In May of 2002, I wandered through the aisles of a Target. I probably needed laundry detergent, but instead was lingering over purses and sunglasses, always a temptation. As I continued walking through the store, I passed by the greeting card display, and suddenly felt my knees buckle. The mauve Mother’s Day display had quite literally knocked the breath out of me—two long years after my mother’s death. Grief is like that—it’s twisty and tricky. Grief opens trapdoors when you least expect them, even in sanctuaries like Target. Sometimes we Christians unwittingly open those trapdoors in our literal sanctuaries, right in front of our unsuspecting parishioners.
Secular holidays, like Mother’s Day and Father’s Day, have snuck into our liturgical life together. Women awkwardly stand up in the pews while children hand out carnations, or men are fed overcooked pancakes by their teenage kids in parish halls.
At their best, these traditions give an opportunity for us to acknowledge and thank the loving and laborious work of parents. At their worst, they reinforce the message that the “normal” state for a Christian is to be a married parent, a reality that is neither biblical or a reflection of real life. They can also be grief trapdoors, whether that grief is from not being able to bear children, the death of a child, the loss of a parent, or the reality of having had an abusive parent.
So, what can we do?
Eliminating traditions that single out individual mothers or fathers is a great start. When we ask “all the mothers” to stand up, any woman facing infertility feels a giant arrow pointed right to her. Instead of handing out a carnation, include an acknowledgement of Mother’s Day in the prayers of the people. The book Women’s Uncommon Prayers has an excellent prayer written by the Reverend Leslie Nipps:
On this Mother’s Day, we give thanks to God for the divine gift of motherhood in all its diverse forms. Let us pray for all the mothers among us today; for our own mothers, those living and those who have passed away; for the mothers that loved us and those who feel short of loving us fully; for all who hope to be mothers someday and for those whose hope to have children has been frustrated; for all mothers who have lost children; for all women and men who have mothered others in any way—those who have been our substitute mothers and we who have done so for those in need; and for the earth that bore us and provides us with our sustenance. We pray this all in the name of God, our great and loving Mother. Amen. (p. 364)
Keeping the focus of the church service on the mothering qualities of God is another way to uplift maternal values, but keep the focus off individual women. Mark (23:37) and Luke (13:34) both record an instance of Jesus comparing himself to a mother hen who longs to protect her children. Exploring feminine images and qualities of God can be a powerful way for people to re-imagine their relationship with God and with their own feminine qualities. If you are planning worship in an Episcopal Church setting, the use of the Eucharistic prayers in Enriching our Worship 1, which are written with less masculine language than the Book of Common Prayer Eucharistic Prayers, could underscore these themes. Hymns that celebrate the breadth of women in the Bible could further add to this kind of service. The Episcopal hymnal Wonder, Love, and Praisehas some good resources, as does Voices Found: Women in the Church’s Song,published by Church Publishing.
Finally, if one chooses to keep to the liturgical calendar in church, which does not recognize Mother’s Day, but would like to do something during the education hour, consider some kind of outreach project. The original mother, Ann Jarvis, in whose honor Anna Jarvis founded Mother’s Day in 1908, was a peace activist during the Civil War. Consider having a canned food drive, letter writing campaign, or other outreach event to help mothers and children beyond your parish. This kind of activity lines up nicely with the origin of Mother’s Day, while also helping your parish live out the Great Commandment.
There are many ways to acknowledge Mother’s Day that get beneath the saccharine commercial version of the holiday and honor God and our traditions. If you’re reading this before Mother’s Day, and your mother is living, perhaps you can take a moment now to honor your mother the way Anna Jarvis wished, and write your mother a handwritten letter Now to find a stamp…..
[Photo credit: Public Domain via Wikimedia Commons]
What are your grief trapdoors at church?
How do you think secular holidays like Mother’s Day should be observed by churches?
“Asking all the mothers to stand up?”
When I first heard about this, and sermons focused on mothers, etc., my immediate reaction was, there are churches that actually DO this sort of thing? I can’t think of a more unnecessary walk through a potential minefield.
Apparently I was ignorant. I’ve since learned that there are scores of women who stay home from church on Mother’s Day because they struggle with all the situations you’ve mentioned. It pains me to know that they’ve weighed the cost of going, and decided staying home was preferable.
My church has always observed the day by praying for mothers during the Prayers of the People, that’s it. I personally don’t need the church giving a nod to this particular aspect of American culture. It’s not necessary; I can get my carnation somewhere else.
I think you approached this topic with such sensitivity. I love the prayer you shared. I have 2 children but recently had a miscarriage–we had planned to share the news on mother’s day. A few friends are facing mother’s day without their own mom and I know several others that are longing to add to their families. I hope church will be a safe place for these women (and men).
Allison Sandlin Liles says
Liz, how was your mother’s day? I was thinking about you on Sunday as you shared your news with family.
Grace Buchanan says
An interesting point.
joanna siebert says
Thank you so much for this piece. I would like to quote it with your permission in my daily blog joannaseibert.com about spiritual direction on Sundayl
Allison Sandlin Liles says
All of our posts are property of Forward Movement, but we’d love for you to share on your own blog with a link back to Grow Christians. Thanks!