Over a twelve-month period, we have invited Stephen Rees — an experienced pastor — to share his thoughts on various topics. Whilst his column may be edited for reasons of length or style, his views are his own and may not necessarily reflect positions held by the Evangelical Times.
Yes it’s coming up again. That Sunday, dreaded by fathers all over the UK, Mothering Sunday. It is the 31st of March this year.
No doubt it will be no different from last year or the year before: countless panic-stricken men queuing down at the late-night Tesco on Saturday night to buy last moment flowers, chocolates, perfume, which then have to be wrapped in time for little Tommy, Jenny and two-year old Samantha to present them to mum on Sunday morning.
And mum, eating her once a year breakfast in bed, will pretend to be amazed that her little dears have remembered the day, all by themselves. What a strange ritual it is! A once a year celebration of motherhood. Where and when did it all start? Nobody really knows.
But one thing seems certain. In its origins, back in the Middle Ages, Mothering Sunday had nothing to do with mothers! Mothering Sunday was originally an event in the Church of England calendar. Normally, worshippers would worship at their parish church. But on this Sunday, the fourth in Lent, they were expected to travel to the ‘mother church’: usually the cathedral.
Why did that particular Sunday in Lent come to be recognised as ‘Mothering Sunday’? Probably because in the book of Common Prayer, one of the set readings for Mid-Lent Sunday is from Galatians 4 where Paul writes, ‘the Jerusalem above is free, and she is our mother’ (v 26).
Paul argues that Christians, Jew and Gentile, living in many places, are united because they all have the heavenly Jerusalem as their mother. Anglican theologians added that, in the same way, the churches in many parishes were united under the care of the mother church of the diocese.
Mothering Sunday became an opportunity for scattered members of a family to meet up. Living in parishes many miles apart, they might go for many months without seeing one another. But on this one Sunday in the year, they would meet up in the cathedral town.
By the end of the sixteenth century, it had become the custom for servants to be given a holiday on Mothering Sunday to make such family reunions easier.
All sorts of traditions grew up around the day. Young people presented to their parents ‘Simnel Cakes’, rich plum puddings inside a hard pastry crust. Parents provided ‘frumenty’, a dish of wheat boiled in milk and flavoured with cinnamon and sugar. Or in the north ‘carlings’, pancakes of fried peas. Mothering Sunday was sometimes known as ‘Refreshment Sunday’ because the normal rules of the Lent fast were set aside for the day.
It was from these beginnings that Mothering Sunday was slowly transformed from a church festival to an opportunity for children to show their gratitude to parents, and especially to mothers.
Few people remember now what Mothering Sunday was all about. To most folk, it’s simply ‘Be-nice-to Mum-day’. In fact, most people don’t call it ‘Mothering Sunday’ now. It’s been confused in people’s minds with ‘Mother’s Day’, an American novelty, invented by Anna Jarvis in 1912 and celebrated in May each year.
And now it has become one of the biggest of our national celebrations, as big as Guy Fawkes Night or Hallowe’en; bigger in most people’s minds than Easter. Nobody would suggest that it’s your duty to set off fireworks on November the Fifth or to eat chocolate eggs on Easter Sunday. But many people would be horrified if you didn’t send a card to your mum on Mothering Sunday.
It’s a giant money-spinner for the greeting card and gift industry. In the UK we send around 30 million cards to mark the day. According to the British Retail Consortium, we spend around £55 million on chocolates to encourage mum to abandon her diet for at least one day.
A few years back, the Flowers & Plants Association released their count of the flowers bought for ‘Mother’s Day’: 3.7 million mixed bouquets, 394,000 bunches of roses, 294,000 bunches of tulips, 293,000 bunches of freesias and 93,000 foliage plants. That’s a lot of flowers!
I find it very odd that our society makes such a big thing of Mothering Sunday/Mother’s Day. Why? Because, despite all the fuss on this one day, our society has so little real regard for motherhood. For fifty years, women have been taught to think of motherhood as a second-rate occupation for a woman.
A woman who makes her children her priority is seen as missing out on life, wasting her talents, and dooming herself to a futile and unfulfilled life. It’s the duty of women to seek freedom, and there can be no freedom while women devote their lives to their families.
Here are some typical quotes from feminist writers: ‘The family — with its repetitious, socially invisible, physical tasks — is a necessary part of life, but it allows fewer opportunities for full human flourishing than public spheres like the market or the government… Therefore, assigning it to women is unjust’.
‘…Motherhood… a primary factor in the oppression of women and a vital ground for struggle’.
‘The best thing that could happen to motherhood already has. Fewer women are going into it’.
Back in 1963, Betty Friedan wrote a pioneering book about the role of women. She called it The Feminine Mystique and it was hugely influential. In that book, she began by picturing the life of the traditional housewife and mother:
‘Each suburban wife struggled with it alone. As she made the beds, shopped for groceries, matched slipcover material, ate peanut butter sandwiches with her children, chauffered Cub Scouts and Brownies, lay beside her husband at night — she was afraid to ask even of herself the silent question — “Is this all?”’
And Friedan’s answer was no, it needn’t be all. A woman can find fulfilment, but only if she is prepared to break free, to carve out a role for herself in the wider world: ‘The only kind of work which permits an able woman to realize her abilities fully… is the kind that was forbidden by the feminine mystique, the lifelong commitment to an art or science, to politics or profession’.
Friedan was sure that women who devote themselves to caring for home and children ‘are kept from growing to their full human capacities’. She described their existence as being buried alive. She called a housewife’s life ‘a waste of a human self’. Stay-at-home mothers were like people ‘with portions of their brains shot away and schizophrenics’, ‘less than fully human’.
Early feminists like Friedan demanded the right for women to pursue a career without being held back by the needs of children. Yes, she might have children if she chose, but not at the expense of her own freedom.
Society should be structured in such a way that she could have children and still be a top-flight scientist, or politician or artist. It was the duty of the state to relieve her of day-to-day responsibility for her children so that she could pursue her career.
Back in 1963 this was revolutionary stuff. Today, it’s taken for granted. Lots of women although married or ‘in a stable relationship’ choose not to have children. And for those who do, successive governments have passed a stream of laws and regulations to make it easier for them to continue working after their children have been born.
In fact, the whole structure of our society is geared to force mothers to go back to work and to leave their children in the care of professionals. An average couple, trying to buy a home and bring up a family on a single income will soon feel the pinch. The national economy depends on mothers leaving their children to go out to the workplace.
So do you see why I find Mothering Sunday odd? Nobody thinks it strange in our society if a married woman declares that she’s not going to have children, because she has higher priorities, usually her career. Our society sees nothing abnormal about a mother who’s holding down a high-flying professional job, and whose children — if they’re lucky — will see her for an hour, late in the evening when she gets home from work.
In fact, it doesn’t have to be work that keeps her from her children. No one is surprised if a mother spends her evenings out with her friends, clubbing or theatre-going. After all, she ‘needs a life of her own’: being a mother doesn’t offer sufficient stimulus or enjoyment.
It seems that in our society, motherhood is nothing special: until the fourth Sunday in Lent, when suddenly, it becomes the most wonderful thing in the world. Well, if society wants to make a big thing of ‘Mother’s Day’, that’s fine with me. But wouldn’t it be better if motherhood were honoured 365 days a year?
The Bible tells us that bearing children and bringing them up is a wonderful and honourable task. The first promise given to mankind after the Fall was that redemption would come through a woman bearing a child. The Saviour would be the seed of the woman (Genesis 3:15).
The Scriptures tell us of godly women who devoted themselves to the care of their children and shaped them for eternity. Rebekah, Rachel, Jochebed, Hannah, Eunice… and at the head of the list, Mary. What greater honour could any woman have than to bear the Son of God, to nurse him as a baby, to tend him as a toddler, to teach him as a child, to train him as a teenager? Could any career compare with that?
Paul tells us that older women should be teaching younger women how to fulfil their great calling: ‘to love their husband and children, to be self-controlled, pure, working at home, kind and submissive to their own husbands’ (Titus 2:5). And he tells us that a woman ‘shall be saved through childbearing — if they continue in faith and love and holiness, with self-control’ (1 Timothy 2:15).
Walter Chantry comments on Paul’s words. First he makes it clear that this is not a text about salvation from the guilt and power of sin. ‘This is not a text on remission of sins but deliverance out of sin-related suffering and oppression….’
And then he asks the question, ‘But how are women saved? By their joining militant organisations which demand rights equal to man’s? By proving that women can “make it” in the world of business, politics, sports, and even the pastorate? By escaping from home where she has been buried in obscurity and where so many evils have been perpetrated by abusive husbands? Never!…
‘Her pathway to real salvation was appointed by the Almighty. It is motherhood. “She shall be saved through childbirth”. How wrong women are when they imagine that their hope lies in imitating men’s careers… Women today are so eager to abandon “mere” motherhood to duplicate male labours. How tragic, when the hope God has given woman and for all of our race is tied to childbearing!’ (The High Calling of Motherhood, published by Banner of Truth ).
Bearing and bringing up children is the most demanding, the most difficult, the most challenging work in the world. (Read Proverbs 31 if you’re not convinced of that). It demands more resilience, creativity, insight, patience, wisdom than any other work to which we may be called. It’s often frustrating, exhausting and painful. But in the long run it can be infinitely rewarding.
One feminist described her experience of having a baby at the age of 35: ‘Instead of waves of contentment and joy, I was experiencing waves of boredom, frustration and loneliness. I was delirious with exhaustion and felt on the edge of madness most of the time. I had worked in some stressful situations — with underground human rights groups under military regimes, in refugee camps guarded by armed militia, as a mediator between hostile opponents.
‘None of this compared to the stress of caring for a newborn baby. Even more shocking to me, I was working harder than I ever had, and I wasn’t even getting paid!… My life seemed reduced to endless rounds of menial chores, and the isolation was terrifying. The reward? Well, my baby was happy. But I was miserable and angry’.
And her solution? Well, she argues, society must do more for her and women like her. Mothers should be ‘supported, financially and socially, by the community’. They have a right to ‘a world that would allow us to fulfil our need to nurture without forgoing our creative and intellectual lives’.
In other words, she wants motherhood without sacrifice and without cost. Christian mothers, with the Bible in their hands, know that it will never be like that. ‘With pain you shall bring forth children…’. But they believe that the work they do will be honoured and rewarded by the Lord in this world and the world to come. The struggles are for a little while; the rewards are for eternity.
How important it is for us to give honour to mothers and to motherhood! Mothers must be encouraged to be mothers, and proud of it! Children — and yes, husbands — must show their appreciation and admiration for mothers: ‘Her children rise up and call her blessed; her husband also, and he praises her’ (Proverbs 31:28).
If Mothering Sunday helps you do that, then go for it! But don’t let it end at bedtime on Sunday the 31st. Let’s have a Mothering Monday, and a Mothering Tuesday and… Seven days a week, 365 days a year, children need mothers, and mothers deserve our thanks and honour. And, PS, I’ll see you men down at Tesco.
Stephen Rees is pastor of Grace Baptist Church, Stockport This article first appeared in the monthly magazine and on the website of Grace Baptist Church, Stockport. www.gbcstockport.org.uk