Sunday, May 13, 2012

Not Mother's Day Sunday, Deo gratias

Is this the way to honor God or mothers?
Each year on Mother’s Day (and, to a much lesser extent, on Father’s Day), a wave of anxiety grips the Church. On the one hand, we are told that this is the third most well-attended day in the year, just behind Christmas and Easter. On the other, we hear from many that it is a painful annual trial, wherein sentimentality or biological capacity is unduly exalted in worship at the expense of spiritual substance and pastoral wisdom.

I tend to agree with the latter point of view.

Mother’s Day is a great celebration for many. Yet, it is also a massive can of worms. Seasoned clergy have often told me that they greet its approach with trepidation. Many parishes have longstanding customs for this day, and each new cleric is held to those customs with a rigid sense of vigilance. The priest may get away with heresy and administrative incompetence, but Mother’s Day will be observed with all the secular pomp possible. Sentiment, rather than the Gospel, often seems to hold the tiller in parochial life.

Other clergy will secretly admit that this day ends up being the cause of all sorts of pastoral follow-up. So many women (and men) had disastrous relations with their mothers, or lost their mothers. Other women wanted to be mothers but could not, or never wanted to be mothers and don’t like to even hear about motherhood. Some lost children; others have served effectively as mothers, but do not have the official title in law. There are myriad variations. Awkwardness, painful memories, hurt feelings, political agendas, and plain old sorrow abound.

Of course, there are many who find Mother’s Day a time of sweet and joyful gathering—a meal, a family clustering around, gifts of the home-made and the store-bought varieties being offered, memories being made even as others are recalled. It can be a delight.

But why make it such a focus in worship?

I can understand why some traditions do this, to a degree. Bereft of a Liturgical Calendar, each Sunday has to have a “meaning” connected to something—a sermon series, perhaps. Quite often, though, the source is the secular calendar…with all of its assumptions and obsessions, acknowledged or not. Using the Civil Calendar this way shows that there is more than one way for a Church community to become “culturally conditioned.”

The ancient and undivided Church, as well as The Book of Common Prayer nowhere sets apart a Sunday to commemorate Mothers or Fathers as a class of person or a vocation. This is not because we do not honor these ways of life. Indeed, we do. But we do so in the context of a basic Christian vocation that transcends them. We speak of motherhood most in connection with the Theotokos; indeed, the feasts of Our Lady are, for us, the celebration par excellence of motherhood in connection with faith.

We also focus on Jerusalem, the Church, and any number of holy women as mothers in a wide variety of ways. Some of the saints (Dame Julian and St. Gregory Nyssa come to mind) remind us that God can be spoken of in ways that include attributes of motherhood, as well. Then, of course, there is mid-Lent Sunday, one of whose many names is “Mothering Sunday.” Perhaps this might be the best time to bring the subject up in our tradition?

In our parish, the appointed collect and lessons take precedence throughout the year (this is why we still celebrate all of the Principal Feasts in an era when most parishes have dropped anything even slightly "inconvenient"). Mother’s Day is mentioned…usually in the bulletin and as a Mass intention just before we begin the Eucharistic Prayer. Once in a while it will find its way into the sermon, but only as a side-point. 

It has been the wisdom of Holy Church to name no Sunday “Mother’s Day Sunday.” Clergy should think long and hard about surrendering the Liturgy to the vagaries of American culture, wherever it obtrudes. Doing so in one place invites incursions elsewhere. How many would be comfortable with a "Singles Sunday," a "Widows/Widowers Sunday," or a "Celibate Sunday," though these are all perfectly honorable and Scripturally-endorsed states of life? This is not an idle question. It must be justified if it is going to be put front-and-center before the People of God in the Eucharist.

Let us honor mothers, but let us honor the Liturgical Year first. In so doing, we will honor not only mothers, but all vocations in their proper proportion and with due reverence.

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