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A brief history of the Fourth Sunday of Lent – Revd Dr Canon Victoria Johnson, Precentor

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Preacher: Revd Dr Victoria Johnson, Precentor

Title of sermon: A brief history of the Fourth Sunday of Lent

Readings: 1 Samuel 1:20-end, Colossians 3:12-17, Luke 19. 25b-27

Date/time/service: Fourth Sunday of Lent, Mothering Sunday,


I know it says that today is the Fourth Sunday of Lent on the front of the order of service, but in fact this Sunday can go under the guise of many different names. We could mark this day in any number of different ways. So I thought I would offer a brief history of The Fourth Sunday of Lent so we can all make an informed choice as to why we might be here today!

Many years ago, when the church was fairly new, the fourth Sunday of Lent, was called Refreshment Sunday or ‘Rejoicing’ Sunday, in latin, Laetere Sunday. It was a day of celebration during the season of Lent, a little oasis in a season of fasting and penitence.  It got this name because one of the readings on that day began with the words ‘Rejoice! Rejoice!’. And people were happy to take it literally. Some people called it Mid-Lent Sunday, rejoicing that perhaps that they had managed to get half-way through!  Sometimes, the clergy would wear rose coloured vestments to show that they were relaxing- a change from the normal purple, or in our case blue- so, some  people called the fourth Sunday of Lent ‘Rose Sunday’. Confused already?  Welcome to the Church of England!

Another reading that could be read on this Sunday, was the story of Jesus feeding the five thousand, telling us about the generosity of God.  So sometimes the fourth Sunday in lent was called Five Loaves Sunday. People would rejoice and give thanks, and sing psalm hymns and spiritual songs to God for all they had. It was a day to remember the goodness and providence of God.  As the years went by, on the Fourth Sunday of Lent, people would be given a break, a day off, a holiday for rest and refreshment. They would make a cake to share with their family- a spicy Simnel cake, covered in Marzipan, and so some people called the Fourth Sunday of Lent ‘Simnel Sunday’. There’s more….

Another reading on the Fourth Sunday of Lent was written by St Paul, and he said that Jerusalem was the Mother of us all, reminding us that we are all children of God.  So again people gave thanks to God in psalms, hymns and spiritual songs for the Mother Church and for Mary, the mother of Jesus.  On the fourth Sunday of Lent, people went back home to their mother church. It might have been the church where they were christened as a baby, or sometimes they would even go to the Cathedral, the mother church of the Diocese.

People who visited their mother church on the fourth Sunday of Lent, would say they had gone “a-mothering.” So, the fourth Sunday of Lent became known as Mothering Sunday. Please note: This is a different festival to Mother’s Day, which began in America about 100 years ago, though in England over the years the two festivals have kind of merged into one at least in secular culture.

So from that day to this, if not keeping the fourth Sunday of Lent, the church still keeps, not Mother’s day, but Mothering Sunday, though we remember all the qualities of mothering shared among us, we also remember Mary, the mother of God, and the family of the church, which helps us make a new kind of human family.

All these choices, all these options, what is your preferred choice for this fourth Sunday of Lent? The variety of options experienced on this one Sunday of the churches year, reflect very well the reality and the complexity of the church itself, variegated, different, diverse, sometimes confusing, with as many opposing opinions as Anglican Twitter and as many choices to make as any local coffee shop. Whose corner are you in? What flavour do you like best? It’s sometimes hard to imagine how any of this diversity can be drawn together effectively. If you were trying to tell someone about the church, or indeed sell the concept of church to someone -what would be the USP? As we sit here today, we ourselves in some ways represent the great diversity of humanity, and if we don’t we should.

When we come here what is it that makes this gathering into a community, and what is it that binds us all together not only with one another, but also with every other church in this city, diocese, across this land and across the world? There isn’t time today for a full examination of what Christian community is, we’re just making a start-but maybe it’s something we should all be thinking about?

Of course, there is only one thing that binds the church together beyond all of the flavours, customs, options, opinions and traditions that may exist. That one thing is Christ. Christ alone. Christ on the cross looking down upon the world, embracing the world in his loving arms, with love and compassion, looking down upon the world and binding it together in love.

In our Gospel reading, Jesus said to Mary his mother, this is your Son, pointing to John the disciple.  And pointing to Mary, he said to John, this is your mother. There on the cross, Jesus created a new kind of community not bound by conformity or sameness, not bound by blood, but bound by a love which breaks every barrier down and gathers together the fullness of humanity in all of its diversity and difference. It is only ever Christ that binds us all together. As St Paul says let the peace of Christ rule in your hearts, to which indeed you were called in the one body.

It may not matter what name we give the fourth Sunday of Lent, as long as we have Christ before us, beside us, below us, above us, between us and that we, for as long as we live, give ourselves to the Lord as our first concern, always through Christ, and with Christ and in Christ.

Disunity, within the church is a sin- it is the devil who tries to divide. There is a difference isn’t there between diversity and division and of course we currently live in a world of deep divisions, divisions between individuals, between families and communities and sadly between nations, perhaps we as the church of Christ, the body of Christ, can help heal those divisions by embodying what unity in diversity is….. if we are brave enough to let ourselves first be bound together as the body of Christ?

The church is one body, we are defined by our community and our unity, we are defined as a church by how we come together in difference and by how we bind together humanity with all of its faults and in all of its fullness.

There is one final tradition for the fourth Sunday of Lent I want to mention – it’s called ‘Clipping the Church’ or embracing the Church, or in modern language ‘hugging the church’, it often happened in the countryside, and the congregation would gather outside all around their church, hand in hand and sing songs, to remember that they were all bound together by the love of God, because sometimes it seems even the church needs reminding that it is called to be one family.

In the late seventies, there was a song that everyone was singing, it was a kind of folk song. It was sung by children in Sunday school and in assemblies, it’s still sung today. It’s the kind of song that is usually banned in Cathedrals, because it’s a bit twee and usually played on a guitar and not to everyone’s tastes, and don’t worry I’m not going to make you sing it, not this year anyway, but I am going finish with its words as a kind of prayer, it’s called Bind us together, you might know it. It might be the spiritual song that we could sing in our hearts today as we pray for our community and our unity as the church of Christ and as we pray for unity and compassion in our world:

Bind us together Lord, Bind us together with cords that cannot be broken,

Bind us together Lord, Bind us together Lord, Bind us together in love.

There is only one God, there is only King, there is only one body, this is why we sing:

Bind us together Lord, Bind us together Lord, bind us together in love.



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