Simnel cake (Photo credit: Wikipedia)
I’ll to thee a Simnel bring,
‘Gainst thou go a-Mothering,
So that when she blesseth thee
Half the blessing thou’ll give me.
ROBERT HERRICK (1591-1674)
Living in Hungary, I’m often asked why we celebrate Mother’s Day in Britain on a different date from most of Europe. I answer that we don’t celebrate ‘Mother’s Day’, we celebrate ‘Mothering Sunday‘, in which human motherhood is just one aspect.
With Lent half gone, the Church allows a break from fasting, a ‘breakfast’ or ‘refreshment’. The Gospel for the day tells the story of the feeding of the five thousand and so, appropriately, the day became known as Refreshment Sunday. In the early Church, there was a special ordinance requiring the priest and people to visit the ‘Mother church‘ of the district on this day, and this custom became associated with pleasant gatherings of families and reunions of children with mothers. Hence the popular name, ‘Mothering Sunday’.
By the 17th Century it became common practice for serving maids and apprentices to be given a holiday on this day so they might visit their mothers. In those days, they left their homes at the age of nine or ten, then living in accommodation provided by their masters. Mothering Sunday would be the only day in the year on which they would see their families and keep up their links with home. They took gifts of flowers or special cakes made for the occasion.
These cakes were spicy and made with a fine flour which had a Latin name, ‘simila’, hence the cakes were known as Simnel cakes. These are sometimes decorated with little fruits, artificial flowers with eggs and nests – looking forward to the great festival of Easter.
The picture on the right above, shows our Oliver presenting his mum with Spring flowers in church, a tradition which is repeated in many parish churches and chapels throughout the UK. So we celebrate motherhood in the form of our human mother, the mother church and the ‘motherhood’ of God which, unlike our human mothers, but like ‘agape’, ‘has no end’.
So, all this has little to do with Mother’s Day, which is a North American institution. On 9 May 1906, Anna Jarvis of Philadelphia lost her mother and succeeded in persuading the state governors to proclaim the second Sunday in May to be Mother’s Day.
In Pennsylvania it became a state holiday, and other states followed suit until in 1913 the US Senate and House of Representatives dedicated the day to mothers. It is therefore, by definition, not a religious festival, and never has been. When the ‘Yanks’ came to Britain at the end of the Second World War, they brought these traditions with them, hence the reason that ‘Mothering Sunday’ has turned into a secular ‘Mother’s Day’ for many in Britain.
Jesus Feeds Five Thousand Men
(Mt 14, 13-21; Mk 6, 32-44; Lk 9, 10-17; Jn 6, 1-14):
When Jesus heard the news about John, he left there in a boat and went to a lonely place by himself. The people heard about it, and so they left their towns and followed him by land. Jesus got out of the boat, and when he saw the large crowd, his heart filled with pity for them, and he healed their sick.
That evening his disciples came to him and said, “It is already very late, and this is a lonely place. Send the people away and let them go to the village to buy food for themselves.” They don’t have to leave,” answered Jesus. “You yourselves give them something to eat!” “All we have here are five loaves and two fish,” they replied.
- English: Jesus feeding a crowd with 5 loaves of bread and two fish (Photo credit: Wikipedia)
“Then bring them here to me,” Jesus said. He ordered the people to sit down on the grass; then he took the five loaves and the two fish, looked up to heaven, and gave thanks to God. He broke the loaves and gave them to the people. Everyone ate and had enough. Then the disciples took up twelve baskets full of what was left over. The number of men who ate was about five thousand, not counting the women and children. (Good News for Modern Man)
The Gospel appointed for Refreshment Sunday, marking the half-way point in the forty days of Lent, the break in fasting, is this well-known story of Jesus’ miracle. In Matthew’s gospel it comes as a direct response by Jesus to the death of John the Baptist, at the hands of Herod, the ruler of Galilee. Rather than immediately mustering John’s disciples with his own, and leading them in vengeance against the despot, Jesus again finds a quiet place to mourn his cousin’s death alone. However, returning to the Lake for a fishing trip, he finds himself intercepted by a huge crowd of angry men, who have by now heard the news and have followed Jesus by land, hoping that he will now lead them in a holy crusade against Herod. Jesus knows, with the festival of Passover drawing near, he must deal with the unrest caused by John’s death before moving on to Jerusalem, where the Judean authorities were already preparing for a further confrontation with him, even plotting to have him killed too.
This ‘incident in the hills’, as Alan T Dale has described it in his Portrait of Jesus, is reported by all four gospel-writers, and there is a remarkable similarity in their accounts of it, not just between the synoptic gospels, but also with John, who often has a very different spiritual ‘take’ on the material events of Jesus’ life. In this dramatic event we are shown Jesus at his most ‘materialistic’, and Christianity is ‘born’ as the most materialistic of world religions. Jesus, when tempted in the wilderness to turn the stones into bread had quoted the scripture, ‘man shall not live by bread alone’, but here he makes a symbolic statement by his acted parable that ‘neither can man live without it’. It obviously made a profound impact on all of his disciples, and John takes care to count the men, loaves, fishes and even the leftovers. Dale captures the scene vividly in his reworking of the gospel-writers common narrative:
The grass was green. It was a familiar spring day, dry and hot with an east wind blowing and a yellowish haze hiding the hills and washing the colour from sea and field. From early light the streets of the small lakeside fishing port – Capernaum – were crowded with men and loud gossip and argument. The soldiers at the small Roman outpost in the town were wondering what was afoot.
Somebody suddenly noticed a small boat putting out.
‘There he is!’ he called out. ‘There he is!’
The boat was making very heavy weather – an on-shore wind was blowing. The crowd – several thousand men – walking, pushing, running, made their way along the shore. The men in the boat saw what was happening; there would be no escape. They put the boat back to land.
Jesus climbed out. He knew the crowd: farmers from the hill villages, fishermen from the lakeside towns. He had grown up with some of them. They were men of the Resistance Movement – ‘zealots’, nationalists – farmers or fishermen by day, ‘freedom fighters’ whenever the chance came.
As he looked at them, he felt sorry for them, and some words from an old story came into his mind: ‘like sheep without a shepherd to look after them’….That’s what they looked like – a leaderless mob, an army without a general.
He went with them into the hills, to a lonely spot out of sight and reach of the Roman garrison. The talk went on and on. They wanted him to become their leader – their ‘king’. Jesus would have no part in their plans.
It was now late in the afternoon. He got everybody to share a common meal together, a meal in which they promised again to live as God‘s People. The men – under command – sat down in companies of fifty and a hundred each, rank by rank.
Jesus had to deal with both his friends and the men. He got his friends to go back to the boat and to sail across the Lake. He had to force them to go – they wanted to stay. He himself, under the darkening sky, climbed the hillside. He wanted to think things out in God’s presence – alone.
- Mosaic in the Church of the Multiplication of the Loaves und the Fishes at Tabgha near the Sea of Galilee (Yam Kinneret), Israel. According to the pious legend, in this place Jesus fed 5000 pilgrims with five loaves of bread and two fish (Matthew 14,13). (Photo credit: Wikipedia)
According to John, Jesus knew that the men were about to seize him and make him king by force. So, according to Matthew, he agrees to another common meal with them again three days later, and sets off alone into the hills. These incidents, first his meal with five thousand in the hills, followed by the feeding of the four thousand a few days later on the sand-dunes down by the Lake, represent the turning-point in Jesus’ public career, after which he ‘sets his face’ to go to Jerusalem, knowing that it will lead to confrontation with the elders, chief priests and scribes, and to his suffering and death.
There must have been something strong and commanding, rather than ‘meek and mild’ which made the freedom-fighters think of him as a military leader and ‘king’. Their mass meetings with him in the hills, puszta and ‘deserts’ around Galilee brought matters to a head.
We can see how they came to think of him as a guerilla leader. He had great authority as well as charisma. He was indeed acting as if he had been called to lead the Jewish people to liberation, even if he didn’t openly declare this and also charged his disciples not to speak of it. His theme was ‘God’s Rule’ (‘the Kingdom of God‘), the same slogan as the freedom-fighters. However, what had become dramatically clear to him that day in the hills, and after the second meeting to his inner circle of disciples, articulated by Simon the fisherman, his ‘Rock’, was that Jesus and the freedom-fighters were polls apart. He had no use for a ‘Holy War’, even a ‘just’ one, and all the violence that would ensue, as indeed it did a few years later when war broke out between the Jewish people and the Roman legions.
Neither did Jesus think of the ‘foreigners’ as they did. He didn’t hate them or stereotype them. When what Jesus really stood for dawned on them, they had no further use for him. Indeed, many of those who had called themselves his friends abandoned him. Jesus seems to have spent much of the last months of his life alone, or with his small band of close disciples. And in the last week, very few stood by him. Even the gospel-writer, John, when the soldiers came to arrest his master in the orchard, ran away.