The thought of the up-coming mothering Sunday on March 26, 2017 rekindled several memories of my adolescent years, the chief memory being the very tasty and ‘loaded’ jollof rice meals served to all children in the church by mothers. Growing up in the Anglican Church in Eastern Nigeria, mothering Sunday was seen as a day for appreciating mothers and mother-hood in general. It was a day most children in church looked forward to, because of the goodies that would flow from the mothers. For some reason which I could not quite figure out, every mother appeared to be in a good mood on that day and so I concluded that it was the best day to ask my mum for any favor that she would ordinarily not have accented to. And believe me it worked! She was favorably disposed to granting favors on that day; and so like several other boys my age, I capitalized on it as a blank cheque.
However, one question kept puzzling my young mind; why of all the available seasons to celebrate mothers, did the church choose the Lenten season? Something about it seemed to be contradictory to my mind. After all, weren’t we taught in the Sunday school that the Lenten season was a period for sober reflection and introspection? That being the case, why then did the Church choose such a penitential period for elaborate feasting and merry-making over mothers? To make matters worse, no one that I asked seemed to have an answer to the question. At some point, a childhood friend of mine wondered why I was bothering my head for nothing rather than make the best of the occasion. That particular question remained unanswered till I eventually became too busy schooling and finally forgot about it.
However, as the years went by, the feast took on a greater life of its own. Presently, in several of our churches, the celebration is no longer limited to women cooking for the Sunday school children, but also includes conducting the entire service. In the midst of all that pomp and pageantry, the fundamental question, why during the Lenten season, remained a source of agitation to my mind. About eight years ago, I then decided to seek for an answer to the question. This write up is the result of my findings based on a detailed study of the origin of mothering Sunday.
Facts about mothering Sunday:
1) Mothering Sunday is a feast of the Church which takes place mid-Lent (fourth Sunday in Lent). The original name of the feast, which pre-dates the reformation period of the Church, is Laetare Sunday. It derives its name from the Latin opening words of the introit sung at the mass, “Laetare Jerusalem”…meaning, “Rejoice, O Jerusalem” (Isaiah chapter 66:10). The exact middle of Lent is the Thursday preceding the fourth Sunday in Lent and the service was originally celebrated on this day. The aim of the service was to give hope to the faithful as they reached mid-Lent, so that they would be encouraged to complete the fast. On that day, there was therefore a relaxation of the stringent fasting rules to allow for refreshment of the people of God. Flowers were allowed to be used on the altar and the organ was also used more freely during the service. However, in order to enable more people to participate in the service, the feast was eventually moved to the nearest Sunday, being the fourth Sunday in Lent. The epistle for the fourth Sunday in Lent was Galatians Chapter 4:21 -31, which compares the two covenants – Mt. Sinai representing the old, and Jerusalem representing the new. In verse 26, it states: “But Jerusalem which is above is free, which is the mother of us all”. Therefore, a major reason for the joy and hope which was preached to the elect was that Jerusalem, which is above and free, was their mother. By implication, this meant that their names were written in the book of life. The service therefore has as its focus, the fact of our redemption and being made sons of God by virtue of the new covenant. It was therefore a day of hope and rejoicing focused on celebrating the fact that we are sons of God. The gospel reading for the service was the feeding of five thousand persons by Jesus, using five loaves and two fishes (John 6:10-12). For this reason, it was also known as five loaves Sunday. Other names for it include mediana, mid-lent, mi-careme, rose, mothering and refreshment Sunday.
2) With time, the feast became quite popular, since it was a day of celebration in the middle of the Lenten period. Family re-unions became the order of the day at the cathedral churches or mother churches. It gradually became a tradition for people to worship at their mother churches (Cathedrals) on that day. Another associated tradition was for servants to be released by their employers on that day to reunite and spend the feast with their families. The trip back home to visit their families at the mother churches and homes was subsequently referred to as ‘going a-mothering’. Being spring time, as they travelled, the servants picked flowers on the way to present to their mothers and families and also brought gifts. Another tradition that also arose was the baking of a special cake – the Simnel cake, which was named after a couple – Simon and Nell. Another custom that was applicable to mothering Sunday was ‘Clypping the Church’. The term, Clyp is an ancient Anglo-Saxon word which means to embrace. It was done to signify love for the Church (modern day usage – clipping) and the surrounding people, and entailed forming a human circle around the church building with hands joined together in an unbroken chain and dancing around the building. It was customary while doing so to play the hymn – ‘We love thy place O God’.
3) As with most things in life, with time, the original essence of the feast, which was to give hope and encouragement during Lent and re-emphasize the joy of our son-ship in Christ as proclaimed in the new covenant, was downplayed in favor of the surrounding human traditions, such as family reunion, giving of gifts etc. The result was that the feast lost its relevance and was forgotten in the Church of England by the 19th century. We can relate with the above scenario because before our very eyes today, we see a similar thing occurring regarding Christmas. The word, Christmas, simply means “a mass in commemoration of Christ”. However, several people now see it primarily as a season for family reunions, merry making and event hosting. Gradually, the essence of celebrating Christ is being lost, such that in some parts of the world today, they no longer say Merry Christmas, but rather ‘Happy Holiday’. It is therefore gradually becoming as any other holiday and if it s original purpose is not reemphasized to the up-coming generation, it may either be forgotten or take on another purpose other than its original essence. This buttresses the fact that whenever purpose (original intent) is not repeatedly re-emphasized, abuse of purpose sets in, with a resultant deviation from the real essence. Sadly, this was what happened to mothering Sunday.
4) In the early twentieth century a gradual awakening to the feast of mothering Sunday took place in the Church of England due to an influence from across the Atlantic. In the US, a certain school teacher from Grafton, West Virginia, named Anna Jarvis (1864 -1948), decided to embark on a campaign to honor her mother ( Ann Reeves Jarvis) who had been a militant peace activist during the US civil war. Her mother died on May 10, 1905. The first Mothers’ day celebration was held by Anna Jarvis in 1908 as a memorial for her mother at St. Andrew s Methodist Church, Grafton. By 1913, Anna s campaign had become successful such that the US congress passed a bill recognizing the second Sunday in May as Mothers’ Day. The bill was eventually signed into law by US President Woodrow Wilson in 1914 and recognized Mothers’ day as a national holiday in honor of mothers. However, this was a circular commemoration that had no bearing with the Church. Mothers’ Day is still celebrated on the second Sunday in May in the US. The awakening of mothering Sunday in England was as a result of two events, both of which were influenced by Mothers’ Day celebration in the US. In the 1920s, a lady from Nottinghamshire, England – Constance Penswick Smith (1878 – 1938), having observed the success of Mother s day celebration in the US, decided to campaign for mothers to also be celebrated in England. Although she was the daughter of a Vicar, not being fully conversant with the original purpose of the church feast of mothering Sunday, she campaigned for Mothers’ day to happen on mothering Sunday. She wrote a book on the revival of mothering Sunday and eventually founded the Society for the observance of mothering Sunday. Her campaign rather than promote the real essence of mothering Sunday as a feast of the church, promoted motherhood due to the American influence of Mothers’ Day. The second event that shaped the revival of mothering Sunday in England was the influence of American service men stationed in East Anglia, England during the Second World War. By December 1941, the US joined the WWII and by the second half of 1942, had positioned large numbers of their service men in East Anglia, which was a preferred location due to the flatness of its terrain, thus allowing for the construction of several runways, airfields and airbases from where the Allied forces air attacks were launched on Germany. Altogether, about half a million American service men passed through East Anglia and it became their second home. Far from their families, the American young men adopted their English hostesses as foster-mothers and on every Mothers’ day (second Sunday in May), gave them presents and flowers in appreciation for their kindness and care. Soon, the British locals caught on the idea, and after the Americans had left at the end of the war, they continued celebrating mother s day but reverted to the fourth Sunday in Lent - Mothering Sunday.
5) When the CMS brought Christianity to Nigeria in 1842, there was no mention of mothering Sunday, because at the time, mothering Sunday had been forgotten in the Church of England. The modern resurgence of mothering Sunday as explained above was not at the instance of the church or its ministers, who are the true custodians of the liturgy and the church feasts. Had that been the case, they would have known; based on their knowledge of the liturgy, that although celebrating motherhood is very important, it should not replace the celebration of our son-ship in Christ as revealed in the new covenant through the allegory of Jerusalem, which is above and free, being our mother. It should also not have replaced the hope and encouragement of mid-Lent, which mothering Sunday gives to the elect, as they look forward to completing the Lenten fast.
The way forward and conclusion:
1) The importance of motherhood cannot be over emphasized and must not be taken lightly. It is very important that we continue to celebrate our mothers through the observance of Mothers’ day but not at the expense of the church feast of Mothering Sunday.
2) It is important for the essence and truth behind the observance of the church feast of mothering Sunday to be preserved for the up-coming generation. This contention for the faith, which was observed by the pilgrims before us prior to the deviation from the original intent of mothering Sunday, has informed this article for the benefit of posterity.
3) Two options exist: First, to conduct the service of the fourth Sunday in Lent strictly as mothering Sunday, with the focus on the hope and encouragement of mid-Lent and the joy of our adoption as sons of God. Thereafter, have the mother s day celebration in form of a reception after the service. The second option would be to choose a new date in the church calendar outside of the Lenten season to celebrate mothers. The church service may then fully dwell on motherhood and may be coordinated by mothers as presently practiced.
4) Finally, it is important for the Church to rise up and take her place as salt and light to the world and not the reverse, where the society dictates to the church what it ought to do, including how to observe her own feasts. As we draw nearer to the second coming of Christ, it has become imperative more than ever before for the Church to fulfill its prophetic destiny in shaping the nations and winning over the kingdoms of this world to become the kingdom of our God and of His Christ. “It shall come to pass in the last days, that the mountain of the Lord s house shall be established in the top of the mountains, and shall be exalted above the hills; and all nations shall flow unto it. And many people shall go and say, Come ye, and let us go up to the mountain of the Lord, to the house of the God of Jacob; and He will teach us of His ways, and we will walk in His paths: for out of Zion shall go forth the law and the word of the Lord from Jerusalem.” (Isaiah 2:2,3) The implication of this is that the Spirit of God will start to refocus and purge the Church. There will be reviews of Church traditions and practices, with a view to aligning them with their original Godly purposes and the intent of Christ for His church, which He paid for with His precious blood.
It is my prayer, that when the shaking which shall occur in the Church shall commence, you will not be found wanting, but rather will be aligned with the will of the Father, who alone hath immortality, dwelling in the light which no man can approach unto; whom no man hath seen, nor can see: to whom be honor and power, forever and ever. A-men. The Revd. Dr. Nduka Iwuchukwu. Priest, Diocese of Lagos West, is attached to St. Nicholas Cathedral, Anglican Diocese of Victoria Nyanza, Tanzania. (firstname.lastname@example.org)