Today in much of the United States, we celebrate the Ascension of Jesus – the climax of the Easter mysteries leading to the
Feast of Pentecost, next Sunday. It is a splendid feast, the awareness of the cosmic dimension of Jesus’ victory over sin and death, the proclamation of his presence to us throughout space and time and into the vaults of eternity.
As calendars go, this is also Mother’s Day in the United States. I preached on this festival a few years ago and don’t think I would add anything to what I said then:
God’s love is famously likened in Scripture to that of a mother concerned for her children. One of the most endearing passages comes from the Book of Isaiah, “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] Jesus also compared himself to a mother hen who seeks to gather her chicks under her wings to protect them. [Matthew 23:37]
Motherhood is powerful. One of my students that year was from Argentina. She spoke eloquently in class about her own mother and the hundreds of Las Madres, the mothers and grandmothers of the disappeared — their husbands, fathers, and especially the sons and even daughters who had been abducted and killed or hidden away in prisons by the military dictatorship in the 1970s and 80s. Every Thursday, the madres would don white scarves and gather in silent protest in the Plaza de Mayo of Buenos Aires holding placards with the names and photos of hundreds of their children. They were scorned, attacked, and three of the founders were themselves abducted and killed. One was a French nun, whose death triggered international outrage. But the mothers were persistent. Opposition to the regime steadily grew and eventually it fell. Las Madres are remembered as national heroines.
Similar stories can be told of other mothers in other lands who were not afraid to lay down their lives for their children… and not only in social conflict. You may remember the name of Stephanie Decker of Henrysville, Indiana, who shielded her two children during a tornado and lost parts of both her legs… and considered herself blessed. It is not the exception. It is the rule.
We think of gravity, nuclear energy, cosmic radiation and solar eruptions as the most powerful forces in the universe, but I have another theory. Some years back I read of an experiment with rats, who despite their bad reputation are very good family animals and resemble human beings in many respects. It explains why they are used in so many experiments. The psychologists set up this experiment to test the strength of rat motivation. They put food at one end of a runway and a rat at the other end. Between them was an electrical grid which delivered a nasty shock to the rats’ tender feet. The scientists wanted to how much pain the rats would endure to get food, water, and even to an attractive rat of the opposite gender. Eventually the rats all gave up when the pain was just too much to endure. Except for one test. When the scientists put a mother rat’s pups at the end of the runway and delivered shocks to her feet as she scampered to get to them, no amount of pain would prevent her from crossing that grid. Rat moms would die trying to get to their pups.
There are so many examples from the animal world alone that it would take a long time to list even the more interesting cases – elephants, wolves, even alligators make swell moms. So do humans. The bottom line is this: the most powerful force in the universe is a mother’s love.
It’s a steadying idea, a wonderful source of hope on this Mothers’ Day for us and throughout the world. We only have to look at the news to see what a mess human beings can make of things. At some point today, we should give a thought to the mothers in Iraq, Palestine, Pakistan, and Syria who stand every day outside the prisons where sons and daughters, husbands, and fathers languish for months without contact with their loved ones or access to legal counsel or international agencies. And we should think of the mothers of our own military personnel who wait daily, praying that their children and husbands and friends will be safe, that they will escape the physical and spiritual horrors of war. War is what we do. Peace is what God does. And what mothers do.
Mothers tend to be peace-makers. It’s worth mentioning that the first efforts to start Mothers’ Day in the United States was by several women’s peace groups during the Civil War. Then in 1868, Ann Jarvis founded a committee to establish a “Mother’s Friendship Day” in order “to reunite families that had been divided during the Civil War.” She planned to expand it into an annual memorial for mothers, but in 1905 she died before finishing her work. Success finally came through the efforts of her daughter Anna who with Julia Ward Howe and others pushed for an annual anti-war observance.
With the assistance of Philadelphia merchant John Wanamaker, Anna prevailed and the first “official” service was held on May 10, 1908, the year my mother was born. Mother’s Day was first officially celebrated in West Virginia in 1910, and soon the rest of states followed suit. And on May 8, 1914, Congress passed a law designating the second Sunday in May as Mother’s Day. The next day President Woodrow Wilson issued a proclamation declaring the first national Mother’s Day as a day for American citizens to show the flag in honor of those mothers whose sons had died in war.
The hidden mystery of Mother’s Day is, of course, love, not war. In the late fourteenth century, one of the great works of Christian mysticism was written by a woman whose name has escaped discovery right up to the present. She is called simply Julian of Norwich for the Church of St. Julian in Norwich where she lived as a hermit. Her book bears the title ‘Revelations of Divine Love,’ because that is her message. Julian lived during one of the most harrowing periods of European history — the Black Death had ravaged Europe for almost fifty years and very nearly killed her. The Hundred Years War with France had exhausted both countries. The Church itself was divided between three rival popes, each claiming to be the true successor of St. Peter. Even the weather had turned bad as a great chill known as The Little Ice Age fell over the northern hemisphere. Crops failed, famine spread, poverty increased, and civil unrest erupted everywhere. The times were truly apocalyptic.
But Julian wrote about love. Bewildered by sin and evil, and apprehensive about the seeming collapse of civil society and trials within the church, she complained to God, and she was given this answer, one that we could do well to listen to at this time in our own history and especially on this Mother’s Day. After all, Julian herself wrote persuasively that “mother” was a title most suited to the loving, care-giving nature of God and also of Jesus, whom she calls “Our true mother.”
“I often desired to understand what our Lord’s meaning was. And fifteen years after, and more, I was answered in spiritual understanding, saying thus: Would you learn your Lord’s meaning in this thing? Learn it well: Love was His meaning. Who showed it to you? Love. What did He show you? Love. Why did He show it? For Love. Hold yourself in that and you will understand and know more of the same. But you shall never understand nor learn in that anything different forever…” [Chapter 86]
Happy Day, Mothers!