What is Mothering Sunday about? Is it simply the Church’s version of Mothers Day – Well no – Mothering Sunday was around long before Mother’s Day even though it is difficult to buy a Mothering Sunday card today but the shops are full of Mother’s Day cards. We still do focus on mothers and women in general on this day in the life of the church but strictly speaking as a festival Mothering Sunday is not primarily about human mothers but rather Mother Church and has evolved into what it is today over a 500 year period.
During the 16th century, people returned to their Mother Church for a service to be held on the 4th Sunday in Lent. This practice was known as: "a-mothering". Subsequently Mothering Sunday became a day when servants were given a day off to visit their mother church with their family.
Children who were in service were also given a day off on that date so they could visit their families and Mother Church. The children would pick wildflowers along the way to place in the church or give to their mothers. And in time the religious tradition evolved into the Mothering Sunday secular tradition of giving gifts to mothers.
The readings we use in church today reflect the theme of motherhood with the Old Testament reading coming from the book of Exodus - the story of Moses where his mother lets him go, not once but twice so that he may survive – first when she puts in the papyrus basket and the second time when she finally relinquishes him to Pharaoh’s daughter who took him as her own son……Loving and letting go are all part of motherhood – And an even greater pain is foretold in the Gospel from St. Luke where Simeon tells Jesus’ mother Mary that “a sword will pierce your own soul too”.
And it is appropriate that we use these readings because the idea of
is of course
derived from our human understanding of mothering. Mother
It is also important that we focus on mothering because the Church over the centuries has lost an appreciation of the importance of the feminine in humanity as women were so often written out of history in the patriarchal culture from which we are only just emerging – and we are not there yet!
When I was training for ordination there were some (women included) in the theological college who at the time believed that while they could be ordained they should never be a rector (never mind a bishop) because a woman should not hold a position of authority and should remain a perpetual curate. Today there are still clergy in the church (mostly men) who believe that to be the case.
I found this totally shocking when I first encountered it having come to ministry training having already completed an undergraduate degree in Theology and Biblical Studies and one of the optional modules I had taken was Feminist Theology in which I was lectured by our now Children’s Minister Katherine Zappone. I am still reminded of the occasion in one of her classes when I declared that I had found the feminine within myself! There was a stunned silence in the class before one of my colleagues burst out laughing and the rest of the class soon followed. Katherine if I recall was however greatly impressed!
Before you write me off as slightly confused, the context of my declaration was a discussion of the scientific reality that we are all a mixture of what we classically distinguish as male and female – for example both Oestregen and Testosterone are present in the bodies of men and of women albeit in different ratios and therefore some men display what are classically seen as female behaviours and vice versa.
There is though a serious issue which we need to consider as a Church and that is the way in which we have suppressed the feminine elements of our faith. Yes of course Jesus was a man but God is beyond gender and yet we are content to use language of God which only reflects the lived experience of 50% of humanity.
Right up to the Reformation the figure of Mary was hugely visible and revered throughout the Church, East and West and then with the Reformation and the rise of rationalism and literalism which suppressed the symbolic and the artistic representations of Mary and other saints the feminine dimension within the life of the Protestant churches in particular was hugely reduced.
Richard Rohr the contemporary Catholic theologian comments on this and says quite critically that ‘many Catholics divinised Mary …… have a poor theology of Mary but an excellent psychology: Humans like need and trust our mothers to give us gifts, to nurture us, and always to forgive us, which is what we want from God’.
He goes on to give a very concrete example: ‘I once counted eleven images of Mary in a single Catholic church in
cowboy country. I see that as a
culture trying unconsciously, and often not very successfully to balance itself
out. In the same way Mary gives women in the Catholic church a dominant
feminine image to counterbalance all the males parading around up front!’ Texas
But even outside of the explicitly religious there are vestiges in our language of an almost forgotten appreciation of the centrality of the feminine in life. The phrase ‘Mother Earth’ reflect the association with the primary role of the female in Creation and yet that has been effectively suppressed or at best ignored. The Hebrew for Spirit is ruach which is a feminine noun. In Genesis 1:2, the verb for hovered takes on the feminine of the noun. So, Genesis 1:2, the beginning of the Creation narrative could be translated, “the Spirit of God she was hovering over the face of the waters…” In other words God’s creative spirit is depicted as feminine from the very beginning.
Little wonder then that the Church in its earlier years and still in the Catholic and Orthodox traditions has such a strong attachment to the figure of Mary who represents the ongoing presence of the feminine in God’s ongoing creative work in the world. Richard Rohr points out that she is present at key moments in the Gospel story and plays a key role in our faith experience ‘From her first yes to the Angel Gabriel, to the birth itself, to her last yes at the foot of the cross, and her full presence at Pentecost where she is the only woman named at the first outpouring of the Spirit……in Mary we see that God must never be forced on us, and God never comes uninvited……In Mary, humanity has said our eternal yes to God….Far too often the feminine has had to work in secret, behind the scenes, indirectly….We see Mary’s subtlety of grace, patience and humility when she quietly says at the wedding feast of Cana, “They have no wine” and then seems totally assured that Jesus will take it from there. ……
and culture have often denied the
Divine feminine roles, offices and formal authority, the feminine has continued
to exercise incredible power at the cosmic and personal levels. Feminine power
is deeply relational and symbolic – and thus transformative – in ways that men
cannot control or understand. I suspect that is why we fear it so much.’ .While Church
And so back to Mothering Sunday – how different would Mother Church, the Church look if we embraced a fuller and more balanced vision of Church and recovered the feminine dimension of our faith which is not just about Women’s Ordination but opening ourselves to the fullness of God’s creativity in our world today. God is still at work in our world today and perhaps a wider vision of that presence will help us to be a more authentic and more effective force for good and for change. On this mothering Sunday we give thanks for our experience of mothering and pray for the wisdom to say yes to it in all its fullness and possibility. Amen.
*In Italics extracts from Richard Rohr's 'The Universal Christ - How a forgotten reality can change everything we see, hope for and believe'