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No Greater Love
A Meditation for Mother's Day

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.

These 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".

"No, 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.

The woman 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 with tuberculosis.

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 forgotten.

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.

While 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).

Hosea 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.

The Date and Meaning of Mother's Day

Prayers, Poetry, and Famous Quotations about Mother's Day

Books About Mother's Day

Charles Henderson

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The Rev. Charles P. Henderson is a Presbyterian minister and author of Faith, Science and the Future, published in 1994 by CrossCurrents Press. He is also the author of God and Science (John Knox / Westminster, 1986) which he is now rewriting to incorporate more recent developments in the conversation taking place between scientists and theologians. He has also written widely for such publications as The New York Times, The Nation, Commonweal, The Christian Century and others.

For further information about Charles Henderson.