Wednesday, March 14, 2007

A Sunday with so many Names—March 18, 2007

In 2007 in the Calendar we get two special days next to each other and both have traditionally (where Lent is taken seriously) had relaxed discipline attached to them – St Patrick's Day on the 17th March and Mothering Sunday on the 18th. Let us reflect upon the Sunday, for it is much undervalued and often misunderstood. We shall note that its full meaning is only accessible where there is use or knowledge of the traditional Epistle and Gospel in the Eucharistic Lectionary of the Church in the West and in the Ecclesia Anglicana in particular.

No other Sunday in the Christian Year has been given so many different names or titles as the Fourth or Middle Sunday in and of Lent, the period of forty days from Ash Wednesday to Easter. These names provide a window into the liturgy, doctrine and spiritual discipline—as well as the social customs—of western Christian civilization in days past.

As the western Church used Latin throughout the medieval period let us begin with the Latin name, Laetare Sunday, which is taken from the Introit sung by the choir at the beginning of Mass on this Sunday, Laetare Jerusalem, "Rejoice, O Jerusalem." This introit is from Isaiah
which is cited in the Epistle of the Mass for the Day, Galatians 4:21ff.

Certain relaxations from the strict discipline of Lent were/are allowed on this fourth Sunday, of which the most obvious were some generations ago the use of flowers on the altar, and of the playing of the organ at Mass and Vespers. Rose-colored vestments were allowed instead of purple, and the deacon and subdeacon wore dalmatics, instead of folded chasubles as on the other Sundays of Lent. So the name Rose Sunday, suggesting the theme of controlled joy for this day.

Arising from the Gospel sung at Mass, which is the account of the feeding by Jesus of the five thousand (John 6), the Sunday has also been called, Refreshment Sunday. So it is not surprising that there arose a special food delicacy to eat on this day of relaxed discipline and this traditionally was Simnel Cake. [This is a rich fruit cake with a layer of almond paste on top and also in the middle. The cake is made with 11 balls of marzipan (a confection made of ground almonds or almond paste, egg whites and sugar, often molded into decorative
shapes) icing on top representing the 11 disciples (Judas is not included). The cake was boiled in water, then baked. The Lenten fast dictated that the simnel cake be kept until Easter. The word Simnel is said to have been derived from the Latin word "simila" which means a fine wheat flour mainly used for baking a cake. There is also an interesting legend associated with the use of the word Simnel. It says that once a man called Simon and his wife Nell had an argument over whether the Mothering Sunday cake should be baked or boiled. Ultimately, they did both. So the cake came be to named after both of them and was called, SIM-NELL. ]

In the Church of England it has been a common practice to call this day Mothering Sunday. And there are two explanations for this name.

First, it was the custom for people to go to the "Mother Church" of their area—the Cathedral or Abbey—on this day and for families to meet up there. Servants were usually released on this day from duties to be able to do this. Often flowers were picked and taken to be given to mothers at the reunion of families. They went a mothering. Secondly, in the Epistle for the Day, Galatians 4:21ff. there is found the sentence: "The Jerusalem which is above is free and she is our mother." So this day, in theological terms, is the celebration of the Church, whose true center is in heaven where the Lord Jesus is, and She is the mother of all believers. For from her they hear the Word; by her they are baptized and nurtured; from her they receive the Holy Communion; by her they are married and by her they are buried, and sent off to the heavenly Jerusalem.

Regrettably, in the UK Mothering Sunday has been secularized into Mothers' Day. while in the USA the official, national Mothers' Day occurs on the Second Sunday in May, allowing churches — if they are orthodox — on March 18 to celebrate the Church as the Bride of Christ and the Mother of the faithful while not forgetting God the Father, for you cannot have Almighty God as your Father unless the Church is first your Mother!

The Book of Common Prayer (1662 & 1928) has both the traditional Epistle (Galatians 4) and Gospel (John 6) as the Lessons for Holy Communion for the fourth Sunday in Lent.


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--Peter Toon

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