In preparing for today's Mother’s Day Service, or Mothering Sunday as it is more traditionally called, I was quite intrigued to see that the origins of Mothering Sunday go back much earlier than the American Mother’s Day. Which officially started in 1914.
Mothering Sunday in the UK however goes right back to the medieval period. As early as the 8th century AD, in the readings for the Catholic Mass for the 4th Sunday of Lent, there were a number of references to the theme of mothers.
The Introit which was largely taken from Isaiah 66:10-11 makes reference to the city of Jerusalem as a mother who suckles her children:
“Rejoice with Jerusalem and be glad for her,
all you who love her;
rejoice greatly with her,
all you who mourn over her.
For you will nurse and be satisfied
at her comforting breasts;
you will drink deeply
and delight in her overflowing abundance.”
Secondly, the Epistle reading set for the Day from Galatians 4:21–31 makes reference to two mothers, Hagar and Sarah, comparing the slave Hagar to the earthly Jerusalem who is described as being in slavery with her children, with Abraham’s wife Sarah who stood as a symbol of the heavenly Jerusalem as the true Mother of all Christians who have been born into freedom through Christ. Sarah and the Heavenly Jerusalem are used by Paul as symbols of the Church.
The key verse was verse 26 “But the Jerusalem that is above is free, and she is our mother.”
Thirdly, the Gospel reading that was set was the Feeding of the Five Thousand in John 2:1–14, and in this passage it could be said that Jesus, like a mother feeds his children with the gifts of bread and fish from Mother Earth.
And so with these readings, that all contained mothering themes, the fourth Sunday of Lent became associated with Mothering, but more in a spiritual sense than the earthly sense, with the Church being understood as the Spiritual Mother of all Christians.
Inspired by the words of the Psalm 122:1 which were also contained in the introit “I was glad when they said to me, We will go into the house of the Lord”, it became the tradition on this Sunday to travel to the Mother Church of the area, which was normally the Cathedral where the Bishop sat, or if that wasn’t possible to go to the Church where one was baptised, where one had first been received as a child of Mother Church, and nurtured from that time on by the sacraments.
Apparently these mini pilgrimages to the Mother Church or the Cathedral could get a little out of hand. Because the fourth Sunday in lent was also a day mid-way through Lent when the Lenten fast would be temporarily broken. And so, there would be a little bit of feasting and celebrating on this day before getting back to the hard work of fasting the following day. Apparently this could all descend into brawls and fighting.
In a letter written by a church leader at the time (Robert Grosseteste (Letter 22.7) instructions were given to clergy to strictly prohibit one parish from fighting with another over whose banners should come first in processions, and that those who dishonour their spiritual mother in this way should not escape punishment.
The Mid-Lenten Women’s Carnival in France that continues up today also on the 4th Sunday in Lent, goes back to a common tradition in the medieval period.
This practice of visiting the Mother Church on the 4th Sunday of Lent continued after the Reformation in England right into the mid 1600’s and anyone who did this was commonly said to have gone 'mothering'. Because the day was a holiday (ie a Holy Day), domestic servants might have been given some time off, during which may also have chosen to visit their families, which might include their flesh-and-blood mothers
At some point this tradition fell out of practice, but in the early 1900’s, in response to the creation of Mother’s Day in the United States by Anna Jarvis, in the United Kingdom Constance Adelaide Smith, a High Church Anglican, began a movement to revive the traditions of Mothering Sunday.
She wrote three works under her maiden the name Constance Penswick Smith:
• Firstly a short play entitled “In Praise of Mother: A story of Mothering Sunday” (1913),
• Secondly she a “Short History of Mothering Sunday” (1915),
• and thirdly she wrote her most influential booklet entitled The Revival of Mothering Sunday (1921).
In this book she wrote four short chapters outlining the different aspects of motherhood that should be honoured on the day:
• 'The Church – Our Mother'
• 'Mothers of Earthly Homes'
• 'The Mother of Jesus'
• 'Gifts of Mother Earth'
Ellen Hawley writes: that “The idea caught fire at the end of World War I–according to one source because of the country’s many losses in the war.” She writes that this doesn’t entirely make sense–it was young men who died in the war, not mothers–but as she says, grief is a funny thing and will pour itself into any container it finds.
She says that “By 1938–or so… Mothering Sunday was celebrated in every parish in Britain and every country in the empire.
And so if truth be told, the earliest origins of Mothering Sunday were not really about honouring one’s earthly mothers at all.
But since the 1950’s Mothering Sunday in the United Kingdom has become more and more secularised following the tradition of the American 'Mother's Day'. It has also become known more and more as Mother’s Day rather than Mothering Sunday losing it’s religious significance and becoming more of a secular observance of the celebration of motherhood.
In closing, the concept of the Church as a mother is quite a compelling one, not the Church as a heirarchy as perhaps in the Roman Catholic institution, but rather the Church as a community.
In what way has this church been like a mother that has nurtured you? Or perhaps it was another church that you grew up in?
If I think back to the church in Pinetown where I grew up, the church community in my memory was indeed like a mother or a mothering community that helped nurture me as I grew through childhood and my teens into my twenties.
In what way has Church been like a nurturing mother in your growing up?
And lastly, what memories do you have of your own mothers at Church? When I asked Wendy, she said that her memory of going to Meetings with her Mom is of having imperial mints. She only ever had imperial mints at the meeting which was normally two hours long. Half way through, after the first hour, her Mom would give her an imperial mint as a kind of a reward and perhaps also as a bit of sustenance to get through the second hour.
What are your memories of going to church with your mother?
(With thanks to Wikipedia and Ellen Hawley’s Blog Post “Mothering Sunday and Mother’s Day: a short history”.