Mothers Day is one of the most commercially successful holidays of the year. Americans spend billions of dollars on flowers, greeting cards, meals out, and other ways to express affection for mothers. It set the standard for all of the so-called “Hallmark Holidays” designed to get people to buy gifts and greeting cards, but Mothers Day is something more than a marketing tool. I suspect that most churches and synagogues (and increasingly mosques as well) do something special on the second Sunday in May even though Mother’s Day is not part of any religion’s official liturgical calendar.
In fact, it is one of the great festivals of American Civil Religion. Civil Religion is a term coined by sociologists to describe the way a secular government creates a shared sense of identity without a state church to sanctify the political and social order. People of almost any faith or no faith can participate in the sacred festivals and rituals of Civil Religion. There are the rituals of patriotism like standing for the national anthem, flying the flag, and making pilgrimages to the Lincoln memorial. And we have holidays (rather than holy days) to reaffirm the key doctrines of civil religion, such as respect for government (President’s Day), expressing gratitude (Thanksgiving), and honoring our soldiers (Veteran’s Day). Over time, these things gain an aura of timeless sanctity and are part of our schools, in youth organizations, in the media, churches and synagogues, and even through sporting events.
One of the most popular of these observances is Mothers Day, which was officially proclaimed a national observance by Congress in 1914. It is ironic that Mothers Day was added to the national calendar in the same year that World War I broke out because Mothers Day actually began as part of the peace movement. Shortly after the end of the Civil War, Ann Jarvis tried to establish a Mother’s Friendship Day that would reunite families that had been divided by the recent conflict. She hoped that women could begin to heal the wounds caused by men. Julia Ward Howe, who had rallied troops with her sanguine Battle Hymn of the Republic joined Jarvis in the anti-war movement in 1872. Grieving mothers and widows, they believed, understood that the pain of war continues long after victory is declared. Despite the efforts of Jarvis, Howe, and others it was decades before Mothers Day was a reality. Ann Jarvis’ daughter, Anna Marie, took up the cause after her mother’s death in May 1905. Her Methodist Episcopal Church in Grafton, West Virginia had a special observance of Mothers Day in 1907, but it was the Philadelphia merchant John Wanamaker who brought the observance to national attention in 1908 by holding ceremonies in his store. Before long West Virginia and other states adopted the observance, and Jarvis campaigned to make it a national holiday. Jarvis herself protested at the way Mothers Day was commercialized because she believed it was in danger of losing its deeper meaning.
I have found that Mothers Day is a very big affair in some churches, especially African American congregations, but liturgical churches often find Mothers Day awkward since it is not part of the Christian liturgical calendar. There is also the fact that God is the only proper focus of worship. There are dangers when we use worship to “honor” any human other than God. Some churches do honor the saints, of course, but not all mothers are saints by any means. For many people Mothers Day is a time of sadness and grief rather than joy and warmth.
Perhaps if we reclaimed some of the original intention of Mothers Day, we could find a way to observe the second Sunday in May as a liturgical feast rather than simply as a form of Civil Religion that has encroached on worship. What if we used the day not only to honor our own mothers (who may indeed be saints, like mine was), but to lift up all of those mothers around the world who are grieving because of war, violence, AIDS, and poverty? What if Mothers Day were a time to lift up in prayer those mothers who are campaigning to rid God’s good earth of land mines and other obscene weapons of terror and death? What if Mothers Day were a day to pray for women who seek to heal the wounds caused by men?
What if all churches took a cue from Count Zinzendorf in the 18th century and set aside Mothers Day to offer our prayers to God the Holy Spirit who comforts us “as a mother comforts her children”? What if we took just one Sunday out of the fifty-two allotted and preached about God as a mother hen longing to gather her children? What if churches put John 3:16 in its proper context and preached about the Holy Spirit as the one who rebirths us as true children of God? What if Protestants took one Sunday to preach about Mary, the mother of Jesus, or Ruth in the Old Testament as living images of God? Why not include Mothers Day in our liturgical calendars as a festival reconciliation and divine forgiveness? We all should have two mothers: the one who bore us in her body and God: “if the Spirit of him who raised Jesus from the dead is living in you, he who raised Christ from the dead will also give life to your mortal bodies because of his Spirit who lives in you.” (Romans 8:11)