Mother’s Day became In the United States an official holiday in 1915. Its establishment was due largely to the perseverance and love of one daughter, Anna Jarvis. Anna’s mother was, as the old saying goes, ‘the woman behind the man.’ Her husband was a Presbyterian minister, and her mother was the strength in the family, providing the kind of support growing children need. As a girl, Anna had helped her mother take care of her garden, mostly filled with white carnations, her mother’s favorite flower. When Mrs. Jarvis died on May 5, 1905, Anna was determined to honor her. She asked the minister at her church in West Virginia to give a sermon in her mother’s memory. On the same Sunday in Philadelphia, the minister of their former church honored Mrs. Jarvis and all mothers with a special Mother’s Day service. Anna Jarvis and her supporters began writing to congressmen, asking them to set aside a day to honor mothers. In 1910, the governor of West Virginia proclaimed the second Sunday in May as Mother’s Day and a year later every state celebrated it.
In 1914 President Woodrow Wilson made Mother’s Day an official national holiday beginning on the 2nd Sunday of May, 1915.
It was not invented by Hallmark! According to the National Restaurant Association, Mother’s Day is now the most popular day of the year to dine out at a restaurant in the United States.
Some credit Unitarian Julia Ward Howe with founding Mother’s Day, based on her anti-war ‘proclamation’ in 1870 when she called on mothers to ‘unite,’ saying, “We will not have our husbands come to us, reeking with carnage, for caresses and applause. Our sons shall not be taken from us to unlearn all that we have been able to teach them of charity, mercy and patience. We, the women of one country, will be too tender of those of another country to allow our sons to be trained to injure theirs.”
In addition to the anti-war sentiments and the Hallmark sentimentalities, Mother’s Day is deeply rooted in the human psyche; it’s no wonder that the motherhood theme emerges in the mythologies of every culture.
In Egypt, for example, Isis was worshipped as the Great Mother Goddess of the Universe – the goddess Isis was worshiped not only in Egypt, but in ancient Greece and Rome and other civilizations. The myth of Isis says that she brought life and immortality to the earth; she also brought the arts, language, medicine and architecture.
Isis embodied the virtues of the ideal wife and mother. The story says that she was the wife of Osiris – one of the gods whose body was dismembered and spread over the whole earth, requiring Isis to search for every part and put his body back together. He was dismembered and she ‘re-membered’ him. Through her devotion and magical healing, she was able to bring Osiris back to life. Osiris died and was resurrected every year. The death and resurrection of Osiris personified the self-renewing vitality and fertility of the earth – the annual seasonal cycles. .
Isis gave birth to Horus, the god of the sun. This predates the later Christian story of the death and resurrection of the Christ, the son God. Isis, like Mary, is said to be the mother of god.
Isis is often depicted with wings in a gesture of awakening and receptivity, or sitting with Horus in her lap, showing her mothering qualities.
The worship of Isis spread from Egypt, adopted by the Greek and Roman Empires.
Motherhood was held in high esteem by the ancient Egyptians, who believed that mothers are gift from the gods and it is in mothers where the gods kept the secrets of life.
A judge in an ancient Egyptian court of law might ask if the defendant had been good to his mother and whether or not he satisfied his mother’s heart.
Christian mythology includes the story of Mary, who is said to be the mother of God the Son. On November 1, 1950, Pope Pius XII, declared that Mary, “The Immaculate Mother of God, the ever-Virgin Mary, having completed the course of her earthly life, was assumed body and soul into heavenly glory.” He made this doctrine necessary for salvation.
Mariology is the study of the Virgin Mary and her role in the Incarnation. It’s a fascinating story that begins in the first chapter of Luke when Mary is visited by the angel Gabriel, who announces to her that she is with child. She protests, insisting that it can’t be so, since she’s never been with a man.
Luke 1: 26 “In the sixth month the angel Gabriel was sent from God to a city of Galilee named Nazareth, to a virgin betrothed to a man whose name was Joseph, of the house of David; and the virgin’s name was Mary. And he came to her and said, “Hail, O favored one, the Lord is with you!” But she was greatly troubled at the saying, and considered in her mind what sort of greeting this might be. And the angel said to her, “Do not be afraid, Mary, for you have found favor with God. And behold, you will conceive in your womb and bear a son, and you shall call his name Jesus. He will be great, and will be called the Son of the Most High; and the Lord God will give to him the throne of his father David, and he will reign over the house of Jacob for ever; and of his kingdom there will be no end.” And Mary said to the angel, “How shall this be, since I have no husband?” And the angel said to her, “The Holy Spirit will come upon you, and the power of the Most High will overshadow you; therefore the child to be born will be called holy, the Son of God.”
Like all good myths, this is a Truth story; it contains the seeds of universal Truth, experienced (on some spiritual level) by every woman who learns she is pregnant.
It may be a pleasant surprise, and the response is ‘thanks be to God.’ It may be a disaster and the response is, ‘Oh, God no, what am I going to do?!’
For my wife, Anita, and for me, the angel Gabriel’s announcement came just in the nick of time – it was the fall of 1962; we had been married for a little more than two years, I had recently graduated from college, just starting my first teaching job, and we bought a house in the same town where I was teaching. Then I got my draft notice, had the induction physical and other tests, and was headed into the army.
For four years I had a student deferment, and, at this time, I had a deferment for teaching and, I think, for being married.
Waiting for the next step in this process I went into the draft board and spoke with a kindly woman and asked if there were other deferments. She said, “If your wife had a baby.” I said, “What if she was pregnant?” She smiled and said, “That would do it!”
The race was on – and in less than two months the second pregnancy test was positive – the angel arrived and our little miracle was delivered on August 7, 1963.
The next chapter in the story of Mary and her miracle child is acted out in this sanctuary every year on December 24 – our Christmas pageant.
You know the story of Mary and her new husband traveling to their home for the census when Mary delivered her child in a stable, because there was no room for them in the inn – a humble birth, as every birth is. Earthy! The animals stood by and the baby was laid in the hay of a feeding trough, a manger.
Then there’s the story of Mary and her husband Joseph fleeing the country to protect their newborn son, since the evil Herod was determined to prevent the prediction that this child would become King of Israel.
Parenting is a huge responsibility, beginning with carrying the pregnancy, delivering the baby, and then nurturing and protecting the child.
How well I remember that day, the 7th of August, 1963, when pregnancy ended and my daughter’s life-on-her-own began. The sense of responsibility for her care was far and above the most powerful, and most meaningful thing I’ve ever experienced. On the way home from the hospital following the birth of my daughter, Susan, I stopped at a telephone booth to call my mother to tell her the news. “Is it a boy or a girl,” she asked, quite naturally. I paused and had to think about it, having told her that ‘Anita and the baby are fine.’ The doctor had told me ‘it’s a girl,’ but it didn’t register until my mother asked…and then it registered to me, in a very powerful way, that now, and from now on, I have a big responsibility…a delicious responsibility!
I’d been preparing to be a father, of course. Earlier that summer I had converted the small porch on our little house into a nursery and the great project of parenting began, just as depicted in the story of a birth in a stable and a flight to safety.
The next chapter in the story of Mary and her son happens during the family’s pilgrimage to the Temple to celebrate Passover.
This is where the idea of the need for ‘two hands’ comes in: the first hand is to hold on, the second is to let go; you never stop holding on, and the letting go is always and forever a challenge.
“When Joseph and Mary had done everything required by the Law of the Lord, they returned to Galilee to their own town of Nazareth. And the child grew and became strong; he was filled with wisdom, and the grace of God was upon him.
Every year his parents went to Jerusalem for the Feast of the Passover. When he was twelve years old, they went up to the Feast, according to the custom. After the Feast was over, while his parents were returning home, the boy Jesus stayed behind in Jerusalem, but they were unaware of it. ] Thinking he was in their company, they traveled on for a day. Then they began looking for him among their relatives and friends. [When they did not find him, they went back to Jerusalem to look for him. After three days they found him in the temple courts, sitting among the teachers, listening to them and asking them questions. Everyone who heard him was amazed at his understanding and his answers. When his parents saw him, they were astonished. His mother said to him, “Son, why have you treated us like this? Your father and I have been anxiously searching for you.”
“Why were you searching for me?” he asked. “Didn’t you know I had to be in my Father’s house?” But they did not understand what he was saying to them.
Then he went down to Nazareth with them and was obedient to them. But his mother treasured all these things in her heart. And Jesus grew in wisdom and stature, and in favor with God and men.”
Holding on with one hand and letting go with the other; or being pushed away. When a child does this kind of distancing it is a mother’s big challenge – how to find the balance between nurturing a child’s growth and arresting the child’s development. It isn’t easy! “Hello, Gabriel, what do I do now?”
In the story, Jesus lets his mother know he needs a little space. Mothers learn to listen to that message – like the old advertisement (I forget the product): “Mother, please, I’d rather do it myself!”
We ceremonialize this process with our Coming of Age program, helping parents to learn how to use the second of those two parenting hands!
Our Jewish friends have a Bar mitzvah or Bat mitzvah; a ceremony to acknowledge to transition into adulthood – a transition in our modern culture that takes ten or twenty years, through college, graduate school and possibly coming back home for awhile.
The essence of parenting is the process of holding on and letting go.
Returning to the story of Mary and her son, there’s a powerful scene where Jesus is teaching his disciples and someone tells him that his mother and his brothers are outside looking for him and he says, ‘who is my mother, who are my brothers?’
“While Jesus talked to the people, behold, his mother and his brothers stood without, desiring to speak with him. Then one said unto him, Behold, your mother and your brothers are outside, wanting to speak with you. But he answered and said unto him that told him, Who is my mother and who are my brothers? And he stretched forth his hand toward his disciples, and said, Behold my mother and my brethren! For whosoever shall do the will of my Father which is in heaven, the same is my brother, and sister, and mother.” (Matthew 12:46-50)
Once again Mary is reminded of her need for two hands – but it wasn’t her son’s finest hour.
There’s nothing new under the sun: we think parent’s need for their children’s acceptance and approval is a sign of our modern times, but so it has always been.
“Love is the active concern for the life and the growth of that which we love,” says Erich Fromm.
The story of Mary and her son Jesus parallels the story of every mother’s ongoing relationship with a growing child, a young adult and an independent son or daughter.
The Biblical account of Jesus’ rejection or even his rebuke of his mother doesn’t say anything about Mary’s emotional response, but we know…don’t we. We know what goes on ‘down there, where the spirit meets the bone.’
Then there’s the story of the angry adult Jesus going into the Temple and tipping over the tables of the money changers and those who sold pigeons to be killed as a blood sacrifice to God. I find myself musing on the earlier story of the twelve year old who stayed behind to speak with the elders. We might imagine that this was one of the things that he talked about – I’m speculating, making it up.
The 12-year old Jesus was saying to them, “Why are you allowing the Temple to be corrupted by the money changers and pigeon sellers?” And he thought to himself, “Someday I’m going to come back here and tip over these tables – this is supposed to be a house of prayer and they are turning it into a den of thieves.”
Maybe he didn’t plan it, maybe it was a spontaneous response to his realization of what was happening in the Temple – his response to the inevitable corruption of religion in institutions.
So he did it, and he was arrested. Imagine what Mary thought, then! The letting go hand and the holding on hand get all mixed up! Mary had to witness the trial and the suffering of her son – every mother’s fear.
I will mention here, ever so briefly and cautiously, the moment I witnessed my six-year old daughter being hit by a car…hearing the screech of tires on the street at Ferry Beach in Maine where I was serving as camp director. She remembers looking both ways – but don’t tell your children to ‘look both ways.’ She looked to the right and no car was coming, she looked to the left and waited for a car to pass, then she darted across, but in the meantime another car came on her right.
As I ran toward her a voice broke from my unconscious mind and spoke to me as clearly and distinctly as if it came over a loud speaker, and it said, “This is what you’ve been afraid of,” and I protested, saying it is not…telling that voice that I didn’t think about such a thing. The confrontation lasted a couple of seconds
Years later I discovered a very telling line in the book of Job. It occurs after Job has lost so much – the loss of his wealth, the loss of his children and finally his loss of health. At first he’s patient, saying, “The Lord gives the Lord takes away, blessed be the name of the Lord.” But his patience finally runs out and he cries, “What I feared has come upon me!” Every mother, every parent, lives with these basic fears from day one, and the fears never leave, they just sink down ‘where the spirit meets the bone.’
The story of Mary includes her son’s death, so poignantly captured 500 years ago by Michelangelo in the pieta—the pity which is aroused by witnessing the sorrow of another.
Mary is ‘every mother,’ illustrating every age and stage from the angel Gabriel’s announcement, through the birth and a mother’s need to nurture and protect her child, then the gradual process of letting go, and finally holding her dead son’s broken body with two hands, again, on her lap, again.
Then there’s Mary’s final scene at the tomb on Easter morning. Is the idea of the tomb being empty symbolic, somehow, of a mother’s need to let go in the ultimate sense? What does the empty tomb represent?
The pulpit clock says that my time is up, so the sermon ends, incomplete. There will be time to continue, later, but for now, you can answer the questions that remain. Final words come from E. B. White in a poem he titled Natural History:
The spider, dropping down from twig,
Unfolds a plan of her devising,
A thin premeditated rig
To use in rising.
And all that journey down through space,
In cool descent and loyal hearted,
She spins a ladder to the place
From where she started.
Thus I, gone forth as spiders do
In spider’s web a truth discerning,
Attach one silken thread to you
For my returning.