Why Celebrating Mother’s Day in Church is Complicated

Certain holy days can cause pain after a loss: hearing someone’s name read aloud on All Saints’ Sunday. The first Christmas Eve without Grandma. Being smudged on the forehead on Ash Wednesday while thinking of a deceased spouse. Even Easter hits differently when we proclaim the empty tomb after burying someone we love.  Mother’s Day...

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Certain holy days can cause pain after a loss: hearing someone’s name read aloud on All Saints’ Sunday. The first Christmas Eve without Grandma. Being smudged on the forehead on Ash Wednesday while thinking of a deceased spouse. Even Easter hits differently when we proclaim the empty tomb after burying someone we love. 

Mother’s Day is emotionally laden for people struggling with the loss of a mother, loss of a child, or infertility. But unlike the other holy days mentioned, Mother’s Day is not a Christian holiday. So why do many churches observe Mother’s Day?

Mother’s Day originated in 1870 with activist and writer Julia Ward Howe as a pacifist plea for women around the world to advocate for world peace, but today brings billions of dollars to the greeting card, flower, and restaurant industries. 

Churches that do not join the celebration risk the wrath not only of many moms but their loved ones. At the church I serve, I neglected to add a prayer for mothers in our Prayers of the People one year, annoying the lay leader who then punctuated every single petition with a pointed “especially mothers.” Now I add one short prayer every Mother’s Day, not only for moms, but for those who have lost mothers, children, or are unable to have children. That’s my only nod to the day, however; otherwise, I focus on the lectionary readings for that Sunday.

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Five years ago, I wrote an article about Mother’s Day for a grief website, mentioning my experience with churches alongside my own struggle with the holiday given my mother’s death when I was six as well as my infertility. When I met with other area Episcopal clergy a few weeks later for lunch, my friend Gini, a priest at a neighboring church, thanked me for the article. “It helped me examine how we observe Mother’s Day,” she said.

This caught the attention of a couple of retired octogenarian male clergy who had been absorbed in their food. “What article? What are you talking about?” asked one.

“I’ll let Elizabeth tell you about it,” Gini said, smiling.

I glared at her. “Just an essay I wrote about how hard it can be on some people when churches celebrate Mother’s Day, like asking the mothers to stand during announcements or handing out flowers to all of the mothers or all the women after the service.” Sensing danger, I stuck a chip in my mouth and crunched loudly, hoping that would be the end of it. 

The older male clergy seemed to enjoy explaining things to me, to my eternal annoyance. “At my church, we used to give flowers to everyone,” one of them explained, thinking he had solved my concern. Even though I had just advised against exactly this practice. “Mother’s Day is not about the mothers! It’s about the women!” He pounded on the table, twice, and then beamed at me with a piece of white bread caught in his teeth.

Gini mouthed, “I’m so sorry.”

I considered saying “How is it you know more about women than I do, given that I am one?” but settled on, “Maybe you should read the essay.” 

“Stick with us, honey,” another retired male priest said. I quickly took a big bite of sandwich and almost choked. “We’ll help you with your essays.”

Those priests were unavailable to help me with this essay, but the Bible can. Protestant churches have sometimes shied away from Jesus’ mom other than at Christmas, so consider how Mary appears in the third chapter of Mark. In Mark 3:21, we read that Jesus’ family thought he had gone out of his mind so went out to restrain him, but when they found him ten verses later, he told the crowd surrounding him that they—that is, the crowd—were his mother and brothers, as was anyone doing the will of God. I take that story as a strong foundation against observing biological mothers on a non-church holiday by having them stand or giving them pink carnations.

Given what the Bible teaches about chosen or found families, how might a church honor Mother’s Day in a way that does not exclude non-parents?

  • Look at how Jesus’ mother Mary appears in biblical stories. At Christmas she is generally portrayed quietly in blue robes smiling at her baby, but the Magnificat (Luke 1:46-55) declares that God has brought the powerful down from their thrones and lifted up the lowly—like Mary. In John, Mary pushes Jesus into performing his first miracle at the wedding in Cana at Galilee (John 2:1-11) How can we as Christians emulate the mother of Jesus in assertiveness and activism?
  • In formation classes, feature texts such as the one from Mark above or its parallels in Matthew and Luke to discuss how the Bible portrays families and discern how your church can function as Jesus’ mother and siblings by doing the will of God. 
  • Consider a longer series for formation classes, perhaps from Mother’s Day through Father’s Day, featuring stories about mothers such as Hagar, Hannah, Elizabeth, and Mary alongside stories of fruitful non-mothers such as Miriam, Huldah, Martha, and Mary Magdalene. If such a series extends until Father’s Day, consider also featuring fathers like Abraham or Joseph alongside fruitful non-fathers like Paul.
  • Such lessons or series can also work in children’s Sunday school, whereas encouraging children to create some sort of gift for their own mother on Mother’s Day can alienate foster children or children whose mothers are deceased, estranged, or otherwise absent. Be aware of the circumstances of all the children in a particular class before asking them to create such crafts.

Mother’s Day is not a Christian calendar observance and when churches celebrate it anyway, some congregants may end up avoiding church on that day. If your church is unwilling to ignore the non-church holiday, focusing on Mary, Jesus’ teaching about families, or teaching about biblical parents alongside non-parents can make the Sunday accessible to all Christians.

Additional reading:

Creating Sacred Spaces After Loss: Addressing Miscarriage, Infant Death, and Infertility in Faith Communities

Preaching+Fertility Struggles

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