The first word of the Entrance Antiphon at Mass this weekend sets the tone for the entire Liturgy: Rejoice. In praying the words “Rejoice Jerusalem, and all who love her” (Isaiah 66:10) we are invited to celebrate the fact that Almighty God loves the people dedicated to Him. Traditionally referred to as Laetare Sunday it is mirrored in Advent by Gaudete Sunday, when we are raised in spirit to recall the fact that the Lord is near at hand. Both Sundays reflect the very real need that we have as human beings half way through our journeying to Easter and the birth of Christ to be warmed by a bright shaft of light coming from the Season that we are preparing for, preventing us from sinking too far into the mire of gloom that we so often trudge through as a penitential and humbled people. These Liturgical celebrations offer a glimpse of what is on the horizon, just around the corner, growing nearer with each passing day, like a cloudless blue sky and low sun visible over and above the snow, frost and ice of a winter day. Some traditions refer to the Fourth Sunday of Lent as Refreshment Sunday, a historical name given to a day of respite from the harsh fasts of the previous weeks, offering physical nourishment and sustenance for the remainder of the journey towards the festival of Christ’s resurrection.
Laetare Sunday is also the day on which we acknowledge Mothering Sunday, an association between the two being acknowledged in liturgical sources dating back over a millennia, which include references and metaphors to motherhood and mothering. Linking both is the call for us to rejoice with Jerusalem; God’s spouse, and the Mother of His People. With the movement of people and spurts in population growth a number of customs grew up around Laetare and Mothering Sunday such as the return of people to their church of Baptism, parishioners of newly established churches attending the Mother Church of the area, day-release of domestic servants in order for them to visit their families, and the ability of children educated away from home to be visited by their parents or visa-versa dependent upon practical considerations. The fluidity (of almost three weeks) surrounding the date on which an increasingly secular celebration of Mothering Sunday continues to be celebrated acknowledges its roots in the rich soil of the Christian faith. This grounding was something drawn upon by Constance Penswick Smith (1878 – 1938), a single, childless woman, who breathed new life into our nation’s acknowledgement of the debt of gratitude that we owe to our mothers – physical and spiritual. Reportedly inspired by moves across the Atlantic, where, in 1914, President Woodrow Wilson established the second Sunday of May as an official day on which the gifts of mothers could be celebrated nationally, this daughter of an Anglican clergyman, drew on her own strong faith and Christian values, publishing in 1921 a work entitled The Revival of Mothering Sunday with chapters entitled The Church – Our Mother, Mothers of Earthly Homes, The Mother of Jesus and Gifts of Mother Earth. The revivalist movement surrounding Mothering Sunday took place over a couple of decades, a period of time in which the research of Constance Penswick Smith and others did much to highlight traditions, liturgical and secular, which had long been associated with Laetare and Mothering Sunday at national, local and regional level. These included long held habits and customs dating from medieval times, lost to us today, as well as the origins of culinary delights and table-fellowship which have an enduring familiarity about them such as Wafer Cakes and Simnel Cakes.
Mothering Sunday gives us an opportunity to acknowledge the unique role of those women in our lives who fulfil the vocational role of being Mothers, whether that is biologically or those who have stepped into the shoes of nurturing and cultivation for us at some point on life’s journey. Sometime ago an expectant Mum – with tongue in cheek I suspect – asked if I had any advice to offer her in preparation for her forthcoming happy event ! My response came quickly, and, judging from the expression on her face, was not one that she was anticipating. I made the suggestion that she purchase a pram that allowed her baby to look at her, whether laid on his/her back or sat upright, giving both the infant being pushed and the pusher as many opportunities as possible to capture every expression, each breath and those initial noises and subsequent words that would become the shared means of communication for both. Such a means of transport would ensure that neither would miss out on the gift of establishing a life-long relationship forged in the most precious, significant and important days, weeks and years of new life.
Being born in the city where the founder of Silver Cross had his first factory, and growing up just a few miles from the company’s subsequent manufacturing base at Guiseley, I was almost destined to spend my own earliest days in what was often described as the Rolls Royce of prams. It was initially from a reclining posture and subsequent sitting position in this mode of transport that I quickly discovered that the centre of my infant-world, and the most important person in it, was my Mum. She held me, fed me, bathed me, dressed me, talked to me, kept me warm, cooled me down, played with me, made me laugh, stopped me crying, and in her chauffeuring role pushed that incredibly well-sprung carriage-style pram mile upon mile on a daily basis. It was from the security of the familiar, under the watchful and vigilant gaze of the one who had brought me into the world that I was introduced to the people, locality and environment which would influence and shape me in unimaginable ways. Personal confidence grew as my unfolding world and experiences were never faced alone, always strengthened by the face and presence of Mum. When journeys into Otley were interrupted it would be to allow a friend or neighbour to draw close to the infant in the pram and utter unidentifiable noises to him which were interpreted as being kind, happy and good, judging by the expressions on the faces of these people that his mother entrusted a glimpse of her son to. An ability to read a face and judge the spoken tone became this child’s first means of communication. When words came, the first uttered were the most important: Mum and Dad. The third word was the name of my great-aunt. Unable to sound the “D” at the beginning of her name, she was simply “Olly” for a short while … and delighted in it !
A pram was often, as they remain today, a heavy financial investment for parents, and were passed down a line of siblings, handed-on to meet the needs of the new arrivals within the circle of family or friends, or even sold having retained a value as second-hand. Like any investment a dividend is anticipated, hoped and at times, longed, for. The reward of my parents’ investment in their choice of pram was the gift of a wonderful formative relationship that was established between the three of us from before the time my own memory began its work of recollection, gathering and storage. Whilst having no recall of there being a phased move from the Silver Cross pram to walking via any other form of pushchair, I certainly recall a highlight of summer afternoons being “put down” for a snooze by Mum in the pram which she positioned in the shade at the top of the driveway. On waking I soon discovered that with a bit of gentle persuasive rocking, even with its brakes on, the Pram could be brought to life by its solo occupant. Day after day, I would rock myself to the end of the drive, covering a distance of a good number of yards, where closed gates provided a barrier too great even for my little fingers to master, and a location from which I would eventually be retrieved. It was at the gate that neighbours and passers-by would chat to me, and to whom in return I would smile benignly. As the son of a canny Yorkshire father, and with such an ideal selling pitch, I can only judge that I must have been a relatively good infant, as no attempt was made to either put a price tag on me or a label reading: Free to a good home !
When the usefulness of the pram was left behind, as I took my first faltering steps, Mum’s were the hands that guided me on my journeying toward a life of relative independence. And when it came to walking, Mum and I were amongst the best, and even at an age when many teenagers dream of being behind a steering wheel I was happy walking, often times at the side of my bus-pass holding Mum. This privilege of age item was only ever flashed for discounts on admittance to attractions on holiday. I don’t think it was ever used in over three decades of existence, despite its frequent renewal and updated photos, for its true purpose or intention. During breaks from seminary life, entered at fifteen, walking provided the setting for Mum’s companionship, conversation and a backdrop to the rich counsel and wisdom that she offered born out of her own education gifted through life experience. Our walking track was the mile plus that separates our family home from the centre of Otley, with the same distance covered on the return journey. It was taken in all weathers and at times out of necessity rather than choice. It was life. It was our shared life.
John Wesley wrote of his mother that he “learned more about Christianity from [his] mother than from all the theologians in England,” and I can share this attribute in respect of Mum. Her faith was simple, devout, unquestioning, solid, and an aspect of her make-up which she never hid or denied, in fact the opposite was true, she was incredibly proud of being a Catholic. Whilst leaving the public face of ministry to Dad, who served as a Minister of the Eucharist for many years, Mum was happier wielding a duster as a church cleaner, supporting the activities of the Ladies’ Guild, and counting the collection after Mass, something that she did until she was over ninety. Whether being pushed in the Silver Cross pram, with its incredible suspension, or walking, church was always a familiar destination. Whether it was for a ‘visit’ or for Mass, which when celebrated daily at 8.30 a.m. required an early start to our twenty minute or so walk, with no loitering, and we never arrived late ! It was her church; the place of her baptism at a time when the world was in a state of relational repair after the Great War, and from where she made her final journey, in a year when our country made a decisive statement, through the ballot box, on its relationship with its nearest geographical neighbours.
In the times when our parents give us so much of themselves, as the recipients of gifts and experiences that will be fundamental to the people that we evolve into, for all kinds of reasons we are incapable, unable, shielded and lacking the emotional and intellectual requirements to grasp the enormity of what is being offered to us. Perhaps it is only when we pass through similar experiences on our own pathway of life that we begin, if we have the luxury of time, to reflect on and come to a partial appreciation of all that went into making the day to day life experience of our earliest years appear to run so smoothly and seamlessly: providing a roof over our heads, food on the table, and ensuring that birthdays and Christmases were special times to remember. All too often people comment that they didn’t have much, but with the basics of love, food, warmth, and a feeling of security what more do we really need. Most of us will have had much more than the basics, not least the gift of faith, and the desired hope and aspirations of our parents that we would benefit from many experiences of life that had not been theirs. Personally these have been the gifts of education and travel. Mum finished her schooling at thirteen (which may not even have been legal) and was in full time employment before her fourteenth birthday. In comparison I was still in part-time education at thirty-five ! As a couple, the furthest my parents travelled from Otley, warranting a passport, was Dublin for my Diaconate Ordination, whilst I have been fortunate enough to travel to the other side of the world, Australia.
Laetare Sunday calls upon us to rejoice. Its link with Mothering Sunday gives us the opportunity of giving thanks for the women whom we address and acknowledge as our Mums, whether we are able to show our love and appreciation through the delivery of a card and gift, or whether we speak words of loving gratitude to them in the quiet of our hearts, resting as they are now in the companionship of Almighty God. When speaking at Mum’s Requiem Mass I described her as being the best Mum that God could have provided for me … I’d like to think that many of us, reflecting on the life-journey of our respective mothers could share those sentiments. Far from boasting of having the best or finest or most qualified or skilled Mum in the field of parenting, in some competition-style, the highest acclaim comes from recognizing and appreciating that who we have become and are bears the indelible marks of sacrifice, nurturing, culturing, shaping, crafting and above all the love of another human being that we’ve been fortunate to address as Mum, Mother or some other affectionate term of maternal recognition. If the hands of time could be turned back, the only words that I would say more often to my Mum would be how proud I was and continue to be of her. If you’ve got the opportunity or means seize the moment and speak similar words to yours !
Be assured of my continuing remembrance of you and your loved ones in both prayer and affection, not least this weekend, those wonderful women in your lives who have aided you to become the person that you are.
As ever, Fr. Nicholas