Simon and Nelly had no idea at the time of their argument, that it would result in the name given to a Sunday of the Christian year.
The story of this old couple is at least as old as the 18th Century. They were making a cake around this time of year and Simon wanted to boil it like a pudding. Nelly, however, thought it should be baked like a cake. To settle the argument, in the end, they decided to steam then bake it is succession, leading to the names Simon and Nelly being cobbled together to form the composite word “SimNel” as a way of describing the cake they made.
Whether this is the true origin of the simnel cake which is traditionally eaten on this 4th Sunday of Lent, is anyone’s guess. You may have spotted it in the supermarket. It’s a firm fruit cake, with 11 balls of marzipan on top, representing the 11 faithful disciples of Christ, and it has traditionally given today its title, “Simnel Sunday.”
But why do we eat cake and think of our mothers on this 4th Sunday of Lent? Traditionally we are given the opportunity to relax our Lenten privations slightly mid way through Lent. As a result of this, the vestments worn are not deepest purple, but a beautiful shade of rose pink, and flowers are briefly allowed in church. The short relaxation we are given allows us to redouble our efforts at self discipline and denial as we enter the last portion of Lent and approach Holy Week.
But, the association of this Sunday with mothers is a deeply theological idea and does not come, in origin at least, from the erroneous story we are all taught in primary school about apprentices and servants visiting their mothers on this day. Rather the association with mothers comes from the readings set for the Mass in the old rite.
For in the Book of Common Prayer and in the Roman Catholic Tridentine Rite, the second lesson on Lent 4 is taken from Paul’s Epistle to the Galatians. It is in that reading that St Paul presents us with an allegory: the child Abraham had by a slave woman represents Israel; but the child he had by a free woman represents the Church. He says, “But Jerusalem which is above is free, which is mother of us all.”
So the first mother to be thought about on this Sunday was not our own earthly ones, but our mother the church. For she gives birth to us through the waters of baptism and nourishes and protects us through the sacraments as we make our way through life.
It is from this mother that we all share, the church, that people then started to give thanks today for their own earthly mothers.
Now it’s important to acknowledge that not everyone has a mother with them, and not everyone has an easy relationship with their mother. Families are complicated. But it’s a good opportunity to give thanks for all those people who in various different ways have given us mothering love.
I think this year is a particularly poignant weekend to do this as we have in our minds the tragic murder of Sarah Everard. We are all of us thinking afresh about how the society we live in makes so many people – especially women – feel vulnerable, and how terrible sexual violence can be. So as we pray for our own mothers, let us pray for a society in which all women are valued, cherished, and protected.
This thinking about earthly mothers naturally led to a third sort of mother becoming a focus of our thinking today. For Simnel Sunday is also an opportunity to ask for the prayers of Mary the Mother of God. The liturgy on this day is often characterised by marian hymns which call us to remember the example of Mary and invoke her intercession. For Mary is our heavenly mother. On the cross, Jesus gave his mother to John. Through John, Mary is given to us all as a motherly figure we can all look to for help and succour when we experience trouble or affliction.
So, I am sorry our keeping of Mothering Sunday this year can’t be characterised by the traditions we have become so used to with the gift of flowers and a lovely piece of simnel cake after Mass. But we are given nonetheless an opportunity to reflect on the many mothers in our lives, whatever the make up of our earthly family. We think of our holy mother the church, guiding and helping us with the grace of the sacraments; our heavenly mother Mary, assisting us with her prayers; and all those close to us from whom we have received mothering care and love in this earthly life.
Fr Peter Anthony