Mothering Sunday 2020

Today we celebrate Mothering Sunday – it is just as well that we know it as Mothering Sunday and not merely Mother’s Day, because the ways in which Mother’s Day is usually kept are just not possible this year. Families can’t get together to make a fuss of Mothers, or give them a treat by taking them out for a good dinner. But there is something about the history of Mother’s Day that might be helpful to remember this year.

Among the countries of the world, only in the UK and Nigeria is Mother’s Day conflated with Mothering Sunday, the rest of the world keeps it on different days – mostly in the summer. It is said to have been invented by Anna Reeves Jarvis – first kept on 8th May 1908, by a commemoration held at Andrews Methodist Episcopal Church in Grafton, West Virginia for Anna Jarvis’ mother. She claimed it was solely in memory of her own mother, but she explained that her mother had thought that all mothers deserved a special day each year. I’m not totally sure why she trademarked “Mother’s Day” if she only had her own mother in mind, but I suppose it explains why she put the apostrophe in the wrong place for it to be about all mothers. However, it was Hallmark cards, following the First World War, that really invented what it has now become.

But the first idea of Mothers’ day had nothing to do with all that. Julia Ward Howe, who is famous for writing “Mine eyes have seen the glory of the coming of the Lord” was a feminist campaigner and suffragist, and pacifist, active around 1850-1870; before and after the American civil war. Mostly she was a writer and speaker, but she also organised an annual day conference for the mutual support of women grieving the death of their sons in the war, and to encourage them to work for reconciliation and peace - she called this Mothers' Day.

It wasn’t, at all, about breakfast in bed and being treated to Sunday Lunch – it started as mothers searching for a new vision of what it means to be a mother when your child is dead, of what mothering can mean in the context of bereavement and suffering particularly through political and social action. Perhaps that perspective offers us more substantial encouragement in our present situation than does the more cosy picture we’re used to.

The life of the Blessed Virgin Mary is an important model for us – on the one hand, she was the mother of Jesus who is the Christ. We, the Church, are the Body of Christ here and now, so we can understand Mary as mother of the Church and therefore as our Mother. And we can trust that she loves the Church in our time as much as she loved Jesus when she gave birth to him. But remember Simeon’s warning to her – “a sword will pierce your own soul too.” St Luke did not think Simeon was talking about her maternal suffering at the crucifixion of her son – as far as Luke is concerned, she was nowhere in the picture by then. It is the sword of judgment that Simeon is talking about – Mary too, will have to make up her mind about Jesus; her inner thoughts will be revealed. So perhaps Mary would understand the women who met with Julia Ward Howe, grieving the death of their sons, but seeking to turn their grief into working for reconciliation and peace. Just as Mary was among the disciples meeting daily to pray and praise God, and to live a life mutual support after the resurrection of Jesus.

If we are really to understand the power and importance of mothering, we need to comprehend the costliness of the love that true mothering demands. And we need to remember that mothering is not just about what is done by those who give birth, nor indeed exclusively by women; though for sure, women are the greatest exemplars of this love.

We need to remember the costliness of the love that has sustained and nurtured us when we have needed it most, and to give thanks for it. Perhaps we also need to remember the wounds we carry because we did not find that love when we needed it. The failure of love that we have suffered can teach us, as much about the love we need, as can the love we have enjoyed. The true source of love and its perfection is with God. The love we have experienced has its origin in God’s love for his creation, and we can feel the lack of human love because we know what it should be because of the instinct for love that God has built into his creation.

We see God’s love demonstrated in Jesus, in Mary, in good human mothering. And for now, day by day, that is the love we are called demonstrate, and we are empowered to do it, by God’s love for us.

We know what it looks like to be loving people. St Paul gives us a few clues: clothe yourselves with compassion, kindness, humility, meekness and patience. Be forgiving and let the peace of Christ rule in your hearts. We can endeavour day by day to live that love in the current constraints of life. Equally, we can recognise the fear that leads to the greed and selfishness that seems so prevalent at the moment. But be assured that love casts out fear and that the love of God will sustain and support us no matter what we face. And for today, let us remember and be truly thankful for all the love we have received, especially from our mothers and from those who have shown us a mother’s love.

Chris Ivory