Mothering. It occurred to me that it’s an interesting word. We hardly ever use it except in Mothering Sunday. It comes of course from the verb “to mother”. There’s a corresponding verb “to father”. To father children means to beget them, to generate them. But to mother children doesn’t correspondingly mean to conceive them and bring them to birth. Rather, the picture it evokes in your mind is of a woman with her arms wrapped round her children in protective love. That’s what mothering is.
Well, this 4th Sunday in Lent is of course Mothering Sunday. But why it’s Mothering Sunday no one really knows. It could be because it’s usually near to Lady Day, the Feast of the Annunciation, when Mary was told that she was going to be the mother of Jesus. Incidentally, I’d been doing this job quite a few years before it suddenly struck me that the reason for the date of the Annunciation, March 25th, is because it’s exactly nine months before December 25th. It’s absolutely obvious, but I’d never thought of it before.
But let’s consider Mary for a moment. Whatever your opinion of the historicity of the Virgin Birth, you have to say, what an awesome task and responsibility God gave to Mary. She could have got it wrong. We are all to quite a large degree the product of our upbringing. Jesus is the product of hers: she got it right. And I think we ought to go on from there and recognize what an awesome task and responsibility God gives to every mother.
Another possible reason for the 4th Sunday in Lent being Mothering Sunday is that in the old Prayer Book the Epistle mentioned “Jerusalem our mother”, which was taken to be a symbol of the church being the mother of us all, the church looking after us and nourishing us. But this day was also called Midlenting Sunday and Refreshment Sunday. The Gospel of the day was the Feeding of the Five Thousand, and at the time when Lent was being kept very rigorously, this was seen as a hint that it wouldn’t be such a bad idea to have a break, a bit of a feast, mid-Lent. And that fitted in with the custom of people, particularly those in service, being given the day off to go home and visit their mothers, and maybe indulging in some simnel cake too.
Yet another tradition was that on Mothering Sunday people went to the mother church of the diocese, the cathedral, or if that was too far away, the nearest minster church, like Ledbury or Leominster – Leo-minster.
But then for many years Mothering Sunday became a neglected tradition. When I was a boy in Oldham it was never mentioned. It just so happens that today is my mother’s birthday: she would have been 105. But it wasn’t until I was in, I think, my thirties that she ever had a Mothering Sunday card from me. That was after the idea of Mothers’ Daycrossed the Atlantic, and that reminded church people here that we already had this Sunday, and not just as a secular notion, but as a religious observance. And so it’s become popular again, very popular and very, very commercial.
Well, nobody can deny the deep significance and the vital importance – literally vital – of motherhood. Yet it’s such a universal and common thing – none of us could possibly be here without having had a mother – that it can easily be taken for granted. And of course it’s not just the biological aspect of it: there’s also all the nurturing, the caring, the feeding, the cleaning, the clothing, the teaching, the protecting and above all the loving. And God is love; and where love is there God is.
So today we give thanks – great thanks – for motherhood and for mothers: for Eve, and Mary, and our own mothers, and our wives who are mothers, and our daughters who are mothers, maybe even granddaughters, and for all the mothers around us, in Coddington and further afield and indeed all over the world; for all that love given and received between mother and child. And God is love; and where love is there God is.
You know, I think this is at the very centre of our religion, our Christianity. There are of course everywhere sad instances of families or broken families or never- formed families where, for a whole variety of reasons, there is no love. But for the vast majority of us the family is the school of love. The family is where love is born and where we learn to love as we are nurtured and cared for by loving parents or a single parent.
Now I don’t want to be romantic, soppy about this, nor unrealistic. As every parent knows, sometimes love has to be stern: weakly giving in to every selfish demand of children would in the long term be very damaging for them and for the relationship between parent and child. No, love is practical; it is what makes things work best, but often it’s very difficult to apply and it’s demanding. Parents can be infuriating, and children can be maddening. Acceptance and forgiveness can stretch love to its upmost limit. But when love does conquer over terrible odds, it’s just a bit reminiscent of Christ’s victory of love on the cross, leaning to resurrection, to new life.
God is love. And I don’t think he’s just a loving Father; he’s also a loving Mother. And by that I mean that in God are combined all the loving attributes of both fatherhood and motherhood. Those are different, aren’t they? Though of course in some human families a single parent valiantly fulfils aspects of both. God is our Parent, who creates us and then loves us to all eternity.
There was a lady known as Mother Julian of Norwich who was born in 1342, and she wrote these inspired and inspiring words:
As truly as God is our Father, so truly is God our Mother, and he revealed this in everything, and especially in these sweet words where he says:
I am he; that is to say: I am he, the power and the goodness of fatherhood.
I am he, the wisdom and the lovingness of motherhood.
I am he, the light and grace which is all blessed love. I am he, the Trinity.
As truly as God is our Father, so truly is God our Mother.
Thanks – thanks indeed be to God.