It seems like every time I check the news, my old friend Nik Wallenda is attempting another dangerous balancing act. I will always be grateful for the publicity that Nik brought to my hometown area when he walked the wire across Niagara Falls a few years ago, and he probably is as good an icon as any for the difficult act of pastoring and ministering.
I was thinking of Nik and the mists of Niagara at Mass last night, which fell on the vigil of Mother’s Day. Mother’s Day is one of those yearly observances that need a very deft touch when addressed in the liturgy, days when we want to celebrate the ideal but must acknowledge the real. They present liturgical, moral, and psychological challenges to pastors, celebrants, parish ministers, and as I was reminded last night, everyone in the pews.
I may be in the minority here, but in the first instance it is not clear to me that Mother’s Day and Father’s Day rituals and observances are appropriate in the Sunday Eucharist. The Roman Missal is clear on the liturgical priorities: the Sixth Sunday of Easter, the continuing celebration of the Resurrection and the fast-approaching feast of the Ascension. It is worth noting as an aside that there is no official liturgical recognition of Mary in the month of May, as the Redemptive feasts take legitimate precedence. Church law and practice is pretty clear about this.
In the case of Mother’s Day, there is no long-standing outside religious significance to the observance. The day was not observed in the United States prior to 1908, and then to establish a day for mothers as a civil observance. The U.S. founder of Mother’s Day was Anna Jarvis, who became so appalled by its commercialization that she tried to have Mother’s Day rescinded. In my pastoring years Mother’s Day presented innumerable difficulties. As a younger pastor I followed the rules and did not mark the day in the liturgy. I quickly learned that hell hath no fury like a mother gypped out of her “Ave Maria.” Then I went to the other extreme and I actually had children take the pulpit to talk about their mothers, and on another occasion husbands about their wives. My own mother taught me a great dictum about law-breaking: “If you are going to hell, go in a Cadillac and not in a wheelbarrow.” My bishop never got my mother’s humor.
But as I approached my middle years and gained more human experience I came to understand that not everyone is blessed with a happy family, which is why Netflix runs the “Leave It to Beaver” classics to this day as social parody. Years of preaching (and later counseling) taught me that it is never safe to assume how people live, what they think, how they feel. Days we assign to happiness are often not experienced as such. On any given Mother’s Day a typical congregation will have a substantial population of those with very mixed emotions. There are those who have recently lost their mothers to death; those who have lost a child or a spouse; those who deeply desired but were never able to have children; those who were abused by their mothers; those who were never able to connect with their mothers, for one reason or another; those who are 24-hour caregivers of their mothers.
Thus, any mention of Mother’s Day or any blessings or rituals, if they must be done at all, need to demonstrate this inclusivity of the wide range of experience. I experienced both sides of this pastoral dilemma at Mass last night. Our pastor offered a blessing over the women of the congregation, but he invited the male partners to put their arms around the women, and my gut went into overdrive because I know this congregation fairly well and a great many women come to this Mass without supportive partners. In fact, there were several around me. It was another reminder of how liturgy and ministry touch such vital chords, and how difficult it is to celebrate the ideal with compassion for the real.
Many years ago I found myself in a small town where the Catholic Church was located across the street from the Lutheran Church. It was Father’s Day by chance, and after Mass I walked across the street and sat in on the Lutheran service. The worship proceeded as it would, I imagine, on any given Sunday. But as we left the church, there were children at the door who gave a homemade blueberry muffin to all the men who had attended. I have never had my own children, and I think of that a lot. But, be that as it may, the muffin was very good.
On My Mind