|Photo Credit: Nicolas Raymond on Flickr.com
“Lighten up, everyone!” That’s the message of this Fourth Sunday in Lent, known in many parts of the Anglican Communion as ‘Mothering Sunday’, the original ‘Mothers’ Day’. It takes its title from Galatians 4:26 which was the original epistle for this day in the Book of Common Prayer. The day was seen as a break from the rigours of the Lenten fast. Apprentices and domestic servants were given the day off to go and visit their mothers, picking flowers from the roadside as they went; and mothers made simnel cakes to mark the occasion. It was also a day when parishes organized pilgrimages to cathedrals, the ‘mother churches’ of their dioceses. It has also been called ‘Laetare’ or ‘Rejoice Sunday’ from the traditional introit of the day; ‘Refreshment Sunday’ in honour of the relaxation of Lenten solemnity; or ‘Rose Sunday’ (because of the substitution of rose-coloured vestments and hangings for the sombre purple of the rest of the season. North American ‘Mothers’ Day’, celebrated on the second Sunday in May, was originally a peace festival, designed to commemorate the horrors of the American Civil War and to say “Never again” to such violence. It has, of course, become highly commercialized, to the dismay of its original founders.
Regardless of origins, here we are – and the readings for the day still give us reason to ‘lighten up’. The readings begin with the story of Israel’s rebellion against Moses, followed by a plague of poisonous serpents. The cure for this was to erect a bronze serpent on a pole, familiar to us as a symbol of the medical profession. It reminds us how healing often begins when we confront our fears and are able to diagnose the nature of our ills. John the gospel-writer picks up this theme when he has Jesus comparing himself with Moses’ bronze serpent. The crucified Messiah is a scandal to those who cannot bear the light of the gospel; but Jesus is indeed the one who has come to lighten our darkness. The third collect at Evensong also reminds us of this theme with these simple, but profound words: “Lighten our darkness, we beseech thee, O Lord; and by thy great mercy defend us from all perils and dangers of this night; for the love of thy only Son, our Saviour Jesus Christ.”
The Letter to the Ephesians continues this theme, pointing out how the grace of God has saved us from ourselves, and enabled us to share in the fullness of life made possible by Jesus’ becoming one of us, dying for us, and incorporating us in his resurrection. The psalm today reinforces all this in a song of thanksgiving for God’s unceasing goodness and enduring love.
One of life’s great paradoxes is that, when we think we’re enlightened, we’re not – when we think we’ve arrived, it’s time to go back to square one. This is the basic lesson taught by all the great spiritual traditions. The era we call ‘The Enlightenment’ reduced all truth to what we can know by reason; and what we call religious fundamentalism is a result of our allowing rationalism to set the terms of engagement. The self-styled ‘new atheists’ of a few years ago dismissed all religion as superstition, though they had little or no knowledge of the depth and complexity of religious traditions, and were not even up-to-date with contemporary science. Today, however, the languages of science and mysticism have become familiar to each other, for each embraces mystery and paradox as keys to true enlightenment. Today we are moving out of a culture of either/or thinking into a culture of both/and – out of a climate of divide and rule, into an exciting awareness of our oneness. This may not seem to be the case, given the state of global politics these days, but the reality is that we’re beginning to see the consequences of our old separatist thinking. We’re beginning to rediscover both our oneness and our interdependence.
The great Jewish philosopher Martin Buber noted that we basically have two kinds of relationships – ‘I-Thou’ and ‘I-it’. In the first, we see people and things in their wholeness. In the second, we treat them as objects for our own use and discard. Increasingly, we’re seeing the importance of contemplation and appreciation – but the catch is that we have to do something about our frantic busyness; we have to ‘slow down and live’.
Mothering Sunday is perhaps above all else an appreciation of our ‘womb-ness’, our connectedness. In a symbolic return to the womb we rediscover our fundamental oneness, and our capacity for compassion. In confronting our fears of ‘the other’ we emerge from darkness into light, and see ourselves in new ways. So let’s indeed ‘lighten up’ and rejoice – for, as John put it at the very beginning of his gospel, “the light has shined in the darkness, and the darkness could not overcome it.” For such good news, thanks be to God! And even though it's Lent: Alleluia! Amen!