Fourth Sunday in Lent, Year B – Mothering Sunday

Title:Fourth Sunday in Lent, Year B – Mothering Sunday

The fourth Sunday in Lent is traditionally known as “Mothering Sunday” or Refreshment Sunday. In some parts of Great Britain, the custom was to return to the “mother church” or the cathedral for a special service on this day, and it also became customary to celebrate or pay special respect to one’s own mother on this day, a sort of Anglican “Mother’s Day.

Another custom is the relaxation of austere Lenten observances on this day, the baking of simnel cakes (light fruit cakes covered in marzipan), and in some places the replacement of purple robes and liturgical hangings with rose-colored ones. Simnel cakes are called such because of the fine flour (Latin "simila") they were made of.   

Children of all ages were expected to pay a formal visit to their mothers and to bring a Simnel cake as a gift. In return, the mothers gave their children a special blessing. This custom was so well-established that masters were required to give servants enough time off to visit out-of-town mothers – provided the trip did not exceed 5 days!

A recipe for Simnel cake is here. 

Today’s readings celebrate God’s mercy, particularly with healing and restoration and leading to salvation. In the Old Testament reading from Numbers, God delivers the people from poisonous serpents. Paul, in the letter to the Ephesians, announces that God has graciously done it all, lifting us out of sin’s grave and preparing us to do good works. In today’s gospel, John tells us that Jesus is God’s gift to us, the ultimate expression of God’s mercy and love.

The first reading from Numbers relates directly to the Gospel. This reading describes the incident that the evangelist John uses to understand the healing power of Christ’s death on the cross. For their lack of faith in God’s power to provide food for them on their wilderness journey, the people are punished by poisonous serpents. When the people admit their sinfulness and seek God’s forgiveness through Moses’ intercession, God provides an outward sign—the bronze serpent—that when looked upon unleashed God’s life-giving power.

This psalm encourages those whom God has rescued to give praise (vv. 1-3). Verses 17-22 recall God’s healing in time of illness.

The letter from Epheians was probably first circulated as an encyclical letter to a number of churches in Asia Minor. Chapter 1 centers upon the privileges of the believer’s new life in Christ. Today’s reading focuses on the process of restoration. God alone takes the initiative.

In verses 8-10, there is a double aspect to salvation. It begins with “grace” (v. 5) and results in “good works” (v. 10). Faith is here a gift from God, not something we do. Works are required, but not as a prerequisite. The living out of the Christian life is not the cause of salvation, but its effect. Faith must always lead to good works.

The Gospel reading is taken from the first of John’s lengthy expositions of Jesus’ teachings particularly with Nicodemus on the importance of being born again. The process of recovering ourselves, or being born again is closely connected with dying. The Jews endured a kind of death for almost 50 years before they were allowed to return to their land. Christ redeemed us when we were dead in sin. Even though he may have had every reason to condemn us, he saved us.

This discourse as a whole (3:1-21) moves from the work of the Spirit (3:3-8) to that of the Son (3:11-15) to that of the Father (3:16-21). Nicodemus comes to Jesus by night because of his interest in the signs Jesus has performed. Jesus seeks to draw him past these outward manifestations to a recognition of their inward significance.

The lifting up of the Son of Man points to his exaltation on the cross and in the resurrection and ascension; for John, these are one single act of glorification, offering believers eternal life by participation in God’s life.

Verse 16, one of the most familiar verses of scripture, succinctly describes God’s goal—to offer eternal life, God’s motivation—love for the world, and God’s strategy—giving the Son. Jesus has become the watershed for life, both now and in the future. Those who reject Jesus face condemnation in the day of judgment, and they live now in darkness and fear. Those who believe “in the name of the only Son of God” (v. 18) have escaped future condemnation, enjoy the promise and reality of eternal life, and live in light and truth.