I wonder how many of you could tell me, without looking it up what is happening on 19 September, and what it has to do with Mothering Sunday. I have to confess that I needed to look it up to be sure of the date too! September 19th this year is to be ‘Back to Church Sunday’ – this is an annual event when many churches make a point of inviting people who may have attended the church before – whether regularly or for a special service or a family occasion –to come back and visit again. This was started in 2004, and in 2014 was extended to become a season of invitation – starting with Back to Church Sunday and including Harvest, Remembrance, early Christmas and Christmas. The reason for the development is that people are far more likely to respond to the invitation and to keep coming if they are invited several times.
The link with Mothering Sunday is that from medieval times it was traditionally the day when people went back and visited their mother church – this could be the church in which they were baptised, the local parish church or for a whole parish to visit the cathedral – the mother church. It became a day that domestic servants were given a day off to enable them to do this, and so it developed into a day for family visits as well. If you are observing any sort of Lenten fast, you may also be pleased to know that another old name for the 4th Sunday of Lent was Refreshment Sunday when you could put your fast on hold for a day – or in modern terms, eat chocolate!
Over time, the focus of Mothering Sunday has become more and more about motherhood, and sadly often a rather idealised version of it that leaves many of us who are mothers feeling that we haven’t lived up to it. In the USA, the expression ‘motherhood and apple pie’ has come to mean anything that nobody could possibly disagree with. The focus on actual motherhood can make this also a very painful day for many people who for whatever reason do not have children. The church has, for some years tried to extend the value placed on motherhood on this day to all who have any kind of caring responsibility and the thought is very much appreciated.
One thing we learn from today’s readings is that motherhood is tough. Not just physically, although anyone who brought up a child that didn’t seem to have any need for sleep will know that one, but also mentally and spiritually as well. Additionally, from our first reading we learn that it can call for real courage and a skill for devious planning. It always makes me smile to think that Moses’ mother, who does not even get the courtesy of a name managed to pull off the feat not only of keeping her son alive in spite of Pharaoh’s decree, but also to keep him at home until a few years old and to be paid for doing it!
Focus on the virgin Mary has also increased in the celebration of Mothering Sunday – partly because of the gospel reading of the day which we heard earlier, but also I think because the festival of Lady Day or the Feast of the Annunciation falls close to it, always on 25th March. Most of the biblical references to Mary centre around the Christmas story, and Simeon’s prophecy that was read in our gospel reading today seems to have proved to be true over time, as like so many parents, Mary seems to have had difficulty in understanding her adult son. Also, like so many parents though, she continued to follow his career, and at least one account has her still present at the foot of the cross, when all must have seemed to be lost to her, but again in the first chapter of Acts after Jesus has ascended to heaven, staying with the other apostles in the upper room.
We have heard a great deal in the last year about the caring professions – both those providing medical care and those working in care homes. Providing care, like parenthood is no easy option, and any of us who may have had the impression that it chiefly involved smoothing pillows and soothing fevered brows have had our ideas put straight in no uncertain terms this last year if they weren’t before. We have witnessed nurses who normally care for patients on a one-to-one basis taking on four high dependency patients at a time, and consultants in every speciality moving to critical care to learn new skills. Skilled therapists have also moved to critical care units to take on whatever tasks -often the menial ones that need doing to support the medical staff, and in care homes, some staff have left their families in the care of the other parent in order to move into the care home, often sleeping on sofas and with no proper bathroom available to them, in order to reduce the risk of bringing the virus in to a place where so many are vulnerable. Those who care for family members learn quickly that the ability to move heavy weights, do without sleep and have no personal space or time are skills that need to be acquired in a short space of time.
Caring is tough – and those who take it on do so because they genuinely do care for those in their charge. I have to confess that although I took part, I was never totally comfortable with the ‘clap for carers’ initiative. At the time I witnessed many in the caring professions giving the opinion that while they appreciated the gesture, what they really wanted was to be properly resourced and paid in order to be able to get on with their chosen profession to the standard that they would wish. As I am writing this, there is again an angry debate raging around the offered pay rise to nurses of 1%. This is not a new argument – when I first left home and shared a flat, my flatmate’s car had a sticker in it that read ‘Fair pay for nurses’, Not much seems to have changed in 50 years although I am hoping that she has managed to change the car!
Care can be given in many ways. Next Saturday is the anniversary of Alison’s installation service – a wonderful occasion for all of us who were there. But within weeks of that, Alison was required to take measures that at the time were not always popular – her first coffee morning here was cancelled, and shortly after that we were instructed to lock the church and put all public worship on hold. Decisions about how and when to resume meeting, make the premises safe and get clear messages out to all the congregation may have seemed to some of us to have been needlessly cautious at times, but although I cannot speak for the wardens on whom most of the burden for decision making would have fallen, I am certain now that we have been kept safe because of the sound judgement by which we were led, and would like to express my thanks to her for that now. This has not been a normal year Alison, and certainly not an easy one, but I don’t think I am the only one who is truly grateful that you were here to lead us through it safely.
As a nation and as individuals, we need to learn that gratitude can be shown in many ways. Many who are mothers will today be receiving gifts – and in a normal year, so many are treated to lunch out that it is impossible to find a table on the day for an ad hoc pub lunch – as I discovered to my cost a few years ago. Gestures of gratitude – gifts, cards, meals out etc: are always good to receive, but the gilt can quickly come off the gingerbread if the work of the other 364 days of the year goes unnoticed and unappreciated and is taken for granted. Mothering Sunday is just one day, but our attitude should surely last throughout the year towards those whom God has sent to care for us.