This is where I am starting my thoughts for a sermon for this Sunday, May 8, the Third Sunday of Easter: with the history of Mother's Day and
It was started in 1870 as a day for mothers to pray and work for peace, for the end of war, to decry that their sons and husbands would go to war and, as Julia Ward Howe wrote in her Mother’s Day Declaration, “unlearn all that we have been able to teach them of charity, mercy and patience.” Howe was an abolitionist, a worker for peace and woman suffrage – the epitome of the late 19th century progressive, convinced that women truly and naturally embodied all Christian and civic virtues. The carnage of the Civil War so disturbed her that she was moved to commemorate the values of peace and motherhood with this Mother’s Day. It was celebrated in June in her lifetime, and she funded many of the commemorations.
As the battle scars of the Civil War faded, and after Howe’s death, Anna Reeves Jarvis rekindled and readapted Howe’s commemoration – she called it “Mother’s Friendship Day,” with the intention to “re-unite families and neighbors that had been divided between the Union and Confederate sides of the Civil War.”
In 1908 Anna M. Jarvis, her daughter, yet again revived the holiday, now a commemoration both of peace and of the dedication of her mother, as a Sunday School teacher and as the founder of Mother’s Day as a day of peace and reconciliation. After a quiet gathering at her home in Philadelphia, Jarvis went public with Mother’s Day at her Methodist Church in West Virginia – and in today’s terms, it went viral. The idea of honoring mothers with flowers (white carnations for the dead, pink or red for the living) and festivities – struck a chord in the human heart, and soon lots of churches and communities were doing it. Anna M. Jarvis became a political activist, to have Mother’s Day, as she conceived it, to be recognized nationally as a holiday. This was backed by the YMCA and, very powerfully, by the World Sunday School Association, and this Progressive Era victory for the virtues of motherhood was signed into law in 1914 by Woodrow Wilson.
Ironically, the declaration coincided with the meteoric rise of commercialism and advertising in the US, and from the 1920s on, the flower and greeting card industries have taken on Mother’s Day for their own. This profit-making Mother’s Day disturbed Anna M. Jarvis greatly, and she loudly and publicly opposed what she deemed a misuse of the holiday – from 1920s until her death in 1948.
It is poignant, indeed, as we contemplate Mother’s Day 2011, thinking about its origins in the protest of the carnage of war. When late 19th and early 20th century women banded together for peace, they believed that their womanly and motherly virtues transcended national borders, and that women around the world would unite to bring an end to war. As Julia Ward Howe wrote in her original declaration:
"We women of one country
Will be too tender of those of another country
To allow our sons to be trained to injure theirs."
From the bosom of the devastated earth a voice goes up with
Our own. It says, "Disarm, Disarm!"
The sword of murder is not the balance of justice!
Blood does not wipe out dishonor
Nor violence indicate possession.
As men have often forsaken the plow and the anvil at the summons of war.
Let women now leave all that may be left of home
For a great and earnest day of counsel.
Let them meet first, as women, to bewail and commemorate the dead.
Let them then solemnly take counsel with each other as to the means
Whereby the great human family can live in peace,
Each bearing after his own time the sacred impress, not of Caesar,
But of God.
Solemn thoughts to consider during this week that saw one of the declared enemies of America brought to a violent end. I was relieved that President Obama did not rattle swords or preach bellicosity in his address to the nation, but I was made slightly uncomfortable by the campus and community demonstrations on Sunday night and Monday. Has our younger generation taken the rhetoric of patriotic valor into the arena of vengeance and American exceptionalism?
Most news coverage early in the week, however, included more nuanced reflections on the American reactions to the killing of Osama bin Laden. Young people growing up in the shadow of 9/11 have had these events and debates thrust upon them at every turn. From Tuesday’s New York Times, I found this helpful to read:
"In the world of the so-called millennial generation, said Neil Howe, a writer and historian who is often credited with defining that term for the generation, “Evil is evil, good is good. There are no antiheroes, there is no gray area. This is a Harry Potter vignette, and Voldemort is dead.”
“In a Harry Potter world,” he said, “their mission is to save the world for the rest of society. This is their taking pride in what their generation is able to do.”
Reading on, though, it was clear that not everyone cast their lives in Manichean terms. The article quoted one young woman, a Muslim American, who said she began wearing a head scarf after the attacks on the World Trade Center:
“I feel like regardless of your religion after 9/11, it made everyone question what it was like to be an American.”
That same New York Times article, that talked about how vocally patriotic young adults had become, also noted that these same young adults were increasingly likely to want to get to know the world around them, to study abroad, to learn about other societies and religions. That’s good. Even these young people who have seen so much violence and disruption during their whole lives, whose own families and communities may have been harmed by those terrible events of September 11, seem to be continuing the trend we have seen for a generation, of teenagers who enter young adulthood wanting to make a difference, to give back, to get involved, whose hearts burn within them to make the world a better place.
That’s where I’m going with my sermon this week: to connect the experience of the disciples on the road to Emmaus, who described their encounter with the risen Jesus as something that made their hearts burn within them, with people who, in the face of all evidence to the contrary, find the energy and commitment to get up and work to make the world a better place. To me, the connection is discipleship, and how we form our children, and each other, to be the kind of followers of Jesus who recognize the love of God in the unlikeliest of places – to be the kind of people whose hearts are set on fire for that love, and who know that justice and mercy truly walk hand in hand.