Today is Mother’s Day. The holiday was first organized by Anna Jarvis, who held a memorial for her mother at St. Andrew’s Methodist Church in Grafton, West Virginia, where she had been a Sunday School teacher, in 1907. An official worship service was observed in the same place the following year, accompanied by a larger ceremony in the store of Philadelphia merchant John Wanamaker. By the year after that, it was being celebrated in New York City.
Jarvis then launched a campaign to establish the day as a national holiday to honor all mothers. In 1914, Congress passed a law officially recognizing it on the second Sunday in May, and President Woodrow Wilson issued a proclamation declaring it.
Ironically, Jarvis soon came to resent the commercialization of the holiday that began to occur within a decade. As she commented, “A printed card means nothing except that you are too lazy to write to the woman who has done more for you than anyone in the world. And candy! You take a box to Mother—and then eat most of it yourself. A pretty sentiment.” By the 1920s, she was organizing boycotts and protests and was even arrested for disturbing the peace. She herself never married or had any children.
Jarvis offers a microcosm of the mixed emotions for many surrounding this holiday. We certainly want to honor and celebrate our mothers and motherhood in general; we would, quite literally, not be here without them. But at the same time, there are some who dread this time of year: maybe we have a less than ideal relationship with our mother or, for you mothers, with your children; maybe our mother has passed on and we grieve her loss, or—God forbid—maybe you are a mother grieving the loss of a child; maybe for whatever reason we do not have children, despite our desire for them.
From the very beginning, Mother’s Day has been linked with a church service. Traditionally, there is a sermon extolling the virtues of mothers. In many places over the years, they have been publicly recognized with the giving of carnations or even being asked to stand. And in the midst of that are those suffering in silence, waiting for it to all be over for another year.
If that applies to you, consider that there are a number of women in Scripture who would have shared your discomfort. It occurred to me this week, in fact, that of the 5 women specifically mentioned in Matthew’s genealogy of Jesus, at least 4 of them probably would have fallen into this camp (Matthew 1:1-17).
Tamar had been widowed by two of Judah’s sons and was then promised to a third son, Shelah, who was still a boy. In the meantime, she went back to her father’s house, living as a widow. But Judah was afraid that she was cursed, and even when Shelah came of age, he did not have them marry. Tamar’s positions was precarious: she had no status, no inheritance, no security without children, and no prospects for marriage, since she was promised to Shelah. So in a disturbing scene, she disguised herself as a prostitute, seduced Judah, and became pregnant. When he found out about her immorality, he intended to have her killed, until she produced artifacts that demonstrated his paternity, at which point he acknowledged his sin. She ultimately gave birth to twins – but every Mother’s Day would be a reminder of the whole sorry tale.
Rahab was a prostitute in Jericho. As a result, we can only imagine how many children she might have given birth to, or how many unwanted pregnancies might have been dealt with through folk remedies. Ultimately, she hid the Israelite spies who infiltrated the city and was saved—but every Mother’s Day would bring her past flooding back.
Bathsheba is not mentioned by name by Matthew, identified only as the wife of Uriah. She was seduced by King David while already married to the aforementioned Uriah, and her husband was murdered to cover up the affair when she became pregnant. Not only did Uriah die, but the baby died too as a consequence of their sin. Every Mother’s Day would recall the child she lost as a result of her own actions.
Last but certainly not least, Mary, the mother of Jesus, had to witness her firstborn’s excruciating, public execution.
It was highly unusual in the ancient world to even mention women in genealogies. We might, therefore, expect those named to have been idealized. What we find instead is that they were ordinary, tarnished, struggling through life with sin and grief and who knows what else. In other words, they were just like us. And yet, through these women, God brought the Messiah into the world. So if you are hurting on this Mother’s Day, remember that you are not alone, either now or in the history of God’s people—remember, above all, that God is still there for you.