The Fourth Sunday in Lent
The Epistle. Galatians 4. 21.
But Jerusalem which is above is free, which is the mother of us all.
I want to begin by wishing everyone here a happy Mothers Day! And before some of you think that I’ve gone slightly daft, let me assure you of one thing; I do indeed mean to wish everyone a happy Mothers Day, and not just the mothers and women in attendance. Whether or not I have gone slightly daft, I’ll leave to your individual opinion.
I mean to include everyone in my greeting because this day, Mothering Sunday, has significance for all of us; a significance that is all but lost on the world today. Sadly, as with many of our Holy Days, Mothering Sunday has been taken over by secular society; and its meaning has been watered down to the point that, as with most secular preoccupations, it focuses on us, the human individual, as opposed to focusing on God.
Now some of you may recognize that I am referring to what we call “Mothers Day”, which is “celebrated” in America on the second Sunday of May; noting that in England, however, it is still observed on this particular Sunday. Please know that I do not intend to demean this commemoration in any way. Honoring our human mothers is a worthy endeavor, just as honoring our Blessed Mother is likewise worthy.
But “Mothers Day” in modern society has become what might be called a “Hallmark holiday”; a marketing opportunity; an occasion for retailers to sell gifts and mementos that we may pass along to “mum”, in an attempt to show how much we love her.
However this was not the original meaning of Mothering Sunday, at least not the complete meaning; that can be found when we think about our true “mother”; that can be found when we recall the ideal of “mothering”; that can be found when we think about our Holy Mother Church. Let’s take a better look at this more complete meaning.
We begin with yet another name for this day; Laetare Sunday. This name is taken from the beginning of the Introit for the Mass; “Rejoice (Laetare) ye with Jerusalem”. Today is also known as “Mid-Lent” Sunday; and it is on this day that special signs of joy are permitted to provide encouragement as we continue through the penitential season.
We are allowed to have flowers on the altar; we use rose color vestments in honor of the Mystic Rose, our Blessed Mother; additionally recalling the ancient tradition whereby the pope would send a blessed rose that to the various Catholic monarchs around the world. In the middle of this penitential season, we are given signs that are emblematic of the joys of this life, though they are restrained by the solemnity of what is to come; the same restrained joy that we think of when we recall the ideal of “mothering” and our Holy Mother Church.
We see that same restrained joy reflected in the entirety of today’s Introit, which is taken from the 66th chapter of Isaiah; “Rejoice ye with Jerusalem: and be glad with her, all ye that love her: rejoice for joy with her, all ye that mourn for her: that ye may suck, and be satisfied with the breasts of her consolations” (Isaiah 66:10 &11). What do the words of the prophet speak to, but “mothering”? What does the prophet describe, but Holy Mother Church?
Next, and somewhat out of order, I bring you back to today’s Gospel; the feeding of the five thousand (St. John 6:1). Indeed this Sunday has also been known previously as “the Sunday of the Five Loaves”. In this Gospel passage, we hear of Our Lord’s miraculous multiplication of the loaves and fishes; a foreshadowing, if you will, of the Holy Eucharist. But here we also are given a sense of the responsibility that Christ passed on to our Holy Mother Church.
We remember the story all to well. Jesus is preaching to more than five thousand people; and as evening approaches, it occurs to his disciples that not only do they lack the resources to adequately feed this multitude, but they are also far removed from any place where food may be procured. They do have five barley loaves, and two small fish, but this will not be anywhere near sufficient. And in any event, they don’t have the money to buy enough food to satisfy such a crowd.
Of course, Our Lord resolves this “little problem”; but he does so in a way that is very telling. First, as St. John tells us, Jesus took the bread and gave thanks; then he gave it to his disciples to distribute among the people (St. John 6 :11). In other words, Jesus Christ, the second person of the Holy Trinity, equal part of the Eternal Godhead, God Incarnate, GAVE TO HIS DISCIPLES, that bread that would never run out; the bread of life that would never end.
Let’s take this example down to its basic elements; the most primal duty of a father is to provide that which is necessary for his family to survive, and even to prosper. The duty of the mother is to take that which is provided by the father and, through her nurturing and love, to distribute to her children the sustenance that they need to grow and to flourish.
God, the Almighty Father, through His Son Jesus Christ, provides all that is necessary for our spiritual survival. And through his Bishops and Priests who have been commissioned to love and nurture all that has been entrusted to their care, His children are given the nourishment that they need to thrive in their daily lives; a source of nourishment that can never be exhausted. What does this example speak to, but the relationship between Our Heavenly Father and Our Holy Mother Church?
Now, we are drawn back to the Epistle for today. In this lesson, St. Paul speaks of two women, Sarah, and Hagar, both of whom had born children by the Patriarch Abraham. And here again we see an example of motherhood, but one that is born of God’s will, and not of mans.
You will recall the story; Sarah was very advanced in years, and had to that point born no son to inherit Abraham’s legacy. So, in keeping with the norms of society for that time, that a man must have a male heir, Sarah commands that her servant girl, Hagar, should undertake to bear Abraham a son. And this she does, bringing into the world a boy named Ishmael. But there is something inherently wrong with this situation; because Sarah’s motivation was to satisfy the expectations of secular society for the production of an heir, rather than God’s Will.
And so, when God intervened and granted Abraham a son by Sarah, it produced something of a conflict; how could the son of this servant girl be an equal heir with the rightful son of Abraham’s lawful wife? Of course, he couldn’t.
Through no fault of his own, Ishmael was a child born of carnal desires, of human desires. However the son born of God’s promise, Isaac, was free of any notion of legalistic or societal expectations. He was born to a man (Abraham) to whom it was promised that his descendants would be too abundant to number. He was born to a woman chosen by God; who was otherwise incapable of bearing a child without the intervention of God. Isaac was therefore born not of a servant girl, but of a free woman; a birth unobstructed by the narrow ideas and perceptions of man; and Blessed by the Grace of God.
Here again we see, though somewhat differently, the example of motherhood. Remember, that it is the duty of the father to provide that which is necessary for his family to survive. Remember too that it is the duty of the mother to take that which the father has provided and to nourish her children with it.
It was not possible for Abraham and Sarah, the human beings, to have a child. But by the Will of Almighty God, Sarah was able to receive Abraham’s seed, and to produce a son; even after she had lost all hope of ever doing so. And the result of God’s Will, the result of a Father providing that which is necessary, is a new creation free from the wiles of the world; a new creation that would be nurtured by his mother; a new creation that would eventually provide all that is necessary for us to thrive. What does this example speak to, but to Holy Mother Church?
Along with these examples, we must also look at more recent models of “motherhood”. By tradition Mothering Sunday was a day where young people were given time off from work so that they could return home to visit their parents. It was also a day where these same people were called to return to their home parish, to their Mother Church. And, just as it is now with our more “secularized” holiday of Mothers Day, Mothering Sunday also brought the requirement for giving gifts.
But this gift-giving was not to be a one-sided affair. Rather, both the children and the parents were expected to present gifts to each other. This exchange was intended to strengthen and renew the bonds of family love. This idea is at the heart of Mothering Sunday; and it is why this day has such significance for us all.
We have been blessed in that most of us need not take time off from work or travel arduous distances in order to come home to our Holy Mother Church. But it is at this time, on Mothering Sunday, that we must remember that Our Heavenly Father has provided all that we need to grow and to thrive. He has given this gift to His bride, our Holy Mother Church; to love and to nurture and to distribute to her children; producing a new creation, a new man free from worldly expectations. This she does, freely dispensing the great gift of Grace to all those who would receive it worthily.
But let us also remember that it is through the exchange of gifts that the bonds of family love are strengthened and renewed. We must likewise bring our own gifts, humble and unworthy as they may be, and present them to our parents; To God Our Father and to Our Holy Mother Church. Our gifts of thanks; our gifts of praise; our gifts of love; ourselves, our souls, and our bodies.
Through this exchange of gifts, we are brought closer to our Heavenly parents. We are reminded that it is only through the Will of God the Father that this spiritual bonding is possible; and further that it frees us from the evils of the world around us. We are moved to thank God that He has provided a never ending source for all that is necessary for our Spiritual growth; and that He has seen fit to delegate the responsibility to love and nurture this Gift, and to dispense His Grace, to Our Holy Mother Church.
And through this exchange we are likewise reminded of the ideal of “motherhood”, and our love for Holy Mother Church is increased; through this exchange, we may better understand the complete significance of “Mothering Sunday”; through this exchange we are inspired to join with the prophet and proclaim “Rejoice ye with Jerusalem: and be glad with her, all ye that love her”. And so again, I wish you all a happy Mother’s Day!
But Jerusalem which is above is free, which is the mother of us all.