I have always honored Mother’s Day in my family traditions. I thanked my mother for her life and love regularly and now I remember her with warm appreciation for her deep faith and abiding love. But I do not need a special day to do this if the truth is known. A good son should honor his mother at all times.
When I was still the pastor of a local congregation, between 1972-92, I gave special attention to mothers on this day. Since then I have found that some evangelical churches do not want a guest to preach on anything but motherhood on this day if I was a guest in their pulpit. I have always found this request more than curious. (These same churches oppose any doctrine about Mary’s importance in salvation history, especially the core orthodox affirmation that she was theotokos, the “mother of God.”) Now, given the history and development of this special day someone ought to at least think about this a little more. Some have referred to this development as the triumph of “Hallmark Theology.” This type of response is actually shallow, even less than truthful. But when I made statements like this I knew how to take the fun out of special days with the best of them. If something wasn’t clearly named in the Bible then the church should have nothing to do with it. End of discussion. Even Christmas and Easter presented problems in terms of this kind of theology. After all, who knew when Jesus was actually born or on which first day of the week he was actually raised from the dead? (The answer, of course, is no one knows!)
Our modern celebration of Mother's Day comes on various days in a number of different places around the world. The date thus varies but the central point is the same -- honor mothers and motherhood. In the UK and Ireland, Mother’s Day still follows the old traditions of Mothering Sunday, which has its own history.
It has been suggested that the history of celebrating Mother’s Day, and mothering, can be traced back to ancient festivals. But most historians agree that the modern US celebration of Mother's Day is not directly related to these ancient practices and beliefs at all. I agree.
Ancient Greece, to give but one example, kept a festival to Cybele, a great mother of the Greek gods. Ancient Romans appropriated the cult of Cybele in order to absorb culturally the Greeks and the inhabitants of Asia Minor. As was typical of the Romans they quickly made up their own customs because of their disagreements with ancient Greek ideas.
The Catholic calendar eventually embraced some of these ideas and a religious tradition evolved into a secular tradition of giving gifts to mothers on this day.
One of the earliest attempts to celebrate Mother's Day in the United States is the "Mother's Day Proclamation" of Julia Ward Howe. Written in 1870, it was actually a pacifist reaction to the carnage of the American Civil War and the Franco-Prussian War. The Proclamation was tied to Julia Ward Howe's feminist beliefs that women had a responsibility to shape their societies at the political level. I doubt very few conservative ministers even know this bit of American history.
Early in the twentieth century it was President Woodrow Wilson who made Mother’s Day an official holiday in the US. Notice that the official spelling is Mother’s Day. It is intentionally singular so that each of us will remember to honor our own mother, not mothers in general. Eventually the US holiday was adopted by other countries and cultures but the date was changed to coincide with existing celebrations that honored motherhood; e.g. Mothering Sunday in the UK or the Orthodox celebration of Jesus in the temple in Greece. In some countries it was changed to fit with the dates that were significant to the majority religion, like the Virgin Mary day in Catholic countries, or the birthday of the daughter of the Prophet Muhammad in Islamic countries.
So is this “Hallmark Theology” as my Puritan friends told me thirty years ago? Not exactly. It is clearly rooted in both biblical and non-biblical ideas whether we keep a special day or not. A special day might actually help a culture to remember some important moments of gratitude and blessing. Keeping such special days is common in Christian history. Christian thought and practice did not destroy cultural ideas but adopted and shaped them for Christian ends. Thus Mother’s Day is a great time for the church to remember and give thanks for the important role that our mothers have in all our lives.