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Mothering Sunday: The baptismal holiday we missed in America

By Dr. Jeff Mirus ( bio - articles - email ) | Apr 26, 2024

It’s a little late for this year, but I’ve just learned—for the first time in my life—of the special day called Mothering Sunday, observed in the United Kingdom and some other related countries. Contrary to some sources, this is not an opportunity for people to visit their mothers, and it doesn’t have much to do with the movie of the same name. Rather, this observance originated in the Middle Ages on the fourth Sunday in Lent (Laetare Sunday) as a day on which people would visit the church in which they were baptized.

Given the wide dispersion of many families with each new generation, Mothering Sunday might be a difficult day for many people to observe, though I think other customs could be developed to celebrate our baptismal churches even if we cannot visit them on that day. And certainly the very concept awakens a desire to visit the church in which we received new life in Christ, in order to offer a special form of thanksgiving. In my own case, however, not only had I never heard of this observance before this year, but since I moved away from the region of my birth in my late teens, I have never returned to the church in which I was baptized. Nor had I ever worshiped there very consciously in the past, for by the time I received my First Communion, a new church had been established a little closer to where we lived.

It is not always easy to go back today, with Catholic populations shrinking in many regions, and more and more parish churches being closed or even deconsecrated and sold. In many cases, growth has had the same effect, as larger churches have replaced older, smaller ones in the same parish. It is certainly good to visit the parish, or even the diocese, in which we were baptized, even if the church building itself is no longer there. But there is something particularly special about praying in the very same building, and perhaps even being able to find our names in the baptismal register.

A participation in Christ’s Resurrection

Baptism is the sacrament through which we put off the old man and become a new creation in Jesus Christ. It is a participation in Christ’s death and resurrection, and enables us to be born again, as Our Lord told Nicodemus (John 3:1-21). All the other sacraments build on Baptism, and if the Eucharist is the greatest of them all in its own special way, Baptism is our very initiation into life in Christ, both inwardly through the indwelling of the Holy Spirit and outwardly through our public incorporation and participation in Christ’s body, the visible Church on earth. Baptism is foundational by its removal of the spiritual deprivations of sin in our very being. Indeed, for this reason some in the early Church delayed this sacrament of initiation until the point of death—not realizing that the fleeting absence of sin is not to be sought as a substitute for continual growth into union with God.

There is in fact more than one sacrament for a reason, and the Church herself is the great sacrament of sacraments for a reason, and that reason is the continual deepening of the Christ-life within us, so that we can say more and more each day with St. Paul, “I have been crucified with Christ; it is no longer I who live, but Christ who lives in me; and the life I now live in the flesh I live by faith in the Son of God, who loved me and gave himself for me” (Gal 2:20). This is true in its own way of baptism, but baptism is no guarantee that the life we live in the flesh will henceforth be lived by faith. Merely establishing the basis for this life is not the goal; unnecessarily delaying our entry into this life is obviously a bad decision; beginning actually to live such a life is the whole point of the sacrament.

Moreover, it is not possible, at least not in the fullest sense, to live out our vocations apart from baptism and continued participation in the sacraments when they are available to us. Any deliberate delay of full sacramental participation is itself a serious refusal of God’s grace, whether through a secularistic abandonment of the sacramental life or a refusal to initiate it owing to a falsification of its nature and purposes. Thus, the sacraments of Penance and Eucharist grow out of Baptism in a manner similar to how a personal vocation grows out of a child-like practice of the Faith. Beginning with baptism, we are to take advantage of the gift of time to conform ourselves more and more thoroughly to Christ, precisely through a fully sacramental response to all that God calls us to undertake.

Nothing will be untouched, nothing will fail to be enriched, by the sacramental union with Christ that begins with our baptismal dying and rising to new life.

We can go home again

There is, I think, very little merit in “bucket lists”, except insofar as they remind us to do what is good. In the same way, there will be only a very small merit in visiting our baptismal churches purely in the matter of checking off an item on the list. What is more important is to recognize in Mothering Sunday our connection with “Mother Church”, the Church that is at once Christ’s body and Christ’s bride as well as our own spiritual mother. This is more important than a visit to our baptismal church, but of course making such a visit in the right spirit will itself be a particular occasion of grace to deepen our appreciation of the Christ-life within in us. In addition, this custom calls to mind in a very concrete way our appreciation for those who ensured that we were sacramentally initiated into the life of Christ in the Body of His Church.

In the recollection of particular sacramental events in our lives, we are reminded to give thanks and pray for those who started and led us along the Catholic way. This itself is an important way of “going home again” to our baptism, precisely because it is a way of “going to God” through thanksgiving for all the blessings He has bestowed, not only through the sacraments themselves but through every good thing which has enabled us to love God and serve His Church. Some of us have faced a great many hardships to be joined to Christ, in comparison to which my own hardships have been miniscule. Yet when I reflect on my baptism I reflect also on what so many others have done for me, all the opportunities I have been given to grow spiritually and to serve Christ, and all the terrors I have avoided through repentance and the renewal of baptism in the Confessional.

An easier and more common way of doing this is to celebrate our baptismal days—yet another wonderful Catholic custom which I have unfortunately neglected. Ideally, our observances of Mothering Sunday and of baptismal days will serve as reminders of the infinite value of the Christ-life within us, a life that all of us neglect more than we should. In most cases, I suspect, such memorials will cause us to recognize our own unworthiness more clearly. There is even a great value—always avoiding bitterness or despair—in the remembrance of our sins, in sorrow for their commission, in inexpressible gratitude for their forgiveness.

It can be a struggle at times to see the Church’s absolution as powerful enough to cover our personal failure. But while we must never take Our Lord for granted, we must always take Him at His word. The whole point is that it must be “no longer I who live, but Christ who lives in me.” This is the great reality of a baptismal life which trusts in Christ’s most remarkable promise: “Behold, I make all things new” (Rev 21:5). Therefore, we should reflect on the reality of our baptism, and something as simple as Mothering Sunday may well assist us both to desire and to hear those glorious words which can only be received through tears of baptismal joy:

“Come, O blessed of my Father, inherit the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world” (Mt 25:34).

Jeffrey Mirus holds a Ph.D. in intellectual history from Princeton University. A co-founder of Christendom College, he also pioneered Catholic Internet services. He is the founder of Trinity Communications and See full bio.

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