Have you ever noticed
that May is a month in which themes both sacred and secular are hopelessly intertwined?
Sometimes they crash and collide with each other so that the sparks of controversy
fill the air. This is especially true on that Sunday during the season of Easter,
which most people think of as Mother's Day. Among my colleagues in the ministry,
there's been a heated debate over whether we should allow the secular holiday
to overshadow the religious themes of this sacred season of Easter.
colleagues express their ambivalence about Mother's Day in words such as these:
"As one who has never been a mother, nor wished to be, I always HATED Mother's
Day, as I always felt that it put on a pedestal ONE way of being a woman. With
little reflection on the diverse experiences -- some good, some bad. In the parishes
in which I minister I have tended to make this a time for honoring the gifts of
all women. Attempting to acknowledge that there is more to women than being mothers
and more to mothers than meets the Hallmark "eye".
I don't preach Mother's Day sermons either - they make my skin crawl. It is a
painful day as well for those of us who desperately want to be parents, but have
been unable. I serve a congregation filled with young families, and meet monthly
with a half dozen couples struggling with infertility (my wife and I included).
There's not much good news for us in the message that "it's a gift to be
a mother..." Because of my personal situation, this day is one where I am
even more convinced that it is foolish to throw away 2,000 years of tradition
-- just to celebrate a secular festival that Hallmark has parlayed into a gold
mine for its own commercial profit. It's the season of Easter. And in my church,
we'll be celebrating the resurrection."
"This is not a favorite
day of mine either. My mother died when I was 6 and after my father remarried
I hid the fact that she was my step-mother. It was so unusual in 1955 to be in
a single parent house. Then the flower bit would occur on Mother's Day when the
minister said we should take a white carnation if our mother had died and a red
carnation if our mother were still living and I never knew which flower to take."
As a first step in the attempt
to resolve some of these tensions and apparent contradictions, we might do well
to reflect upon the history and purpose of Mother's Day.
credited with founding Mothers Day is Anna Jarvis. The Methodist Church in Grafton,
WV is called "the Mothers Day Church" because Anna Jarvis was active
there; her home in Grafton is a national landmark. Anna Jarvis was inspired by
HER mother, Anna Reeves Jarvis who organized "Mothers' Work Day Clubs"
in the 1850's in the area. The clubs provided medicines for the poor, inspected
milk for children, provided nursing care for the sick, and shelters for children
When the Civil War broke out she called together four
of her clubs and asked them to make a pledge that friendship and good will would
not be a casualty of the war. In a remarkable display of courage and compassion
the women nursed soldiers from both sides and saved many lives from both sides.
As if that weren't enough, Anna Reeves Jarvis became a genuine peace maker after
the war. The wounds and animosity between families who fought on either side were
deep and harsh. Anna Reeves Jarvis organized "Mothers' Friendship Days"
to bring together families across the Mason Dixon line.
Anna Jarvis was
born in 1850 and was an impressionable child and teenager when her mother was
at the peak of her courageous work. So in 1907, two years after her mother's death
she organized the first "mothers' day" in Grafton, WV that the work
of peacemaking and the war against poverty which her mother waged would not be
Another one of the earliest promoters of the idea of Mother's
Day was Julia Ward Howe.
She is most famous as the author of the Battle
Hymn of the Republic. Julia Ward Howe was a militant abolitionist, and her "Battle
Hymn" poem was inspirational to the cause of the Union Army in the Civil
War, the troops sang "God's truth is marching on," as they headed into
battle, and "As [Christ] died to make men holy, let us die to make men free."
But as the war dragged on and she saw the terrible price of conflict, Julia
Ward Howe turned away from the militant attitude expressed so powerfully in her
famous hymn. When the Civil War was over, she focused her attention on two other
causes: voting rights for women, and world peace. In 1870 war broke out between
France and Prussia. The war in Europe did not make sense to her and she wrote,
"Why do not the mothers of mankind interfere in these matters to prevent
the waste of that human life of which they alone know and bear the cost?"...
"Arise ...Christian women of this day. As men have often forsaken the plough
and the anvil at the summons of war, let women on this day leave the duties of
hearth and home to set out in the work of peace." She began organizing
what she called "Mothers' Peace Day" festivals which were celebrated
annually on June 2nd. Her basic conviction was that though the world may be divided
by war and conflict, there is something in the experience of childbirth binding
the mothers of the world together into one family.
The struggle to gain
voting rights for women, the cause of peace among the nations of the world, the
fight against poverty and the abuse of children, these were the central concerns
of those who established Mother's Day. From the beginning this was a day not simply
to remember one's own mother, but to find in the experience of such active, courageous
mothers as Anna Reeves Jarvis and Julia Ward Howe, lessons that apply to all.
These women were not celebrating the mere fact of bearing children,
but what they had learned for the pain and suffering of childbirth about the essential
meaning of life for us all. And this is where I begin to see the deep connection
between the themes of Mother's Day and the sacred themes of Easter.
he was with his disciples following the resurrection, Jesus also called his family
to a higher cause. In the pain of death and in the suffering of the cross, he
exhibited a love that knows no bounds. God's love extends across the boundaries
that separate families, tribes and nations from each other. In speaking of God's
love he called God, Father. In this image he found a powerful new way of speaking
of God's compassionate love for all.
Today there are those who want
to express the same truth by speaking of God as Mother. These biblical scholars
and theologians have noticed that the Bible contains a host of images and metaphors
that illuminate God's maternal care for all creation. In a powerful and provocative
book, "She Who Is," Elizabeth Johnson who teaches at Fordham University,
weaves these ancient biblical texts together. She points out that within the Bible,
the wisdom of God was often personified as one in whom there dwells a compassion
that is clearly maternal. And so Johnson traces these biblical passages in which
God as Wisdom "cries out in terrible labor to deliver the new creation of
justice (Is 42:14). As Wisdom God suckles the newly born, teaches toddlers to
walk, bends down to feed them, and carries them about, bearing them from birth
even to old age with its gray hairs (Is 46:3-4). As a mother comforts her child,
so too God comforts those who lament (Is 66:13). But unlike some human mothers,
God ... will never forget the children of her womb (Hos 11:3-4; Is 49:15).
the prophet depicts God as furious as a mother bear deprived of her cubs. Angered
by those who threaten her children God says, "I will fall upon them like
a bear robbed of her cubs; I will tear open their breast" (Hos 13:8). This
is not sweet mother of the Hallmark greeting cards, but one moved to awful deeds
to protect what is hers." Writes Johnson, "The religious experience
of divine mercy is made luminous in maternal metaphors. By the power of her mighty
Spirit God gives birth anew to those who receive the word, those who become her
children, born not out of blood nor of the will of the flesh, but born of God
(Jn 1:13). The compassion of God the Mother insures that she loves the weak and
dispossessed as well as the strong and beautiful. We do not have to be wonderful
according to external norms to elicit her love, for this is freely given by virtue
of the maternal relationship itself. God looks upon all with a mother's love that
makes the beloved beautiful. ..."
I would submit that this understanding
of God's nature is exactly the antidote we need in the face of the ills of our
culture and our civilization. The real issue is not the gender of God, but how
the love of God transcends differences of gender, and everything else that divides
us and brings us into conflict. The one thing that can free us from the anxieties,
the pressures of life in this all too hectic world is the knowledge that we are
loved by God. But how does that love which is surely greater than we have know
in any mother or father truly free us?
We live in a world which makes us
feel inadequate and incomplete. Despite the almost total fascination with self
fulfillment and personal success, we are left with the feeling of dissatisfaction
and failure, simply because we can never live up to the ideal of perfection projected
throughout the culture. Despite all our frantic efforts we will never be thin
enough, or rich enough, or young enough, or smart enough, or loving enough. So
that while we pay tribute to the gospel of self-esteem, people experience a lack
of esteem, a feeling of inadequacy. The one thing that can address this situation
and brake this stalemate of the spirit is the sense that we are loved, not despite
our shortcomings, or because of our achievements, but simply because, we are of
immeasurable value to God. This undermines the chief enemy of faith and confidence:
the assumption that our value as persons is to be measured by social norms and
established by the judgments of others.
In the end, there is nothing
more radical than to teach people that they are loved by God, and that this is
a matter of sheer unmerited grace; for this is a source of a deep self-confidence
that will never fail.
In conclusion, I believe it is appropriate to
celebrate Mother's Day in the church of God. For in its origin, inspiration and
intent, this day touches upon the deepest truths of our religious tradition. As
we are reminded on this day, the most powerful gift that any mother can give is
this sense that we are loved unconditionally. This is what each of us needs. Yet
it's what only a few of us have experienced fully even in the most loving mothers.
But what we have seen in part in a mother's love, we see fully in the love of
God. And its that love which supports and inspires us as we struggle to make God's
love and God's justice real not only for ourselves and for our families, but for
all the peoples of the world.
If you want to talk with someone in person, please feel free to call 212-864-5436
The Rev. Charles P. Henderson is a Presbyterian minister and
Executive Director of CrossCurrents.
He is the author of God and Science (John Knox Press, 1986).
A revised and expanded version of the book is appearing here. God and Science (Hypertext Edition,
He is also editor of a new book, featuring articles by world class scientists and theologians, and illustrating the leading views on the relationship between science and religion: Faith, Science and the Future (CrossCurrents Press, 2007).
Charles also tracks the boundry between the virtual and the real at his blog: Next World Design, focusing on the mediation of art, science and spirituality in the metaverse.