While Jesus was still speaking to the crowds, his mother and his brothers were standing outside, wanting to speak to him. Someone told him, ‘Look, your mother and your brothers are standing outside, wanting to speak to you.’But to the one who had told him this, Jesus replied, ‘Who is my mother, and who are my brothers?’ And pointing to his disciples, he said, ‘Here are my mother and my brothers! For whoever does the will of my Father in heaven is my brother and sister and mother.’
Matthew 12: 46-50
In sixteenth century Britain the fourth Sunday of Lent was called Refreshment Sunday. All the Lent rules were relaxed, and the Church required people to return to their ‘mother’ church or cathedral for that day’s service. The day became known as Mothering Sunday, not through association with mothers, but because of the journey made to the ‘mother’ church. In an age when children as young as ten left home to take up work or apprenticeships elsewhere, this was often the only day in the whole year when families would be reunited. By the seventeenth century it had become a public holiday, when servants and apprentices were given the day off so that they could fulfill their duties to the Church. They often stopped to pick flowers along the way, and some brought with them a special cake, made from a fine wheat flour called simila, which has evolved into the Simnel Cake, decorated with eleven balls of marzipan representing eleven of the twelve disciples (excluding Judas Iscariot). The tradition of keeping “Mothering Sunday” was strengthened in the nineteenth century when those in domestic service were allowed to return to their own communities, as they would not be at home for Easter.
The different threads of the history of the fourth Sunday in Lent give us a way to revisit what has become something of a liturgical anomaly. Over the past few decades, Mothering Sunday has gradually been recast as Mothers’ Day, a move that has grown more out of consumerism than theology, as big business encourages or invents the institution of days to celebrate not just mothers, but fathers, grandparents, teachers, and so on – not to draw the community together, but so that they can sell you more stuff. Turning Mothering Sunday into Mothers’ Day has almost completely eclipsed the original meaning of the day. An example is the current Church of England liturgy for the day which includes prayers of thanks for motherhood, and a pause for flowers to be distributed to mothers.
While, on the surface, it seems a nice idea to spend a whole Sunday celebrating mothers, it has a complicated flip-side. Why only mothers? Why not fathers, grandparents, children, aunts and uncles, siblings, single people, childless people, and more? The romanticisation of the mother-child relationship is full of fraught overtones: what does it say to women who are not mothers? Are we suggesting that their contribution to the world is somehow less valuable, less worth a celebratory day? The new focus on Mothers’ Day comes with barbs for those who are childless but not by choice, for those who are infertile, who have suffered miscarriages, for women whose children have died or are estranged, or for single or widowed fathers.
Some years ago I suffered an early miscarriage and, given the brevity of the experience, was almost surprised to find that while the world continued to turn unawares, I was quite washed away with grief. One of my closest friends at the time was a woman older than me who had longed for children but never been able to have any herself. Rather than talking interminably about my situation, she simply checked up on me regularly to make sure that I was eating and sleeping properly, getting out and about, and not disappearing into my own grief.
After a few weeks, Mothering Sunday loomed on the horizon. I began to tell myself that I would be fine by then, how I would think happy thoughts and get through the services without a worry. Then my friend called. ‘I’ve booked a cottage in the country,” she announced. “Inform your church you are taking the weekend off. You need to come away with us. We will not spend a single moment thinking about mothers and children; we will have a mid-Lent feast that focuses on the family of the Church. That’s you and me, kid.’
She was so right. The last thing I (and the six other men and women she had invited away for the weekend) needed was to dwell on our raw and recent griefs, and have them aggravated by children with bunches of flowers and the vaguely implied message that ‘real’ women are mothers. Instead, we cooked and talked, laughed and sang, prayed and gave thanks for community, and friendship, and life in all its fullness. I came home at the end of the weekend with hope reborn that life would go on.
Jesus’ words concerning his mother and family are among his “hard sayings” – they sound rude and lacking in compassion, and hard to reconcile with the Jesus who seems to care about everyone everywhere. Yet maybe, rather than rejecting his own mother and brothers, he is calling us to broaden our vision of community, so that we can encompass those who cannot retreat to tight-knit family units of their own.
I think it would be worth putting serious thought into reshaping today’s feast so that family life is placed firmly within the wider context of the community of Mother Church. We may fear an outcry if we shifted the focus of this mid-Lent feast away from the idea of Mother’s Day, but our concept of family life will be sad and inadequate if we allow it to be constructed for us by advertising campaigns and the greeting card industry. If, like Jesus, we have the courage to embrace a much wider concept of community than the nuclear family, then we too might find that we don’t have to accept our culture’s narrow and exclusive myths about families.