Glynn Cardy 19th March 2023
Today, the 4th Sunday in Lent, is Mothering Sunday, observed particularly in Scotland and other parts of the UK, and in some churches here in Aotearoa. We though have, by and large, fallen under the sway of the American machine, and celebrate Mother’s Day on May 10th.
There have been festivals honouring mothers and mother goddesses since ancient times. The Phrygians held a festival for Cybele, the Great Mother of the Gods, as did the Greeks for the goddess Rhea. Likewise, the Romans adapted the practice to their own pantheon.
But Mothering Sunday, as it was first known, dates back to the sixteenth century, and was celebrated by Catholic and Protestant Christians throughout Europe.
It began at a time when children were often taken on as servants for noble families, and did not have regular visiting times with their families due to the need to work to provide for them. This was long before the 40-hour week, and weekends off! And servants often started work at age 10.
The servants would be allowed this Sunday to return to their “mother church,” which was generally the church they were baptised in, and would be able to attend with their families. My grand-stepmother was one such servant, and it was perhaps her fondest memory (one of the very few good memories) of that time in her life.
Some would argue that the “mother church” reference, symbolized by the marzipan apostles, predates the 16th century, and has its roots back in the time of St Paul’s collection for the poor in the Church of Jerusalem. Nowadays we know “The Poor” was the name of the church – like “St Luke’s” church or “New Life” church. We also now know that “The Poor” was not the only group of Jesus followers meeting in Jerusalem.
In modern parlance we might describe “The Poor” as a missional church (though all churches are that!) or a social experiment in communitarianism (as we read about at the end of Acts 2). They shared ‘all things in common… distributing to all as to need’.
Such missional experiments, as we know too today, usually need not only outside fiscal support for their founding, but ongoing financial support. Particularly, as I surmise was the case with “The Poor,” when that experiment is attractive to those on the edges of society, and those who often have few financial resources of their own.
So, Mothering Sunday, it could be argued, was ‘Mother Church’ Day, a time to remember where we were from spiritually, and the social radicalism of some of our forebears. A time too to give back, by supporting those doing edgy things today.
And with ‘Mother Church’ day, came family reunions, and the honouring of the mothers of the family. It was a return to home – physical and spiritual – to remember those who nurtured us and shaped us. And as with any tradition came foods. A mothering cake was brought to be cut and shared. Sons and daughters taking on all household duties and often preparing a special meal in honour of their mother. Wildflowers (like wild daffodils), picked en route home, would be given to mothers.
The Sunday, being in the middle of Lent, was also called Refreshment Sunday, meaning simply that the religious thought and behaviour ‘police’, realizing that the fasting injunctions around Lent were just going to be ignored when you went home to celebrate your mother and place of beginning, decided to make an official exception to the Lent disciplines on this day.
A word about Simnel Cakes. They are, as you’ll taste this morning (thank you Margaret Davidson), a fruit cake with two layers of almond paste, and adorned with 11 apostolic marzipan balls – the 11 representing some of the misleading theology of the past.
For the record, the 12 apostles were a number deliberately plucked out of the past in order to say that the emerging church was the new Israel (12 being the 12 tribes of Israel). There were never just 12 apostles. Even the lists the synoptic gospels give us are not consistent. Paul’s writings, which predate these gospels, mention apostles not on those synoptic lists. And then of course, there are no women listed – not even Mary whom St Thomas Aquinas called the “apostle to the apostles”!
And then for the cake makers to leave Judas out (as if he was the only one who betrayed Jesus)…
As for the name Simnel, well there’s a little mystery, and a little fun. Its origins are probably found in the Latin word for fine flour, simila. The fun bit is the legend of the argument between a husband (Simon) and his wife (Nell) who ended their dispute over whether the cake should be baked or boiled by doing both. This reflects the days when most cakes were boiled and then maybe later enfolded in pastry and put in the oven (like the Scottish Black Bun at Christmas).
And a word too about the other Mother’s Day, May 10th. That was the day Anna Jarvis’s mother died. Anna was an American social activist who, living in the Appalachian Mountains, had organised “Mother’s Work Days” to save the lives of those dying from polluted water. During the American Civil War, Mother Jarvis also organised women’s brigades, encouraging women to help those suffering without regard for which side their men had chosen.
Anna instigated the day in 1911 (three years after her mother’s death) in order to honour mothers, and the idea caught on, and then (especially being America) it got commercialized. This bothered Anna greatly, causing her to eventually try to start a petition to revoke the holiday in 1943.
I admire her spirit.
This morning I’ve asked three parishioners – Alan, Alexa, and Pam – to tell us a little about their mothers and their spirits.