Common preaching school wisdom is that we should avoid doing Mother’s Day sermons, even services, at all costs. While for many it is rightly a time of tribute and celebration, it might bring up painful feelings for those among us who have had fertility problems, or who have lost babies or children, either through death or custody battles, or who are going through hard times with our own sons and daughters.
And despite all the commercials telling us not to forget Mom, urging us to give Mom all she deserves, and finally, reminding us that it is our last chance to find the perfect gift for Mom, truth is, that for some of us children, young or older, it is impossible or hurtful to remember Mom.
Mom may not be, or if she has died, may not have been deserving of the adulation it is assumed we are to heap on her this day.
That’s the truth, unpopular as that might be.
Hallmark certainly wouldn’t like this perspective, nor the florists, nor the thousands of other businesses that thrive on, indeed count on, Mother’s Day. Like Christmas and Easter and many other observances, it has become an incredible pressure on families and enormously profitable for merchants.
The most popular day of the year to dine out and the busiest day for telephone lines.
And despite what I see as the shame and sham of turning every holiday and holy day into a shopping blow-out, I admit that I am hooked into it enough to look forward to, even expect, those gifts from my own three children. The bath oil, the little bottles of cologne, the cards gathering dust on the mantle.
Assuming that’s what the day is about, and assuming my kids are feeling like paying tribute to me as if I were a royal figure.
So it was with some sort of comic relief that the first Mother’s Day gift I received this year was from my oldest son who is living in Dallas, Texas. He sent me one of those free e-mail cards, and the one he sent was not actually a Mother’s Day card, but instead, a card commemorating national food allergies week. He wrote that he wanted to remind me to avoid almonds and shrimp — the two foods that make me deathly ill. I want you around for a while, he said. Love, Josh.
Well that’s good, I thought. No big hoopla, no larger-than-life expectations, no platitudes. Just live, he said.
Live, so we can continue to be in adult relationship with each other, with its peaks and valleys. Just live, so I can do what I can — no more and no less — to make things right between us when things get a little or a lot tense, even ugly.
And do what I can — no more or no less — to make things right in the world when things get a little or a lot tense, even ugly.
As a mother, as any and all who have known what it is like to fiercely love and nurture another human being, are called to do. At least part of the time.
Which was the original intention of our American Mother’s Day. The earliest tributes to mothers date back to the annual spring festival the Greeks dedicated to Rhea, the mother of many Deities, and to the offerings ancient Romans made to their Great Mother of Gods, Cybele. Christians celebrated this festival on the fourth Sunday in Lent in honor of Mary, mother of Jesus. In England, this holiday was eventually expanded to include all mothers and was called Mothering Sunday.
In the United States, however, Mother’s Day had its beginnings not in adoration but in activism. It started more than 150 years ago when Anna Jarvis, an Appalachian homemaker, organized a day to raise awareness of poor health conditions in her community, a cause she felt would be best led by mothers.
She called it “Mother’s Work Day,” when the women of her hometown in West Virginia would work on improving the poor community’s sanitation and other direct service projects.
Fifteen years later, Julia Ward Howe, a Unitarian poet, pacifist, suffragette, and author of the lyrics to the Battle Hymn of the Republic — horrified by the bloodshed and carnage of the Franco-Prussian War — organized a day encouraging mothers to rally for peace. She believed that mothers above all others bore the loss of human life and would be the most moved to act to prevent war.
Writer Hilary Selden Illick has noted there is little, if any, resemblance now between the Mother’s Day conceived of by these two women and the Mother’s Day we observe today.
As Hilary wrote after she came across an advertisement for some kind of high-end breakfast-in-bed kit with a caption that said “Celebrating our nation’s true heroes,” or something along those lines, she felt a little, if not a lot, hostile. It was another attempt, she felt, to turn Mother’s Day into the “Keep ‘Em in Bed Another Year” holiday, sort of like: give Mom a Valium, some breakfast in bed, and keep her down.
Quite, quite opposite of the original Mother’s Day, which was a day to keep Mom up — up and at ’em, marching in the streets.
In 1872, Howe’s vision of a Mother’s Peace Day was ONLY briefly lived out in cities and towns across the country, as well as in Edinburgh, London, Geneva, and Constantinople. The popularity of this Mother’s Day for Peace waned over time and the event finally disappeared in the years preceding World War I.
In 1905, Anna Jarvis’ daughter, also named Anna, began a campaign to memorialize her mother’s social justice work and her vision of mothers working together to promote health and safety by commemorating a national mother’s day. She began lobbying prominent businessmen and politicians, including Presidents Taft and Roosevelt. In 1914, her efforts paid off when President Woodrow Wilson signed a federal bill recognizing Mother’s Day as a national holiday.
However, as the day devolved into a day where, instead of petitions and letters to the editors were circulated, this activity was diminished and then replaced by increasing gift-giving, Anna Jarvis became enraged. She believed that the day’s original sentiment, its original purpose, was being sacrificed at the expense of greed and profit. In fact, by 1923 she was so distressed that she filed a lawsuit to stop a Mother’s Day festival. By the time she died in l948, Jarvis is said to have confessed that she regretted ever helping to start the Mother’s Day tradition.
She had railed without success against what had happened to Mother’s Day, both how it had become so commercialized and how it had lost its point. It had begun as a reaction against injustice and violence, a way to use the values represented by motherhood for the greatest good.
Not a private celebration or a massive cultural take-over glorifying and idealizing motherhood in a way that few, if any, mothers can ever match, let alone sustain.
It was meant, rather, to move mothers and non-mothers alike to transcend their individual family lives and work to make a better society, even a better world.
Contemporary events like last year’s Million Mom March were the sorts of days that the founding mothers had in mind: focused on stopping the senseless gun violence that too often marks American life. A large-scale, even massive showing of caring, even rage against so much bloodshed.
As a mother myself, I know this is what I am called to do. Yet in the face of so many injustices, skirmishes, and wars, it is often difficult for me to find that one place for me to put my energies on this Mother’s Day or any other day.
The weatherman on a local TV news broadcast earlier in the week talked about pop-up thunderstorms, coming out of nowhere, suddenly, here and there, throughout the evening. Impossible to predict, with little or no warning. That’s the way it feels to me sometimes, this world I live in and have been raising children in for the past almost 30 consecutive years, raging causes and dark situations popping up everywhere: the papers and the airwaves crying out to me with their sad and horrifying stories: Air, land, and water sentenced to poisoning by federal edicts. Children stoned to death in Israel, children beaten to death or nearly to death by their own relatives here. It seems overwhelming, and yet, and yet what do we owe the Samuels of our own congregation and in the wider circles outside this community?
I would ask you to think about what calls to you as mothers, nurturers, female and male in the largest sense of the word. What would you write about, talk about, march about? Spend one day a week or a month or a year in the service of?
I believe that Julia Ward Howe and Anna Jarvis would have urged us, mothers all, to do three things on this National Mother’s Day:
- First, to unplug this holiday the way we have talked about unplugging our Christmas frenzy, replacing, as much as possible, material gifts with gifts of time and presence.
- Second, to gift ourselves this day with whatever spiritual practices nurture and sustain us: walking, listening to music, loving each other, meditating, contemplating, or praying how each of us chooses.
- And then third, to recommit ourselves to supporting each other in work that moves energy out in ever increasing circles of concern in the small ways that become the powerful ways that may, indeed, lead to the kind of healing and peace we have come to meditate on in the silence in our times together.
May we do this day and all of our days that which fulfills our promise to Samuel, whom we welcomed into our community this morning: may he and all children know care and support, know fellowship and education, know the freedom to follow their own strengths and purposes, and may they always, always feel our love.
May it be so.