He was more than a little peeved when he shook my hand. ďI came to hear a Motherís Day sermon,Ē he snorted. The Mrs. didnít say anything as she went out. Perhaps he did her speaking for her. I sent a note explaining why there was no ďMotherís Day sermon.Ē It was not that the day was totally ignored. Mothers were prayed for in the Prayer of the Church. We sang Now Thank We All Our God, with its line, ďWho from our mothersí arms has blest us on our way.Ē (Yeah, I know, Iím a sappy Pietist.) We even gave a nice little gift to all the ladies in attendance. In spite of this, the gentleman who spoke to me upon leaving the Mass wanted to hear something which he didnít hear.
One is tempted to have a little fun with such stuff. You know, ďThe Feast and Octave of Motherís DayĒ or ďThe First Sunday after Motherís Day, The Second Sunday afterÖ.Ē and so on. However, there is something serious behind all this, something very serious. Every age of the Churchís history has witnessed sinful man assaulting the throne of the Almighty in order to unseat him. Certainly this was Satanís plan; and though failing he found success with our first parents, and subsequent successes with their fallen prodigy. ďIt is after all about us, rather about me, not you, about my wants, about my hurts, about my life!Ē Honesty compels all of us to own up to this confession of faith. Itís what makes us insufferable. We have it down to an art form and we even laugh about it. Perhaps youíve seen the T-shirt with this boast printed on it, ďOf course, itís all about me!Ē† This self-conscious jest tells the truth of the matter.
Each age of the Church suffers from its own version of egocentricity, and our age has witnessed this in the form of the feminization of the Church. This goes beyond the obvious radical, Gnostic feminism of the latter half of the 20th century. Even something as burly and seemingly masculine as Promise Keepers is a fem thing. You know: Big guys getting in touch with their feelings so they can be better fellows, husbands and fathers. It reminds me of the lady in adult catechesis years ago, who upon hearing Paulís words about love in 1 Corinthians 13 said, ďIím going to put this on the fridge!Ē Knowing her, I knew the guy who was supposed to read it in order to get his act together. Poor sucker. After all, we by nature go in the way of the Law, especially if we can direct it at someone else.† Be that as it is, back to the point at hand.
First of all I must inform my conspiracy theorist friends that Motherís Day is not an international plot of the Hallmark Company. It has an antecedent centuries ago in England. A day honoring mothers, observed in mid-Lent, was known as Mothering Day. However, Motherís Day, as we know it, didnít take shape until the early part of the 20th century when Philadelphian Anna Jarvis campaigned for a national observance of the day. In 1912 the General Conference of the Methodist Episcopal Church recognized Jarvis as the founder of this day (which probably ought to tell us something). Woodrow Wilson sealed the deal in 1915 when he proclaimed the day as a national day of observance.
Worse things have befallen the earth than Motherís Day. However, the negative rejoinder to this observance certainly has much merit: ďEveryday ought to be Motherís Day.Ē The mother who is disrespected and unloved most of the days of the year can hardly be too pleased with a card, a carnation and a trip to a local eatery one day in the middle of May. Just the same, the day enjoys wide popularity. However, as unproblematic as the day is for most of the world, the day is a problem for the confessing church. Am I stating the too obvious when I say that everything in the church is about Christ and the mercy of God toward helpless sinners? And doesnít this include the Churchís feasts? All Marian festivals, for instance, are not about Mary (or shouldnít be), but are finally about her son, Jesus. Saintís days are about the grace of God given to the saint, not about the saint. Down through the ages the Church simply didnít have days like: Motherís Day, Fatherís Day, Grandparentís Day, Administrative Professionalsí Day, Groundhog Day, Sweetist Day (Now thatís an international plot if Iíve heard of one!). Church and the Mass are not about us, theyíre about Christ and the mercy of God. Thatís the only way that they are about us. The Church Year is about Incarnation (Christmas), bloody Atonement (Good Friday), and Resurrection (Pascha). Even Thanksgiving Day, with its best of all meals, ought to be about the real Thanksgiving, the Holy Eucharist, the greatest of all meals.
However, many folks would counter, ďArenít mothers gifts of God and shouldnít we give thanks for Godís gifts?Ē Look at the question carefully. Who is it about? Itís about us: about mothers and about our duty to give thanks. In other words, itís about us and about going in the way of the Law. Us and the Law? Now thatís one deadly combination, for even our righteous acts are filthy rags, and all too often they are performed with ulterior motives.
If one were to preach a proper Motherís Day sermon he might preach about our Mother the Church, and the Virgin Mary the icon of the Church. Mary was empty, astonished by Godís choice, of low degree. Thereís not much about Mary there, but everything about God and his Christ. Mary is the icon of the Servant Church. Our truest mother, the only one who can save us, is the Church, who serves us. She has given us birth through her womb, the font of Holy Baptism, and she has nursed us with her ample bosoms: preaching and the Eucharist. She has not asked for a corsage, nor a restaurant meal, nor a speech. She merely asks us to be still so that she may serve us.
When the preacher preaches a ďMotherís Day sermonĒ, waxing eloquent about the supreme virtues of motherhood, he preaches about what never was, nor ever can be this side of heaven. Christ and our Mother the Church are our only hope. I cringe when I consider Fatherís Day or my wedding anniversary. Was I a good dad? A good husband? As Iíve told my wife, ďThere are worse husbands than me; that we havenít found one yet doesnít disprove the theory.Ē Such days, along with our birthdays, ought to be days of repentance and sober reflection, in addition to thanksgiving.
Thereís something more here. Those who demand the traditional (and sappy) Motherís Day sermon donít realize what damage they may be causing. Not everyone in the congregation on the second Sunday in May has had a Christian mother. Some believers live with the horrible knowledge that their late mothers have been cast into outer darkness, or if alive, are heading toward doom. Some who sit in the pews have not been good mothers themselves. The plaudits they hear are not descriptions they recognize, and these words only drive them into despair on account of their shortcomings, many of which they cannot correct. Even the best mothers need confession and Holy Absolution. Those mothers (and we include all others of their ilk) who are like the Pharisee praying in the Temple, will smile approvingly about what they think is a deserved tribute. In the end, the preacher merely has given them another carnation in his sermon, something they already believe they deserve, confirming them in their pride, but like all carnations, it will wilt.
As I prepare my sermons and catechesis I constantly remind myself, ďItís about Jesus, stupid!Ē I have all too often forgotten this highest maxim of all, much to my chagrin. God preserve the poor people who have had to listen to me. God spare us all.
Soli Deo Gloria.† ß
The Reverend Peter Berg is pastor of Our Savior Evangelical-Lutheran Church in Chicago, Illinois.