Mothering Sunday is the Fourth Sunday in Lent. It is an old, somewhat odd, and uniquely Anglican tradition we’ve inherited from the Mother Church of the Anglican Communion-the Church of England. As with many old customs it has acquired many layers of meanings over time.
The Church – Our Spiritual Mother
Mothering Sunday originated in the Middle Ages where it was the custom for people to visit their home parish church or their cathedral – tthe “mother church” of the dioceses on this day. It may originally been a way for the church to ensure who was a member of the parish and if they were or were not attending Divine Service. Up until the late 17th century you could be fined or put in the stocks for skipping church!
Mothering Sunday received its name from the scripture read in church that day. The epistle reading in both the mediaeval Latin Mass and Archbishop Cranmer’s Book of Common Prayer (1549) reads "Jerusalem which is above is free; which is the Mother of us all." The ancient city of Jerusalem is literally the mother church of all Christians. For the early Christians Jerusalem (the “New Jerusalem”) is a metaphor for the Church as a mother whose children are born free in Christ (see Galatians 4:1-31 for full context). Just as a mother gives birth, feeds, and nurtures her children, so too the Church as a spiritual mother brings forth new life in Baptism, feeds her family with the Eucharist, and nurtures them with the wisdom her Scriptures and Tradition. St. Cyprian (AD. c.300-358) wrote that "No one can have God as Father who does not have the Church as Mother". The Anglican Divines of the 16th and 17th centuries faithful to the teaching of the Church Fathers frequently addressed the Church as Mother in poetry, hymns and theology. John Donne (Anglican priest, poet and theologian 1572-1631) wrote, “And God gave me the light of faith when I was quickened [given life] in my second mother’s womb, the Church, by receiving my Baptism.”
The poem “The British Church” also takes up this imagery;
I joy, dear Mother, when I view
Thy perfect lineaments and hue
Both sweet and bright...
But dearest Mother…thy praise and glory is, And long it may be.
George Herbert (Anglican priest and poet, 1593-1633)
Each Holy Saturday at the Great Easter Vigil, the resurrection of Christ is proclaimed as we sing “Rejoice O Mother Church! Exult in glory! The risen Saviour shines upon you!” (The Exsultet, Book of Alternative Services pg. 323).
The Fourth Sunday in Lent is also known as Laetare (Latin - “rejoice”) Sunday. In some places in England it was the custom for “clipping the church” where the congregation would join hands in a circle around their church and literally hug it as a symbol of the love for their spiritual mother. This custom probably originated as a literal re-enactment of the opening verses of the mediaeval Mass “Rejoice, O Jerusalem, and come together all you who love her; rejoice with her...and you will find comfort [“be filled”] at her bosom.” (See Isaiah 66:7-15.)
Again, the image of the Church is that of a mother giving nourishment to her children. The reuniting of families to visit their home church or cathedral naturally created much merriment. The Church eventually relaxed the Lenten fasting rules for this day, allowed for marriages (forbidden during Lent), and the clergy changed from the solemn Lenten purple to the rose or light purple coloured vestments. For this oasis of fun in the desert of Lent, this day was also sometimes known as “Refreshment Sunday” and may be one of the origins of the Simnel cake.
The Simnel Cake
Simnel comes from the Latin “simila” meaning a fine white wheat flour which was a luxury in the daily mediaeval diet of dark and course rye and barley bread of the common poor. Simnel cake is covered in marzipan, an almond paste – almonds being an imported luxury. Traditionally the cake had twelve marzipan balls on top to represent Jesus and the Apostles (minus Judas) and was often decorated with flowers. The Simnel cake may have also originated in the Middle Ages as it was customary to read the gospel story of the feeding of the five thousand (John 6:5-14) with the cake representing the miraculous multiplication of loaves.
Flowers In Lent?
Mothering Sunday was also the only time flowers were allowed inside the church during Lent. At some point it became the tradition to give flowers to mothers on this day. It may have mirrored the custom of the Pope awarding golden roses to European monarchs on the Fourth Sunday in Lent as a reward for faithful service to the Church (King Henry VIII got one!) The origins of this custom appear to be ultimately lost, but it may simply be related to honouring the various themes of motherhood.
A Mothering Sunday Prayer
God, the source of our life,
We give you thanks for our Mother the Church.
Help us to be faithful to the family of God and to serve our brothers and sisters with love and joy.
Teach us to listen to your voice, to bear Christ in our hearts and to share the burden of other‘s pain.
We give you thanks for our grandmothers, mothers, godmothers and all women who have touched our lives.
By your mercy, may we all come at last to rejoice in the heavenly Jerusalem with all your saints; Through Jesus Christ, our Lord. Amen.
Article by Dean Rose.
Permission is granted to use and replicate this or parts of this article with the following ascription;
From an article by Dean Rose, St. Peter’s Church, Oshawa, Diocese of Toronto.