Paul Griffin explains why the Fourth Sunday of Lent must not be watered down

It is with relief that we reach the Fourth Sunday of Lent, mid-Lent Sunday. Half time: time to suck an orange and breathe a bit. The Refreshment Sunday Epistle used to include the bit about Jerusalem being the mother of us all, and the Gospel the Feeding of the Five Thousand. Hence Mothering Sunday, and those old customs: lasses in service visiting Mum. Simnel cake. Pity, though, about that rather savage Collect, which in the Book of Common Prayer read:

‘Grant, we beseech thee, Almighty God,
that we, who for our evil deeds
do worthily deserve to be punished,
by the comfort of thy grace may mercifully be relieved.’

Strong stuff, but what has it to do with mothers?

Nothing, the creators of Common Worship seem to conclude. They actually give alternatives: you either celebrate the Fourth Sunday of Lent, and keep a softened version of the ‘savage’ Collect, but lose both the bit from Galatians about Jerusalem being the mother of us all, and the Feeding of the Five Thousand, or you wholeheartedly celebrate ‘Mothering Sunday’, and not only lose the Epistle bit but also the miracle. Instead, the Gospel is about Mary, Jesus, and John at the Cross, and the Collect is about the Holy Family at Nazareth.

This throws me. Does it mean, as with women priests, that the traditional is to be overruled by popular sentimentality? We already have a lovely supply of Mary days. I fear the modern view that the Book of Common Prayer has ‘too much about sin’ obscures the fact that we are still in Lent, when the subject of sin has a certain priority.

On Mothering Sunday we remind ourselves that we also have to remember the release from sin, and here we consider the part played by our homes in helping us in that direction.

You have to read the savage Collect to the end, where it speaks of grace.

God said to Eve in the Garden of Eden: ‘I will greatly multiply thy sorrow and thy conception; in sorrow thou shalt bring forth children.’ A large part of that sorrow is the inequality of love between mother and child. We love our mothers naturally, but we do not understand parents naturally. Rather, we judge and patronize them, being convinced by modern thought there is no such thing as selfless care, and that we are sent to bring our parents enlightenment. We are told often enough that previous generations were greedy capitalist lackeys, and that all teachers are in need of being told by their students that they do not know their business.

Remember that creepy story about the little boy who sent his mother a bill for helping with the washing up; and her answering bill: ‘To ten years of full-time care and devotion – no charge.’ Minus the kitsch, that story illustrates the points that Mothering Sunday brought to our notice. It seems dangerously sentimental to turn the day into another glimpse of the Holy Family, with the kitsch retained, because this softens the great truth that our mothers offer the purest example of that loving pity and joyful forgiveness of our failures, which is the great gift of God. Jerusalem, the Church of God, is indeed the mother of us all, offering that complete and utter love and forgiveness that only mothers can.

Perhaps my ideas about modern churchmen’s attitudes to tradition themselves smack of the very lack of respect for the Church my Mother of which I speak; but do their changes here not lessen rather than increase the stock of wisdom in our liturgy? ND