SUNDAY Colossians 3:12-17; John 19:25b-27
A few days ago I was in a group of friends and we got talking about the
popular TV series “Call the Midwife”. We were laughing when
one of our group said that if she saw another scene with a mother in labour
panting away like mad, she’d have a fit! We all laughed, and enjoyed
the moment and another friend said, “How they give birth with all
those blankets over the action end, I don’t know!” We all
laughed again. But they are heartwarming episodes and are a window into
what motherhood was like back in the days when my generation was just
coming into the world. In many ways times have changed – most mothers
have to go out to work these days, and there are so many more things that
make laborious jobs easier. But I guess one thing does not change, and
that is the love and care that a mother gives, and the sacrifice and pain
of being a mother. So it is good to have a day in our church calendar
when we celebrate the gift of mothering.
I choose that word deliberately: mothering. I don’t mean it in the
negative way it is sometimes used: “Stop mothering me!” exclaims
a petulant teenager trying to grow up. I mean it in the best sense –
all that it means to be a mother and to fulfill the role of motherhood.
Those of you who know me will understand that I prefer to be precise about
things. I’m one of those sons who hunts out cards at this time of
year that say “Happy Mothering Sunday!” to send to my mum.
It is Mothering Sunday in the Anglican calendar, not Mothers’ Day.
There is an important difference, and I want to explain what that is.
Perhaps I’m being fussy, but sometimes misunderstandings grow because
we’ve not been clear enough about what words might mean and where
they have come from. I learnt something this week that helps make things
even clearer. The fact is that two different things: Mothering Sunday
and Mothers’ Day have got confused with each other and so I want
to un-confuse them to help us recognise each for what they are: valuable
days but different in their intentions. Let me explain.
Day I used to think was simply an invention of the greetings card industry
and an example of the increasing commercialization of our society. Now
that may be true, but even the origin of Mothers’ Day has been subverted
by commerce. The origins of Mothers’ Day were in America and was
an idea that grew out of the suffering of so many women when their children
were killed in the Civil War of the 1860’s. Mothers’ Day work
clubs were formed as a reaction, to support grieving women and assert
their right to equality. A feminist called Anna Jarvis organized a campaign,
asking for a national holiday to celebrate the lives of all mothers. They
settled on the second Sunday in May as the date for this. But Anna was
horrified to see how it became commercialized. It was good that people
should buy their mothers a present, but there was no need to spend as
much on it as the advertisers encouraged them to. It’s the thought
that counts. As for the shops that wanted their customers to buy an expensive
card to send, Anna Jarvis said, “A printed card means nothing, except
that you are too lazy to write to the woman who has done more for you
than anyone in the world.” She then spent all her money campaigning
against the travesty which her vision of Mothers’ Day had become.
it all depends on your perspective. Anna Jarvis may have felt that a card
was a cop-out, but there may be plenty of mothers out there who are quite
happy that they have been sent at least a token of gratitude and appreciation.
These days it is even easier to be lazy or last minute as we can now send
electronic greetings to each other in an instant! What matters, though,
is for us not to always feel we’re being thoughtless or mean just
because we don’t buy the biggest or most expensive card in a flashy
shop. Many mothers will appreciate the simplest sweaty handful of freshly
picked and half-crushed daisies from a little child, or something painted
or drawn, than anything expensive or fancy. It’s the recognition
that matters, however it comes. Anna Jarvis’ original vision was
to support grieving mothers, not make an excuse for businessmen to line
their pockets with profits.
Centuries before this, Mothering Sunday had developed in the British Isles,
but for similar reasons. It was held on the 4th Sunday in Lent. In those
days the Lenten fast was taken seriously. I have also heard it said that
in the days when folks lived much closer to the land and the seasons,
by late Spring there was very little food left after the winter stores
had become depleted. So fasting may not always have been out of choice!
No matter, one way or another many ordinary folks ate little between Ash
Wednesday and Palm Sunday. But mid-way through those 40 days there was
a let-up on what was sometimes called “Refreshment Sunday”.
Many apprentices who lived where they worked learning a trade, were allowed
to go home on this day. Many domestic live-in servants, housemaids, footmen
and the like were also allowed to visit home for a day. Not having any
money, or very little of it, they stopped on their way to gather flowers
from the hedgerows beside the road. They gave these posies to their mothers
as a thank-you present when they reached home. There was also another
tradition more closely connected to church-life. Mid-Lent Sunday was also
the day when many people from outlying parishes would travel in to the
cathedral, the “Mother Church” of the diocese, and celebrate
the Virgin Mary as a pattern of motherhood. I don’t know which came
first, the popular practise or the Prayer Book lectionary, but it is also
the case that Cranmer chose a Bible reading for this Sunday which has
the phrase: “Jerusalem which is the mother of us all”. (Gal
Our modern day lectionary compilers have chosen readings more directly
connected to human motherhood, rather than the spiritual motherhood of
Jerusalem or a cathedral. There is a choice of readings which I try to
alternate year by year. This year we have the very short little scene
description of the three Marys and John standing at the foot of the cross.
We also have the Colossians reading about how the family of God is to
treat each other. You may have heard pieces of music entitled “Stabat
Mater”. They are settings of a medieval poem in honour of Mary and
the title is the first two words of the hymn which begins “There
stood the sorrowful mother.” It is a meditation on the sufferings
of Mary, mother of Jesus. Perhaps it was so popular and often set to music
for worship because it expressed something of the way people felt about
their mothers or about the pains of motherhood. But the original scene
at the crucifixion was about how Jesus formed a new kind of family. Important
as human families are, Jesus didn’t put them on a pedestal or idealise
them. He modelled a new kind of family in which unrelated people could
form close bonds and care for each other as if they were blood-relatives.
As he hung there dying and no doubt feeling the pain of leaving his mother
and seeing her suffering with him, he gave John and Mary to each other
as adoptive mother and son. What an incredible thing to do, as if Jesus
wasn’t in enough pain himself! But Jesus had already laid the foundations
of this new kind of spiritual family in his earthly ministry, and had
even put his own natural kin firmly in their place. “Anyone who
does the will of my heavenly Father is my mother, brother or sister,”
he famously said on one occasion. (Matt 12:50)
of the family of believers in Jesus are detailed in the reading we had
from the letter to the Colossians. Paul reminded his friends in the church
there that they had been chosen by God: adopted into his family. In the
security that gave them, they were then to act after the family likeness,
showing character traits of the Lord’s children. Their moral qualities
and the way they treated each other would show to whom they really belonged.
There was to be an honesty in their dealings with each other where there
was conflict, and underlying their whole lives there was that supreme
Christian character trait of love, running, as it were, like the DNA in
every cell of their being. That would break out in peaceful relationships
and a harmony to their life together. Of course it all sounds very idealistic,
but if you don’t know what you’re supposed to be like, you
can hardly aim for it!
The point is that the family of Christ is one that is made up through
choice. God chooses us, but it is our place to choose to act like we belong
and to choose daily to belong. The reason why that is important is that
choice is something that lies within each persons’ power to make.
It is a God-given gift and freedom. What life does to us lies outside
of our power, but how we choose to respond to life, does lie within our
power. So those who do not have the joy of motherhood, those who have
lost it or other precious and natural relationships, may be counted as
belonging in the family of the Lord. We all belong as we choose both to
belong ourselves, and to ensure that others really feel they belong as
well: through our choice to accept and love each other. We are all Mary
and John: given to each other by choice.
So Mothering Sunday is a day for us both to recognise our natural mothers
and to acknowledge the importance of mothering qualities in our spiritual
family which we call “Church”. In this family those who have
suffered the pain of difficulties and problems in natural relationships
are to find healing and acceptance as the love, peace and harmony of Christ
grows through our choice to belong to each other. A small posy of flowers
given especially to the ladies in our congregation reminds us of this
wonderful truth. Happy Mothering Sunday to you all!
© Rev Paul Smith.