Monday, May 14, 2007

It's Mothers' Day

It’s Mothers’ Day. I notice that I’m fighting a losing battle, insisting that the apostrophe go after the “s” to show that the day belongs not to any one mother, but to all. Our Episcopal Life insert disagrees with me, but I’m grateful for what it brings to our observance of this day.

First, it reminds us of how this day was conceived. Julia Ward Howe, who wrote the words to the Battle Hymn of the Republic and so showed herself no common pacifist, called for a Mothers Peace Day in 1870, and I think her words deserve to be heard today:

“Arise, then, women of this day! Arise all women who have hearts, whether your baptism be that of water or of fears! Say firmly: ‘We will not have great questions decided by irrelevant agencies. Our husbands shall not come to us reeking with carnage, for caresses and applause. Our sons shall not be taken from us to unlearn all that we have been able to teach them of charity, mercy and patience. 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!’ …In the name of womanhood and humanity, I earnestly ask that a general congress of women without limit of nationality may be appointed and held at some place deemed most convenient and at the earliest period consistent with its objects to promote the alliance of the different nationalities, the amicable settlement of international questions, the great and general interests of peace.”

Notice that forty-two years later, President Woodrow Wilson declared Mother’s Day but dropped the word “Peace”—just two years before the outbreak of World War I.

Bringing home the urgency of our need today for Howe’s kind of passion is the icon of the Madonna of the Sudan shown on this insert, itself a proclamation—and a powerful sermon in two dimensions—declaring universal the hope and the pain of motherhood. This image reminds me of Mother Raile Daffala, and some of us are fortunate enough to have met her when she came to Williamstown some years ago. She is still going strong in Khartoum, where she is a matriarch among the Anglican deaconesses who, in addition to mothering their own children and grandchildren and youngsters in their extended families orphaned by war or AIDS or famine, also mother the growing number of street children in the displaced persons camps, teaching them, feeding them, showing them God.

More of you will recall Ruben Odragwa, one of Mother Raile’s sons whose family we have had the privilege to assist in resettlement. When I returned to my office last Sunday after coffee hour, I found a voice message from Ruben. In his rich and lilting voice, he wanted his and Kawthar’s love sent to you all from Fargo, North Dakota, where they now live. I hope to return that call one day soon, and then have more to report about them.

Mother Raile of Khartoum, Mother Theresa of Calcutta… Here are in-our-lifetime icons of how universal the embrace of a mother’s love can be. And when that love is focused primarily on a mother’s own children, she shows how that universal embrace is actually extended: one by one. And intensely, passionately (we know it isn’t only Mama Bears who rush to protect their cubs). And creatively, wisely, insistently.

All these words describe also the care that countless women extend beyond their own family circle through their jobs, their careers, through volunteering, through being friends and neighbors—and we celebrate this extended universal caring today, as well as the original kind that Hallmark and our local friendly florist have had in mind for the past several weeks.

Let’s just be sure that we remember the original original vision that moved Julia Ward Howe: that this day deserves to be about women coming together in solidarity against warfare in all forms. Show us men how. Invite us to that meeting.

I’ve mentioned Mother Julia, Mother Raile, Mother Theresa. Mother Mary also gets airtime in this sermon today. I mean Mary, mother of our Lord. Mary who was an at-risk young mother, braving stigma to bring us our Savior. Mary who simply didn’t understand how her 12-year-old son could dump her and Joseph so totally, that time when they went up to Jerusalem as pilgrims and Jesus remained in the temple, talking theology with his elders (a scene remembered by Louis Comfort Tiffany in a window on the west aisle). Mary, whose understanding of her son got more and more challenged, the older he got, until the day would come that she prompted her other children to plan an intervention and bring him home, before his public preaching tour landed him in worse trouble. She failed. And probably thought she had failed him. (“What did I do that was so wrong that my boy can’t settle down?”)

I’ll guess that her maternal self-blame burdened her beyond description on the day of his death.

We don’t hear her voice or see her in any memorable way after that. But if you look at the last of the windows above our altar, those windows that tell the full story of our Redeemer’s life, you will see her at the very center of the apostolic band. It is the Day of Pentecost there, flames of fire darting above their heads, showing them on fire from the passion of Christ, and by that light she understands. She comprehends the mystery, embraces his disciples as her own children, and, one might guess from her prominence there, becomes the Church’s Mother.

I know that she plays a rich role in the spiritual journeys of some of us. I suspect she may not have a front-row seat in the inner lives of many of us. I wonder if the stress placed on her virginity has placed her beyond reach, beyond imagination, on a pedestal of purity that doesn’t have its base on the ground that you and I walk.

If so, that’s a shame. And a far reach from how Mary was revered during the Middle Ages. Then, her popularity stemmed from her down-to-earth and up-close familiarity with the hope and the pain of all sorts of people. She was the holy one everyone could relate to. Peasants and royalty prayed to her at her shrines because they expected she’d get the job done, they knew she cared about what they cared about.

In 1951, when the Roman Catholic Church promulgated the belief that Mary had been physically drawn up into heaven—the Assumption of Mary—the psychologist Carl Jung said (more or less), “It’s about time that the feminine side of God should be acknowledged.” And the universal reach of motherhood.

I’ve chosen two poems, and want to read them, in closing. The first is Julia Kasdorf’s “What I Learned from My Mother”:

I learned from my mother how to love
the living, to have plenty of vases on hand
in case you have to rush to the hospital
with peonies cut from the lawn, black ants
still stuck to the buds. I learned to save jars
large enough to hold fruit salad for a whole
grieving household…

(You can find this poem and the next in "Good Poems", edited by Garrison Keillor and published by Viking.) The second poem is Wendell Berry’s “To My Mother”:

I was your rebellious son,
do you remember? Sometimes
I wonder if you do remember,
so complete has your forgiveness been.

So complete has your forgiveness been
I wonder sometimes if it did not
precede my wrong, and I erred,
safe found, within your love,

prepared ahead of me, the way home,
or my bed at night, so that almost
I should forgive you, who perhaps
foresaw the worst that I might do…