the Body of Christ which is the Church. ‘The family’ is that of all the baptised, but it means more than merely belonging to a family, it means physically becoming part of the Church – being grafted in to it.
‘The families of Israel’ referred to by the Prophet Jeremiah in the Hebrew Bible, to the Jews would have meant their own nation, the twelve tribes of Israel, descendants of Abraham in the flesh. But according to the teaching of Jesus as expounded in the New Testament, ‘the families of Israel’ extend to all the people of the world, who are grafted into the Church through the waters of baptism.
The point is that these familial references are intended as a starting point for us to begin to understand the mystery which is the relationship between God and humanity – collectively and individually. We understand family relationships, we know what the ideal is, even if our individual experience is far from ideal. They are not intended to be comprehensive descriptions or comparisons, only a starting point.
The same can be said of our own fraternal relations. We call each other ‘brother’ and we know the ideal relationship that we are called to share with each other in the harmony of the Lodge and throughout life. The reality however is that we rarely succeed in achieving the ideal, and occasionally find it challenging to get on with some bretheren. If we persevere, the challenging relationships can be as, if not more productive, as those that come more naturally.
Mothering Sunday in the Church is also known as Refreshment Sunday or Laetare Sunday. A day on which people are encouraged to relax from the rigours of their observance of the Season of Lent, and allow themselves to be refreshed, and perhaps indulge a little in a Simnel cake or the like, and especially so as they celebrate mothers and motherhood generally!
As we think of mothers and motherhood, as well as celebrating such a blessing, we are also encouraged to think more deeply about our relationship with God, starting with our understanding of human relationships. Remembering that for Christians, God is of infinite love and goodness beyond anything on earth, and anything we are capable of fully understanding.
This hymn written by John Cennick (1718-1755) is full of Biblical and familial references, and is known as ‘The Pilgrim’s Song’ for obvious reasons. It reminds us that we are on a journey during which we encounter glimpses of the future glory which we will only experience when our time on earth is done.
Children of the heavenly King,
as ye journey, sweetly sing;
sing your Saviour's worthy praise,
glorious in his works and ways.
We are travelling home to God
in the way the fathers trod;
they are happy now, and we
soon their happiness shall see.
Lift your eyes, ye sons of light!
Zion's city is in sight;
there our endless home shall be
there our Lord we soon shall see.
Fear not, brethren! joyful stand
on the borders of your land;
Jesus Christ, your Father's Son,
bids you undismayed go on.
Lord, obedient we would go,
gladly leaving all below;
only thou our leader be,
and we still will follow thee.
I offer this prayer:
Lord Jesus Christ, who wast born of a human mother and didst care for her upon the Cross: we commend to thee the mothers of our nation. May their children be nurtured in thy discipline and instruction, and their home be a haven of peace and love, made fragrant with thy presence; who livest and reignest, world without end. Amen.
I pray God’s blessing on all mothers.