A sermon given during the 10:30am Choral Eucharist, by The Rev’d Sally Sandford-Morgan, on the 19th March 2023.

Mothering Sunday

Isaiah 49:13-16, Eph 3:14-21, Luke 2:40-52

Today we are celebrating the fourth Sunday in Lent and I will be discussing why we refer to this particular Sunday as Mothering Sunday or Refreshment Sunday. The Mothering and Refreshment aspects of today are related and we need to look at the origin of the celebrations on this day to understand how they are connected.

In Britain, in the Middle Ages, when children, particularly girls, had left home and were employed as servants in large houses elsewhere, they were allowed have time off to go home to visit their mothers on this Sunday which is the halfway point through Lent. While they were visiting their families, they would visit their mother church, the one they had been baptised in. This is believed to be one of the origins of the name Mothering Sunday. This has now developed into Mothers’ Day in Britain and is still celebrated on this day. In Australia and many other countries Mothers’ Day has no connection to the church and is a purely secular celebration of the love of a mother for their child and this day takes place on the second weekend in May.

However, some parts of the church have held on to the idea of being able to take a break from Lenten observances halfway through Lent, and this occurs in various ways. In some churches rose coloured vestments are worn specifically on this day as a break from the sombre violet of Lent, while other places cover the alter with flowers, as a break from having no flowers. The name Refreshment Sunday is linked to this day because it is a day when many take a short break from fasting from the sweet and rich foods that have been given up for Lent, which is why Simnel cake is often served on this Sunday.

Simnel cake is a rich dense fruit cake with a marzipan layer in the middle and on top, although there are many variations on this. It is believed to have originated in medieval times and was originally more like bread but has evolved into cake over the years. The name comes from the fine, white simnel flour that was used to make this bread. When we eat Simnel cake at church we are usually given a pre-cut piece, but when a whole Simnel cake is served it has eleven marzipan balls on top to represent the apostles. There are only eleven because Judas has been purposely omitted. If we are very lucky there will be some Simnel cake available to share after the service.

You may have noticed that the collect and readings that we have for today have a specific focus on mothers, or more generally parents, and the love they have for their children. The Scriptures were written thousands of years ago when women were not thought of as they are today, but the love of a mother is spoken of affectionately by the authors and is clearly valued highly by them.

 In our first reading from chapter 49 of Isaiah, the prophet uses the observed strength of the love of a mother for their child, to then go on and say that no matter how great this love is, the love of God for his children is even greater. Later, in chapter 66, Jerusalem is compared to a mother who cares for and nurtures her children. In this chapter, the people are told to rejoice in Jerusalem due to the motherly love exhibited by this city. In Latin, Laetare means rejoice, and this verse connecting rejoicing with Jerusalem’s motherly love is why this Sunday is sometimes also called Laetare Sunday. In reference to Jerusalem the Lord says, “I will extend prosperity to her like a river and the wealth of the nations like an overflowing stream, and you shall nurse and be carried on her arm and bounced on her knees.  As a mother comforts her child, so I will comfort you; you shall be comforted in Jerusalem.”[1]

 The enormity of this love of God for his people has been the subject of many songs, hymns and poems over hundreds of years as people have fulfilled their needs to express their joy of its abundance.

In our second reading from Paul’s letter to the Ephesians, he prays a very Trinitarian prayer for them. It says, “According to the riches of God’s glory, may the Father grant that you may be strengthened in your inner being with power through his Spiritand that Christ may dwell in your hearts through faith, as you are being rooted and grounded in love.”[2] He goes on to pray that The Ephesians, “May have the power to comprehend, with all the saints, what is the breadth and length and height and depthof God’s love and to understand the love of Christ that surpasses knowledge, so that they may be filled with all the fullness of God.”[3] This reading highlights for us once more that the magnitude and strength of God’s love for us is too large for us even to imagine.

The story from the Gospel of Luke highlights one of the times when the love a parent has for a child is particularly evident, stirring up deep emotions. When a parent thinks that they have lost their child it is one of the most frightening moments that they can have. When Jesus turned twelve, he travelled with Mary and Joseph and many other friends and relatives from Nazareth to Jerusalem for the Passover festival, and at the conclusion of a week of worship and celebrations, everyone was travelling home. The women and men travelled separately in two distinct groups with the women’s group leaving first. As they began their long journey home, it would have been easy for Mary to think that Jesus was with Joseph, and Joseph to think that Jesus was with Mary; however, when evening came and the two groups reunited, it became obvious that Jesus was not to be found in either group.

Panic stricken, Mary and Joseph returned to Jerusalem, and it took them several days of searching before they located Jesus in the temple. He was involved in discussions with the teachers there, who were impressed with his level of understanding of the Scriptures. Mary and Joseph obviously loved their son very much and would have been greatly relieved to find him. Mary told Jesus that her and Joseph had been anxiously looking for him and asked him why he had treated them in this way.  His response was that they should have known that he would be in his Father house, that is, the temple. Luke tells us that Mary and Joseph did not understand what Jesus meant, which is not surprising as it was an extreme statement, to claim God as his Father, and they must have been exhausted after all of their walking, searching and the emotional strain of having a missing child. Thankfully, the return trip to Nazareth was uneventful, but Mary treasured the precious memories of this particular trip in her heart, which may explain how this story appears in Luke’s gospel. Meanwhile, Jesus was obedient to both of his parents during the following years as he grew both in age and in wisdom. Clearly Mary and Joseph loved Jesus very much, and he loved them very much too.

But what does this middle Sunday of Lent mean for us? It’s a chance for us to temporarily break our fast and indulge in something we have not had for a few weeks. It’s a chance to think about our role as a family member whether that be as a child, grandchild, niece, nephew, aunt, uncle, parent or grandparent and what that role means for us. But mostly, as Christians, it’s a time for us to look ahead towards the cross and all that this represents for us. In this relatively short amount of time, we will be thinking about all of the significant events that occurred in the lead up to the crucifixion and reflecting on the journey that Jesus was on as he came closer to betrayal, humiliation and suffering. It is also important for us to reflect that this was a journey that was taken because of God’s immense and unconditional love for each and every one of us, and as we consider this we should be overcome with thankfulness.

The Lord be with you.

[1] Isaiah 66:12-13

[2] Ephesians 3:16-17

[3] Ephesians 3:18-19