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Lent 4, Yr C, Mothering Sunday, 17.02.2013
Exod 2.1-10: birth of Moses
Ps 34.11-20: teaching children
Col 3.12-17: the family of God: loving, forgiving, upbuilding
Luke 2.33­-35:  expectations for children (1096)

God of love, passionate and strong, tender and careful: watch over us and hold us
all the days of our life; through Jesus Christ our Lord.

(As parents today is a day of both thanksgiving and penitence.) 

               Today is the fourth Sunday in Lent.  Since I have preached on the readings in Year C of the RCL on this Sunday two times already, I asked permission of St Mark’s worship committee to preach instead on Mothering Sunday readings.  They gave me their agreement, and this is the result.

                This Fourth Sunday in Lent was known in the Middle Ages as Laetare Sunday.  Laetare, which means ‘rejoice’, was the first word of the introit of the mass for the day.  This day was also known as mid-Lent Sunday, since it occurs just over halfway through Lent.  Another name for it was Refreshment Sunday because it was observed with some relaxation of Lenten strictness, and in those churches where they were available, this even included wearing rose vestments rather than purple.  In medieval England special rich fruitcakes, called simnel cakes were eaten on this day, and apparently sometimes stored until after Lent.

          Today we know it as Mothering Sunday.  The old epistle and gospel appointed for the day were retained in the Prayer Book.  The gospel was John’s account of the feeding of the 5,000.  The epistle was from Paul’s letter to the Galatians, which included the words, ‘But Jerusalem, which is above, is free, which is the mother of us all’ (4.27).  But it is not really clear that it was this that led to the day being called Mothering Sunday.  During the sixteenth century, people returned to their mother church on this day. This was either a large local church, or more often the nearest Cathedral.  Anyone who did this was commonly said to have gone "a-mothering", although whether this preceded the term Mothering Sunday is unclear. In later times, Mothering Sunday became a day when domestic servants were given a day off to visit their mother church, usually with their own mothers and other family members. It was often the only time that whole families could gather together, since on other days some members of the family had different working hours.

Children and young people who were "in service" would pick wild flowers along the way to place in the church or to give to their mothers. Eventually, the religious tradition evolved into the Mothering Sunday we know today with its secular tradition of giving gifts to mothers.

          But from what I can gather, to go ‘a-mothering’ basically involved gathering the whole family together.  It appears to have been a whole family affair rather than simply centering on the mother.  I shall take that as a license to talk about being a parent generally rather than simply about motherhood.

          I’m going to start with a couple of personal stories.

          I became an uncle at age 11 when my nephew was born.  At age 13 when my first niece was born I started changing nappies.  These were, of course, terry-cloth nappies, a kind that Maisie and Miles will never know.  Then when I was in seminary in the 1950’s I worked in a hospital school for children who were severely physically handicapped by cerebral palsy, poliomyelitis. spina bifida or arthrogryposis.  The oldest child I handled was age 14, so it should come as no surprise that I had to learn six different ways of folding nappies.  So, at least as far as nappies are concerned, I had become a dab hand long before our children were born.   (Incidentally, my return to that hospital school a year later is when Dorothy and I met, but that is another story.)

          I remember being spanked as a child.  My father used a straight razor and had a leather razor strop.  If I needed to be punished, he used the strop on me.  I clearly remember one time when I must have been about 5 being sent upstairs to the bathroom to get the strop.  I wept all the way up and all the way back, and then, instead of being spanked, I was simply sent to put the strop back again. When needed, my mother used the back of her hair brush.

          (I did use corporal punishment on our children, but I quite deliberately never used anything other than the open palm of my hand so that I would feel it too, and I never used more than an absolute maximum of seven strokes.  Our children have moved on to no corporal punishment, which is probably a good thing.)

          On one occasion Steve, probably about age 7, had been so foul-mouthed that I determined to wash out his mouth with a bar of soap.  I did it despite his strenuous objections.  I asked him about it recently, but he has no memory of it.

          What do we celebrate and give thanks for in parents?  If we look at our Prayer for the Day we can apply all that we say of God to a mother or father.  A mother loves her child passionately, with a real depth.  She is called to be strong in the face of adversity, fighting her child’s corner if necessary.  She is tender toward her children and cares for them.  She watches out for them to keep them from danger, and she holds them close to her for comfort and safety.  And then she lets them go into adulthood while continuing to hold them in her heart.

          We can see this in the story of Moses’ birth.  With the threat of death for all newborn Hebrew boys, it was only by giving Moses away that she could save him, and then he was returned for awhile as she became his wet-nurse.  And then he was given up for ever.

          Our psalm, even in this metrical version, speaks of teaching children, a challenge shared by both parents for good or ill.

          Our reading from Colossians speaks of the family of God as loving, forgiving, and upbuilding, again what parents are called to be.      

          And our gospel reminds us of the hopes and aspirations we have for our children and in which we support them.

          Basically, as I think is the case, we learn how to be parents as we go along.  We look at those who raised us and try to emulate all the good things they did while trying to avoid those things which we felt to be wrong.  If we are lucky, then by the grace of God, we come out the other side as beloved and loving grandparents.

          So today is both a day of thanksgiving for all that gone well, but also, perhaps, a day of inner penitence for those things which we wish we had done differently or better.