W.F. Bellais II
First of all, happy Mother’s Day, without mothers none of us would be here. Also, this is a day to recognize the contribution all girls and woman make in assuring that the world is beautiful and hopeful.
Simply by accident I learned that Mother’s Day has a home. In 1975 Ann, our two children, and I made a trip to the District of Columbia to have a pre-bicentennial adventure and to visit my brother and his family in Maryland. After a week of visiting national monuments, battle fields, getting reacquainted with places we had lived earlier in my Army career, we headed home and decided to travel through West Virginia. This was not a good idea in 1975. In fact, driving up one mountain than down another and twisting back on narrow roads, we got a taste of what eternity might be like. Finally, exhausted from seeing so much of nature’s wonders and backwoods highways, we drifted into a little town called Grafton. One sign that caught our attention as we drove into the town announced that Grafton is the home of Mother’s Day. I had never thought that Mother’s Day had a home, but Grafton has to have
something to be proud of; like “sliced bread.” This was the home of Anna Jarvis, the inventor of Mother’s Day.
One of the early calls to celebrate a Mother’s Day in the United States was the Mother’s Day Proclamation by Julia Ward Howe, the author of the “Battle Hymn of the Republic.” Written in 1870, it was a pacifist reaction to the carnage of the American Civil War. The Proclamation was tied to Howe’s feminist belief that women had a responsibility to shape their societies at the political level.
In 1912, Anna Jarvis trademarked the phrases “second Sunday in May” and “Mother’s Day”, and created the Mother’s Day International Association. By 1914 President Woodrow Wilson signed the law making Mother’s Day an official holiday in theUnited States.
Because I am a retired Episcopal clergyman, I would like now to turn to Scripture to explore the role of women and motherhood in the ancient stories.
Although Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, Moses, David, and all those other guys in the Hebrew Bible (the Old Testament) are seen in a patriarchal context and so much of the story is about them, the lore of Hebrew Bible truly is a story of mothers. Because we are so focused on the patriarchs, we fail to see the women of the Bible as more than interesting; they are essential. Beginning with Eve, the first mother, followed later by Sarah, Rebecca, Leah and Rachel we have a long list of essential female characters. Leah and Rachel are, in fact, the mothers of the twelve tribes ofIsrael.
But there are other mothers in the Hebrew Bible that give us a sense of the challenges of motherhood.
At the beginning of the First Book of Samuel the wife of Elkanah, because she was childless, wept bitterly at the Shiloh shrine. Hearing her plea God blessed her with a son who became the great judge and prophet,Samuel.
The story of Ruth is not just a love story between a man and woman of different tribal origins, but the story of the great-great-grandmother of the king of Israel, David, whose star blazons the national flag of Israel. One of David’s wives, Bathsheba, although caught up in an adulterous and murderous affair with David, is the mother of the most notorious of Israel’s Kings, Solomon.
Two mothers of a lesser note in the Hebrew Bible are found in the fourth chapter of Second Kings. The prophet Elisha hears the pleas of a widow who is bereft and without support for herself and children. Elisha gives her advice on how to set up a micro business selling olive oil. The advice works and she becomes self-sufficient so she and her children can “live and rest” (2 Kings 4:1-7). In the following verses of this same section of Scripture is the story of the Shunemite woman who befriends Elisha by giving him a place to stay on his travels. Childless, she grieves, Elisha instructs her to be faithful and patient, promising that God will provide. We can only surmise that learning to relax with her husband’s desires, she conceives a son. Later in the story the son becomes ill while working with his dad in the family plot and apparently dies. In her distress the Shunemite woman calls on Elisha to come to her aid. He miraculously brings the boy back to life; however, I think he performed CPR. In both these ancient references, the mother in the story is the central characters.
Motherhood assured a woman would not be abandoned in that ancient time. This explains, in part, why childless women grieved over this lack in their lives.
There are a couple of verses from the Book of Proverbs you might like to ponder.
Hear, my child, your father’s instruction, and do not reject your mother’s teaching; for they are a fair garland for your head… (Proverbs 1:8-9)
The author of this proverb likely intended that both a father’s instruction and mother’s teaching are fair garlands, but as I recall my father’s instructions usually centered on, “Do this, do that, get in here and clean this up!” My mother taught me how to be a gentleman.
Another bit of sage advice from the Book of Proverbs is,
A wise child makes a glad father, but a foolish child is a mother’s grief (Proverbs 10:1b).
This proverb I can relate to. I think when foolishness overcame me my mother grieved more over my poor judgment than my father did. The lack of gladness likely does not describe his reactions to poor judgment, but my mother truly worried and worked to help me find solutions to the pains of maturing.
Mothers, therefore women in general, are often thought of in a nurturing context. Fathers, men, can also be nurturing to children, but while fathers may make motherhood possible, they cannot feed their children from their bodies. Therefore the connection of mother to child is profound.
Motherhood can be understood as a divine connection. For example, we often think of the earth as Mother Earth. God is sometime referred to as “mother,” but this is controversial; Jesus refers to the nurturing God as father. Nevertheless, and this may be controversial also, Jesus often takes on a feminine or nurturing characteristic. One example is when he says, “Jerusalem, Jerusalem, the city that kills the prophets and stones those who are sent to it! How often have I desired to gather your children together as a hen gathers her brood under her wings…” (Matthew 23:37)
I cannot recall a time that my father fixed a meal for us. All my recollections are about my mother in the kitchen cooking, setting the table, and calling us to dinner. Jesus takes on that role in the Gospel stories. Jesus frequently called his disciples to eat with him, or he fed people, and all those instances, he took the food, blessed it, divided it up, and gave it to his followers. That reminds me of my mother who did those things for us every day.
In the post-resurrection events he calls his disciples to eat with him; in one story, he even cooks the fish. The Road to Emmaus story we read of him breaking the bread and when he does the travelers actually see Jesus in that grace. God, through Jesus, takes the nurturing quality of the feminine and makes it a universal quality for all humanity.
Understanding that the nurturing characteristics of motherhood is a universal quality needed to make the world a place where all of us can develop, mature, and live to meet our
maximum potentials is essential. The meaning of all this is that women, generally, have the potential of changing the world and those cultures that exclude women and fail to educate their girls will always be on the wrong side of the Divine.
Keep in mind that women, especially mothers, are the people who drive history and make it possible for us to face the future with hope and strength.