Church of England Diocese in Europe

Sermon in Ankara for Mothering Sunday (14th March 2021) - The Revd Patrick Irwin

Today is Mothering Sunday. The origins of this festival go back to pagan times, when the Roman Hilaria festival was held in mid-March in honour of the Mother goddess Cybele. After the Roman Empire became Christian this festival was turned into Laetare Sunday, the fourth Sunday of Lent, in honour of the Virgin Mary and Mother Church. The Epistle for this Sunday in the English Book of Common Prayer includes the theme of maternal love with its verse (Galatians 4.26) “Jerusalem which is above is free, which is Mother of us all.”

In mediaeval England people used to pay annual visits at this time to their mother church, usually the cathedral of their diocese. This led to working children being given the day off to visit their families. As they walked home the children would pick wild flowers to give to their mothers. There was also a special cake to celebrate the occasion, a simnel cake, which is a fruit cake with layers of almond or marzipan, and balls of almond or marzipan on top. Lenten rigour was relaxed on this day and it also became known as Refreshment Sunday. 

Such were the origins of Mothering Sunday in England. In the United States a new festival to honour mothers emerged at the beginning of the twentieth century. It was introduced by Anna Jarvis, a young woman whose mother died in 1906, and quickly attracted support. In 1913 the United States Senate and House of Representatives dedicated the second Sunday in May as Mothers’ Day to the memory of “the best mother in the world—your mother”.

In England the holiday had begun to die out and by the 1930s many of the old Mothering Sunday customs ceased to be observed in English parishes. They were actually revived a decade later through the influence of the many U.S. servicemen stationed in England in the Second World War. Away from home for the first time these young Americans often gave presents and flowers to their English hostesses on Mothers’ Day, the second Sunday in May, seeing them as surrogate mothers. British sons and daughters copied the idea, and after the Americans returned home, the British continued the practice, reverting to the traditional Fourth Sunday in Lent. So the ancient English tradition of Mothering Sunday was actually revived through the influence of American servicemen stationed in England during World War Two. For that the English should indeed be grateful!

Historically the feast was as much about Mother Church as about our own mothers, and the Gospel reading appointed reminds us of this by linking Mothering Sunday with the crucifixion of Christ. In our passage from John motherhood and crucifixion are brought together: the creative pain of motherhood and the creative pain of the crucifixion, where salvation was won for us all.

We may think first of Mary. She knew what it was to suffer. She suffered when she gave birth in a stable, she suffered when she heard that Herod wished to kill her baby, she suffered when she was forced to become a refugee. The Christmas narrative is not all sweetness and light. Now at the foot of the Cross Mary suffered as she watched the agonising death of her son. Perhaps she remembered Simeon’s prophecy that “sorrow, like a sharp sword” would break her heart.

Jesus was aware of her distress and knew that after his own death there would be no-one to care for his mother. From the cross he saw his mother and the disciple whom he loved, John, standing beside each other. He entrusted them to each other. We see here a natural concern for those whom Jesus loved most, but we also see something deeper. At the foot of the Cross, between Jesus and those who love him and believe in him, we see a new family being created. This new family is created at the foot of the cross, and as such it is the archetype of a new community, the Christian family that unites those of us who stand together through the ages at the foot of the Cross. 

Traditionally we celebrate Pentecost as the Birthday of the Church, when the Holy Spirit was poured out on the Apostles, but here too on Good Friday we see the birth of a new family, the beginnings of a new community formed at the foot of the Cross. John took Mary into his own home. In this beautiful vignette of these two bereaved persons caring for one another we glimpse so much of what the Church is intended to be: a place of Love, Comfort, Support, and Hospitality, a home for all who love the Lord Jesus and have been called to new life by his saving power. 

Tradition relates that Mary and John travelled to what is now Turkey and settled in Ephesus, where John became the leader of the Christian community and wrote the Gospel attributed to him. The shrine at Mary's House near Ephesus marks the spot where Mary may have lived and the ruins of the great Basilica of St John in neighbouring Seljuk once housed John's tomb. We are privileged to live in one of the Lands of the Bible, more precisely here in Ankara in Galatia, to whose Christians Paul wrote his famous Epistle.  

So today on Mothering Sunday there is much for which to thank God. We thank him for our mothers and indeed for all those who have sustained and encouraged us through our lives. We also thank God for our Mother the Church, that community which sustains and encourages us through Word and Sacrament. We rejoice in our membership of this family now in this world and look forward to our goal, that Jerusalem which is above, the mother of us all. Finally we thank God that Jesus on the Cross revealed his love by creating a new family out of those who loved and believed in him. He continues to reveal his love and create a new family today, and we are privileged to be its members. 

Whether or not we can actually take flowers today to our earthly mothers and enjoy the delights of simnel cake, there is indeed much for which to thank God on this Mothering Sunday. May it indeed be a Refreshment Sunday for our spirits.