The Story of Mothering Sunday

(Photo: Unsplash/Zoe Schaeffer)

The fourth Sunday in Lent is called Mothering Sunday or Mother's Day in Britain and Ireland. This is the story ...

Epistle for Mid-Lent Sunday

The fourth Sunday in Lent, which in 2024 is Sunday 10 March, was known as Mid-Lent Sunday, because it fell in the middle of Lent. Since mediaeval days, the set lectionary reading for mid-Lent Sunday, was from Paul's Letter to the Galatians from chapter 4 verse 21 to the end of the chapter. In this letter, St Paul told the story of the two mothers: Hagar, mother of Ishmael and Sarah, mother of Isaac. Paul explained that "this has another meaning as well. Each of the two women stands for one of the agreements God made with his people" (Galatians 4:24, CEV). Paul sees them as an allegory, where Hagar represented the old covenant of law, and Sarah the new covenant of grace.

Key Verse

The key verse in the epistle is where Paul wrote about "Jerusalem which is above is free, which is the mother of us all" (Galatians 4:26, KJV). In the New Testament epistles the heavenly Jerusalem is called "the city of the living God" (Hebrews 12:22) and "the holy city, new Jerusalem... prepared as a bride adorned for her husband" (Revelation 21:2 NIV). The new heavenly Jerusalem is the spiritual Church, the bride of Christ, and our spiritual mother.

Mothering Sunday

It was because of Galatians 4:26 that mid-Lent Sunday was historically associated with mothers. The tradition grew that on Mid-Lent Sunday people would go back to the family home that day. It was usual for apprentices and domestic servants to have the day off to visit their mothers, and married sons and daughters would take their own children. Families would be re-united, and together visit their home or "mother" church, and have a meal with their mother. This was known as "going a-mothering", and hence the day came to be colloquially called Mothering Sunday.

Mother's Day

These days Mothering Sunday is also known as Mother's Day. Confusingly Mother's Day in Britain and Ireland is not the same day as Mother's Day in the US, which falls on a different day. American Mother's Day has quite a different origin, but was also Christian. It stems back to Miss Anna Jarvis, who was deeply inspired by her own Christian mother. In 1908, on the second Sunday in May, she organised a memorial service on the anniversary of her mother's death, at their church in Grafton, West Virginia. This was arranged not only to honour her mother, but all mothers. Following its success, she resolved to make it a national event, and drove a successful campaign to promote it. Many churches across the US started to adopt the new Mother's Day. Within a few years, it became so popular that in 1914, President Woodrow Wilson officially declared the second Sunday in May as Mother's Day in the US.

Revival of Mothering Sunday

Meanwhile the old traditions of Mothering Sunday in Britain had nearly died out. In 1913, Constance Penswick-Smith, a vicar's daughter in England, read about Mother's Day in North America. She thought it was a good idea, but did not see the need to have a new Mother's Day, when there was already Mothering Sunday. She started the Mothering Sunday Movement to promote its revival. She designed Mothering Sunday cards for Sunday School children to give their mothers, and in 1917, during the Great War, she wrote to army chaplains to encourage them to get soldiers to write home to their mothers.

In the 1920s Mothering Sunday was then picked up and promoted by the Mothers' Union. By the time that Constance Penswick-Smith died in 1938, Mothering Sunday had become re-established across Anglican churches in Britain and Ireland, and other church traditions started to adopt the idea as well. By the 1950s, Mothering Sunday was firmly established as Mother's Day in Britain and Ireland.

This Mothering Sunday as you honour your own mother, maybe remember that Mothering Sunday all came about because of a verse in the Bible. That verse summarises the idea that those whose trust is in Jesus become children of God through grace. God becomes our spiritual father, and the Church our spiritual mother.