This Mother’s Day will be my first since my family buried my mother. Yet the pangs that come with the day’s approach have an odd familiarity. During the decade when my husband and I experienced infertility, multiple pregnancy losses, and three failed adoptions, I found it difficult enough to hear all the mom-centered greetings on M-Day. But then the mothers were asked to stand, and some of us remained conspicuously seated. Following most such services, each mother would receive a carnation on her way out the door. But first she had to answer “yes” to the dreaded question: “Are you a mother?” On Mother’s Day, going to a house of worship sometimes felt more like going to a house of mourning.
Yet my mourning on M-Day was not because I wished in any way to diminish the practice of honoring mothers for the thankless work they do. I had one of the best moms on the planet, and it was my joy to honor her. Rather, I wished for the Body of Christ to find ways to acknowledge our mothers’ sacrifices while also celebrating the invisible family in which those without children become parents and those without parents still have mothers and fathers.
I’m happy to report that on a number of occasions, I did experience Mother’s Day as a day of grace. On the one following my first miscarriage, a message in the church bulletin said, “The altar flowers today are given with love and acknowledgement of all the babies of this church who were conceived on earth but born in heaven and for all who have experienced this loss.” The couple who dedicated these flowers had six children, and through their validation of our pain, we caught a glimpse of the one who is acquainted with grief. The husband crossed the aisle to stand by my husband as, with saltwater streaming down our faces, we found new strength to bring our sacrifice of praise.
On several Mother’s Days, a pastoral prayer has included requests that on this special day God would bless the motherless children, those bereft of mothers, mothers estranged from their children, infertile women, and those who wish to become mothers but must wait on God’s timing. Apparently someone figured out that about half the church was mourning along with the celebration. On such occasions I felt like I belonged.
One year during Mothers’ Day, I was serving with a mission team in Sinaloa, Mexico. A man stood at the door after the service handing out carnations to all the mothers. Having heard that my husband I had just experienced another pregnancy loss, he looked at me through misty eyes and thrust his entire bouquet into my hands.
My niece, who is married without children, calls the holiday “mothering day.” In this way she broadens the meaning, making it inclusive enough to include all who nurture. And this seems a fitting practice for the church. Families of one and of twenty all find a broader family in Christ.
Mother’s Day provides the church with an opportunity to honor mothers and comfort the mourning. We can affirm the difficult job mothers do, remember the grieving in pastoral prayers, and retire the practice of having all mothers stand. But we can also go a step further: align our practices with Jesus’s emphases.
Jesus knew plenty of examples from his own genealogy of how family members can destroy each other when they fail to prioritize Spirit over blood:
- Rebecca and Jacob deceived Isaac and swindled Esau (Gen 27)
- Rachel and Leah competed for conjugal access to their husband (Gen 39)
- Joseph’s brothers sold him (Gen 37:12–36) and later had a disastrous reaction to the assault of their sister, Dinah (Gen 34)
- Aaron and Miriam undermined Moses’s authority (Num 12)
- Cain murdered Abel (Gen 4), for crying out loud
One day when Jesus was teaching in public, “a woman in the crowd called out, ‘Blessed is the mother who gave you birth and nursed you.’ He replied, ‘Blessed rather are those who hear the word of God and obey it’” (Luke 11:27–28 NIV). By messing with definitions, Jesus announced that those who do God’s will get incorporated into (a great big, crazy, mixed-up) spiritual family full of people in process.
Some have wondered if Jesus was disrespecting his mother by seemingly minimizing her “role.” Yet, in fact, he did honor her with his words. What woman alive had more fully demonstrated a commitment to doing the will of God? When the angel told Mary that, although a virgin, she would conceive and give birth to a son, she was troubled (1:29). Yet she replied, “I am the Lord’s servant. May your word to me be fulfilled” (v. 38).
Certainly, Jesus held a high view of the biological family. He affirmed, “If you want to enter life, keep the commandments … ‘You shall not murder,’ ‘you shall not commit adultery,’ ‘you shall not steal,’ ‘you shall not give false testimony,’ ‘honor your father and mother,’ and ‘love your neighbor as yourself’” (Matt 19:17–19).
Elsewhere he repeated, “For God said, ‘Honor your father and mother’” (15:4). And he affirmed that marriage is sacred, saying, “At the beginning of creation God ‘made them male and female.’ ‘For this reason a man will leave his father and mother and be united to his wife, and the two will become one flesh.’ So they are no longer two, but one flesh. Therefore what God has joined together, let no one separate” (Mark 10:5–9).
When the disciples heard this, they recoiled, thinking Jesus had set an impossible standard. And the Lord acknowledged the standard was high, adding that some don’t marry: “Not everyone can accept this word, but only those to whom it has been given. For there are eunuchs who were born that way, and there are eunuchs who have been made eunuchs by others—and there are those who choose to live like eunuchs for the sake of the kingdom of heaven” (Matt 19:11–12).
Jesus would have known Isaiah’s writings about those who did not reproduce biologically. The prophet had recorded these words of Yahweh:
To the eunuchs who keep my Sabbaths, who choose what pleases me and hold fast to my covenant—to them I will give within my temple and its walls a memorial and a name better than sons and daughters; I will give them an everlasting name that will endure forever. (Isa 56:4–5)
Consistent with Isaiah’s record, the Lord implies that there is more than one way to leave a legacy.
Jesus honored the importance of family, but he had harsh words for those whose family-love took higher priority than love of God. Of those with such disordered priorities, Jesus said, “If anyone comes to me and does not hate father and mother, wife and children, brothers and sisters—yes, even their own life—such a person cannot be my disciple” (Luke 14:26). Not exactly the verse we choose for the bulletin on Mother’s Day. And yet why not? In honoring legal and biological mothers in church to the exclusion of those whom Jesus included as his “mother,” we risk wrongly emphasizing biological reproduction.
After the unmarried John the Baptist came the unmarried Jesus and the unmarried Paul. And when greeting members of the church in Rome, the latter makes specific mention of nine women. Interestingly, only one of these is described in relation to her having children. Paul greets Phoebe (Rom 16:3), a deacon and benefactor. He greets someone named Mary (v. 6), and Junia (v. 7): an apostle who did prison time for the gospel. He affirms Tryphena and Tryphosa (v. 12), Persis (v. 12), Julia (v. 13), and the sister of Nereus (v. 15). But he mentions only the mother of Rufus (v. 13) in relation to her biological family, and when he does so he gives a nod to their universal-family connection, saying she “has been a mother to me.”
Before my husband and I adopted our daughter, our family expanded to include a son, Carlos. We met him on that trip to Mexico, and nearly three decades later, he still calls me his “American Mom.” We lack a blood connection, a legal connection, even an ethnic connection. But he is our son; his wife is now our daughter; their son is now our grandchild. Years earlier, when Carlos came to faith in Christ, his mother kicked him out for being baptized. And on that same trip, we watched in awe as she and her own mother placed their faith in Christ. Yet what about those in-between years for him? What does it say to those who have left father and mother to follow Christ if in our celebrations of the earthly family we fail to acknowledge that Jesus is worth leaving father and mother for?
This year on the second Sunday in May, we need to take our direction from Scripture, not Hallmark. We can certainly honor mothers, as they deserve our affirmation. We can also minister grace not only to the one in six couples who experience infertility but to all who experience Mother’s Day as a day of grief.
Yet we have an opportunity to do far more. We can remind all who worship Christ that we are called to fruitfully multiply worshipers of the living God. Some of us do this by nurturing children. Others by discipling the nations. Still others by doing both. But we all do so as part of an invisible family committed to doing the will of God. In this we are the mothers and fathers and sisters and brothers of Christ. Is there any higher calling?