Tuesday, May 14, 2013

Mothers' Day, Mother Earth, and Waging Peace, by Melinda

The antecedents of Mothers' Day are ancient, dating back at least to the Roman holiday, Matronalia, which honored mothers and fertility goddesses--"mother earth" goddesses--like Persephone (see here). Early Jews and Christians celebrated motherhood in various guises, one of the most interesting being the nurturing or feminine side of God:  "'As a mother comforts a child, so will I comfort you,' says the Lord." (Isaiah 66:13). And Matthew (23: 37) famously quotes the parable of Jesus and the Hen:  "'How often have I longed to gather [Jerusalem's] children together, as a hen gathers her chicks under her wings,' Jesus says."  The idea is shown emblematically on the altar of the teardrop-shaped Franciscan church, Dominus Flevit ("God Wept"), in the foothills of the Mount of Olives, and also was depicted in painting, e.g., by Stanley Spencer in the 20th century (click here).
"Jesus & the Hen," Dominus Flevit
Mediaeval Catholics honored Mother Mary on the 4th Sunday of Lent, called "Mothering Sunday." The celebration was linked to Mother Church; everyone was encouraged to visit the Cathedral (Mother Church) in which they grew up.

Spring conquering Winter
The agricultural connection returned as the Lenten celebration of Mother Mary expanded to include mothers in general, that is, "going a-mothering" with flowers, cakes and trinkets as gifts. Lent occurred in the springtime in Europe; hence activities grew to include seasonal agricultural celebrations. For instance, young boys paraded with large, straw-filled, clothed effigies of Winter and Spring. In the ensuing mock battle, Spring always vanquished Winter in a celebration of the fertility and new growth of farm crops in the spring. The boys then took food to their own mothers as gifts.

Anna Jarvis
Our modern Mothers' Day is actually political in origin, thanks to the 19th-century feminists/suffragists, Julia Ward Howe and Anna Jarvis.  For them the issues were political (and seem particularly apt for our present day as well).

In 1870, Howe, a pacifist, was struggling to put an end to war, convinced that no mother would willingly send her son to die in battle. In 1872, she declared June 2nd as "Mothers' Day of Peace." By the early 20th century, Anna Jarvis managed to have Mothers' Day recognized as an official holiday (though the date was changed to May). Sadly, Jarvis spent the rest of her life combating the crass commercialism that developed around Mothers' Day, and she eventually died in an asylum.

In our own violent times, when the "great questions" about women--and about "Mother Earth"--again are being raised on various fronts, we would do well to recall a few lines in Julia Ward Howe's politically radical Mothers' Day Proclamation of 1870 (for more click here):

"Arise, then, women of this day.
Arise all women who have hearts, whether your baptism
be that of water or tears.
Say firmly, we will not have great questions decided by
irrelevant agencies.
Our husbands shall not come to us reeking of 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
We women of one country will be too tender of those of 
another country to allow our sons to be trained to injure
From the bosom of the devastated Earth, a voice goes out
with our own.
It says, disarm.  Disarm...."

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