Lent is broken up by feast days, and one of the main ones is this coming Sunday 2 April 2011. It’s known in popular culture as Mothers’ Day, but in church traditional was called Refreshment Sunday, Laetere Sunday, or Mothering Sunday - the Sunday halfway through Lent when the fast was broken and people returned to their ‘mother’ church. ‘Mothering’ also referred to the mother Church in Jerusalem. But nowhere did it mean biological mothers.
The Industrial Revolution led to people increasingly working and living a significant distance from home and family, and the Refreshment Sunday tradition was kept by many as a day to return to worship in their home community. And in the nineteenth century those who were working in domestic service, who would be working through Easter, were allowed to return to their own communities on Mothering Sunday. More sympathetic employers sometimes allowed them to bake and take with them a Simnel Cake as a gift for the servant's own mother and family.
So when did Mothering Sunday morph into Mother's Day? It's only very recently - in the last 40 years or so - that the day has become focused entirely on celebrating one's own mother, largely helped along by the greetings card industry. Now, I'm entirely in favour of celebrating mothers - in the context of the family it's a great thing to do. But when a whole community such as a Church or a school celebrates Mother’s Day sets up all kinds of problems. Because for every person who is happy about motherhood there is another person whose mother has died, or who is themselves a bereaved mother, or who hates their mother for good reason, or who never knew their own mother... the list just goes on.
I remember, before I was a mother myself, how profoundly excluded one could feel in Church when the celebrations of Mother's Day gave out subliminal messages that one wasn't a "real" or a fulfilled woman if you weren't a mother. And one awful year when my first pregnancy ended in miscarriage I just abandoned church and headed far away into the countryside on the weekend of mothers day rather than put myself through all that sugary stuff again. I was already awash with grief; I didn't need daffodils and guilt to make it worse.
What should the church do, then? The fifth commandment orders us to 'honour your father and mother', and theology uses the image of motherhood as well as fatherhood to picture God. Perhaps, then, we should celebrate a far wider understanding of motherhood. The focus could be on the church as the mothering community, or those theological allusions to God as our mother. Or the alternative idea of refreshment could be brought into play, with the traditional scriptural reading for the day of the feeding of the five thousand. A robust sermon on the fifth commandment could be turned to thoughts of justice for an ageing community. There are ways of thinking about the deeper idea of Mothering or Refreshment that can draw everyone in, not just those with happy families.
We certainly need to take care, if we celebrate motherhood in any way at all, to be sharply aware of the pastoral needs of those who long to be mothers but can't, those who have suffered miscarriages and stillbirths, those whose mothers have died recently, those who suffered from abusive mothers (yes, they do exist), those men who have lost their wives and the mothers of their children, or who for any other reason struggle with Mother's Day.
So as we approach this Sunday, rather than going along with the twee-ness of the greetings card invention, I think churches would do better to recover the older ideas of Refreshment and the Mothering Church.
© Maggi Dawn is an Anglican priest, writer, theologian, broadcaster and regular speaker at the Greenbelt Festival. She became Chaplain at Robinson College, Cambridge, in September 2003. Her latest book is The Writing on the Wall (Hodder and Stoughton, 2010). Maggi has kept a blog since September 2003, writing about theology and faith, the arts and literature, "and a little about life and random nonsense" - http://maggidawn.com/ It is number 14 in the March 2011 Wikio Top Religious Blogs.
More on The Writing on the Wall: In an increasingly secularised society few people have a good working knowledge of the Bible. Yet a great deal of our culture is built on stories or ideas that come from the Bible. Literature, art, music, language and even the fabric of our society - such as our justice system - are built on Christian concepts and biblical references. The Writing on the Wall provides an introduction to the Bible's best-known, and most influential, stories. Each chapter gives some background to the text of the Bible, and shows how the stories have become enmeshed in Western culture. Adam and Eve, the ten plagues of Egypt, The Prodigal Son and Mary Magdalene all feature - along with how the Bible has influenced everyone from Shakespeare to Monty Python, and Caravaggio to Banksy.