Reflection for Mothers Day

Reflection for North Balwyn Uniting Church
Mothers’ Day, 8th of May 2022

In Australia the second Sunday in May is ‘Mothers’ Day’ and many churches celebrate it, although here in Australia it is not part of the Christian calendar. ‘Mothering Sunday,’ mainly celebrated in Wales and the west of England from the seventeenth until the early twentieth century, did have a church connection. It was the Fourth Sunday of Lent, and it was the day on which young people who lived and worked away from their homes would return to their family for a meal and to the church at which they had been baptised for a service.[1] I suspect that this tradition of ‘Mothering Sunday’ was not brought to Australia because there were fewer live-in servants here, and so Australians did not need one special Sunday a year free from work on which they could return home.

The Australian tradition of Mothers’ Day, like so many of our festivals, seems to have come from the United States. In 1858 feminist activist Ann Reeves Jarvis organized a day on which to raise awareness of the poor health conditions in her community, a cause for which she believed mothers would be the best advocates. Jarvis herself gave birth to between eleven and thirteen children but only four of them lived to grow up. In response to the conditions that had killed her own children, Jarvis set up ‘Mothers Day Work Clubs’ that raised money to buy medicine, inspected milk, and visited households to educate mothers and their families about improving sanitation and health.

In 1870 Julia Ward Howe, a Boston poet, pacifist, suffragist, and author of the lyrics to the ‘Battle Hymn of the Republic’ wrote the ‘Mother’s Day Proclamation’ calling for a Mothers’ Day for Peace on which women could work for peace and disarmament after the ongoing trauma of the American Civil War. Howe called on all women to declare that:

We will not have questions decided by irrelevant agencies. Our husbands shall not come to us reeking of 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 women of one country will be too tender to those of another country to allow our sons to be trained to injure theirs.

She suggested that the Mothers’ Day for Peace be celebrated in June.

In 1907, Anna M. Jarvis, the daughter of Ann Reeves Jarvis, began a campaign to establish a national Mother’s Day. On May 10, 1908, the third anniversary of the death of Ann Reeves Jarvis, the minister preached a special Mother’s Day sermon honouring her memory at her church, Andrews Methodist Episcopal Church in Grafton, West Virgina. Anna handed out her mother’s favourite flower, the white carnation. Anna Jarvis wanted to continue her mother’s work and campaigned to have a day set aside to honour all mothers. She succeeded in 1914 when President Woodrow Wilson officially declared the second Sunday in May to be Mother’s Day. Anna Jarvis seems to have loathed the commercialisation of the Day once it had been officially recognised, and fought against it to her death.

In Australia, Mothers’ Day was probably first celebrated in 1920 at the Presbyterian Church in Burwood, NSW. Youth Leader John Stewart wrote to Anna M. Jarvis to get details of the American observance, and the youth group handed out white flowers to all mothers at the morning service. In 1924, Sydney woman Janet Heyden started the tradition of giving cards to the mothers who had lost their sons in the First World War after seeing the lonely, forgotten, aged mothers at Newington State Hospital where she visited a friend.

Today, then, is a day on which mothers can unite to work for public health, to ensure that their children will not die of preventable illnesses; a day on which mothers can work for peace, so that their children will never be forced to fight in wars; a day on which children can honour the work of their mothers for health, peace and justice, by taking up those causes; a day on which we can commit to caring for any elderly women without children. But what I want to do now is celebrate the Mother we all share, whose beloved children we all are.

Language about God is always metaphorical. God is greater than our human minds can encompass, and so when we describe God as Father, King, Rock, Redeemer, Lord of Lords, Wisdom, Ancient of Days, Love, Shepherd, we are not saying that God is these, only that God is in some ways like these, that these are ways of understanding God. So it should not surprise us that one of the ways in which Christians describe God is as our Mother. Among the Bible’s many images of and metaphors for God is the description of God as the One who loves us with a motherly love that is beyond even the love of human mothers. Isaiah asks on God’s behalf: ‘Can a woman forget her nursing child or show no compassion for the child of her womb? Even these may forget, yet I will not forget you.’ (Isaiah 49:15) Given this biblical idea that the strongest and purest human love is the love of a mother for the child in her womb or at her breast, it is no wonder that some Christians describe Jesus as a mother. Jesus made the first of these comparisons himself, when on the road to his death he compared himself to a mother hen who protects her brood with her very body. (Luke 13.34)

Julian of Norwich, of whom I have spoken before and will definitely speak again, whose late fourteenth-century Revelations of Divine Love is the earliest surviving book written by a woman in English, has a detailed theology of Jesus’ motherhood. For her, ‘God is as truly our Mother as he is our Father’[2] and more specifically Jesus is our truest Mother. We are kept safe, restored, and saved within Christ: ‘our Saviour is our true mother in whom we are eternally born and by whom we shall always be enclosed’.[3] Jesus always returns good for evil; offers all the ‘loving service and sweet spontaneous care that belongs to beloved motherhood’;[4] corrects and restores us when we go astray; feeds us with his own body; understands and knows us best, and cares for us with the utmost tenderness.

Painting of a mother cradling a baby to her chest

Picture from the book The Night of His Birth by Katherine Paterson and Lisa Aisato.

The aspect of Julian’s theology of Jesus’ motherhood that I find most comforting is her advice on what we should do when we realise that we have sinned and fallen short, and are ‘so very ashamed that we hardly know where to put ourselves’. Then, Julian says, Jesus ‘wants us to behave like a child; for when it is hurt of frightened it runs to its mother for help as fast as it can; and he wants us to do the same, like a humble child, saying, “My kind Mother, my gracious Mother, my dearest Mother, take pity on me”.’ When we do ‘the sweet gracious hands of our Mother are ready and carefully surround us’.[5]

Because of all this, Julian says of motherhood that: ‘No one could ever perform this service perfectly except Christ alone. …This lovely, loving word Mother is so sweet and so close to the heart of nature that it cannot really be used of anyone but him.’[6] Julian has left an incredible challenge to all human mothers, to be like Jesus. But then Jesus left the same challenge to fathers when he called God ‘Abba’.

One theologian says that ‘To be fed only male images of the divine is to be badly malnourished … We hunger for images of human creativity and love inspired by the capacity of female bodies to give birth and nourish’.[7] I have mentioned here before the potential difficulties in referring to God as Mother. Not all women are mothers; not all mothers are nurturing; not all women find motherhood a joyous experience; not all children have reasons to honour their mothers. Images of God as Father can be problematic for people who were abused by their fathers; referring to God as Mother can create the same difficulty for those abused by their mothers. Describing Jesus as our perfect Mother in the way that Julian of Norwich does can be used to downplay the work of actual human mothers, who in comparison are never going to be as loving and giving. Describing God as Mother, like Mothers’ Day itself, can essentialise motherhood as the most perfect way of being a woman, leaving women who do not bear children as somehow incomplete. Describing Jesus as Mother to indicate the depths of his love, generosity, and gentleness, while God the Father is associated with discipline, decision, and authority, might lead us to believe that only men can be strong and only women can be tender. All language about God is metaphorical and we need to remember the limits of metaphors.

Despite this, using maternal images for God enriches our understanding of the God who is beyond every image, the God who is beyond time and place and age and gender and nationality and all the attributes that we humans think are so important. We cannot comprehend God; God is always beyond us. All we can do is approach the transcendent One in all the ways that we can. One of these ways is by comparing the God who is so much higher than our understanding to a loving mother and to a hen gathering her chicks under her wings. On this day when some of us are mourning the loving mothers we once had who have died, others are regretting the mothers who were unable to love us as they should, and yet others are grieving their own inability to become parents, it may comfort us to remember that in Jesus we have a Mother who is always with us and who will always love us. So on this Mothers’ Day let us celebrate and give thanks for the God who is our Mother as well as our Father. Amen.

[1] Steve Roud, The English Year (London: Penguin Books, 2006), pp. 105-109.

[2] Mother Julian of Norwich, Revelations of Divine Love (London: Hodder and Stoughton, 1987), p. 123.

[3] Julian of Norwich, ‘Extracts from Revelations of Divine Love (Long Text)’ in Medieval Writings on Female Spirituality (Harmondsworth: Penguin Books, 2002), p. 201.

[4] Revelations of Divine Love, p. 123.

[5] ‘Extracts’, pp. 204-5.

[6] Revelations of Divine Love, pp. 124-5.

[7] Christine Downing, quoted in Mary Grey, Introducing Feminist Images of God (Cleveland: The Pilgrim Press, 2001), p. 31.

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