Mother’s Day: a radical cry for peace

By Greg Syler

The first official Mother’s Day was celebrated Sunday May 10, 1907 – the second Sunday in May – at Andrews Methodist Church in the little town of Grafton, West Virginia. The woman who held this first celebration was Anna Jarvis – and she did it in honor of her mother, Anna Maria Reeves Jarvis. The elder Mrs. Jarvis’ favorite flower was a white carnation, and Anna, her daughter, requested that everyone who attended the services on May 10 wear a white carnation in her mother’s memory. This quickly became the tradition; incidentally, it wasn’t supposed to be that the flowers were given to mothers, as is often the case today; it’s that you wore a white carnation if your mother was deceased, and a red one if she was living.

It turns out that Anna Maria Reeves Jarvis was a fascinating woman, who died in 1905, just two years before that first celebration. She was born in Culpeper, Virginia in 1832, the daughter of a Methodist minister and his wife, who later moved to present-day West Virginia to take a new call. Mrs. Reeves (her maiden name) married the son of a nearby Baptist minister, named Jarvis, and they had twelve children, although only four lived to adulthood.

In the middle of the nineteenth century, the changing, growing, expansive world was bringing to these coal counties threats of civil war; battles over slavery; increasing productivity and technology, but also longer hours and dangerous working conditions – child labor laws were hardly heard. So it was that Anna Jarvis, in the 1840s and 50s, organized a series of (what she called) “Mother’s Day Work Clubs” – designed to bring the wisdom and domestic eye of women into deplorable living and working conditions, in order to improve health conditions for many families. Jarvis’ first Mother’s Day Work Club raised money for medicines, deployed women to work for families in which the mothers suffered from tuberculosis, and inspected bottled milk and food. By 1860, local physicians and mothers had spread this work to at least 15 other towns.

While the civil war raged on, making their little West Virginia county a strategic stop along the Baltimore & Ohio Railroad, Jarvis urged the Mother’s Day Work Clubs to declare their neutrality in the fight and provide relief and medical care for any and all – whether Union or Confederate. The clubs treated the wounded, and fed and clothed soldiers stationed in the area. In all, Jarvis helped preserve peace in a war-ravaged town by focusing on a common mission in which all could participate. In fact, after the war, she and her family moved to a larger nearby town only to find that tensions between North and South had escalated due to the political bickering surrounding Reconstruction. In the summer of 1865, Mrs. Jarvis organized a Mother’s Friendship Day on the courthouse steps in Pruntytown, WV, to bring together soldiers and neighbors regardless of their confederate or yankee leanings. Many feared that the day would erupt in violence, but it turned out to be a great success. That celebration continued for many years following the first one in 1865.

For the next forty years, Anna Jarvis led this Mother’s Day movement, a movement of mothers standing up against poverty, war, injustice, and bigotry. Alongside her husband and family, she was committed to the idea that in a violent time, with the ravages of warfare and industry, the voice of women – in particular, the wisdom of mothers – was the only deciding factor between death and life, between health and rotting away. It would only seem reasonable that her daughter, Anna Jarvis, would want to celebrate her mother’s legacy on the second Sunday in May, 1907, after her death only two years’ earlier.

Seven years after that first Mother’s Day celebration, President Woodrow Wilson made the second Sunday in May – now called Mother’s Day – a national holiday. That year was, of course, 1914, and this nation was faced with a new threat – a world war that threatened to destroy any advances of human civilization, and nearly did. Yes, this day we celebrate – this seemingly quiet second Sunday in May – is a call to peace, a call to stand up for justice, a call to embrace the values that this world so easily trumps down, underfoot, yet which Jesus called us to embody.

“Do not let your hearts be troubled,” Jesus said (Jn.14:27), for he gives generously, and from his own bounty. He does not give as the world gives, he told his disciples – it’s not tit-for-tat; not a political arrangement. No, it is Christ’s peace. “My peace I give you; my own peace I leave with you,” reminding us that we are, already, infused with a presence, a living Spirit within us. The gifts are already ours, and when one or two taps into them we are suddenly alive in Christ, animated to do amazing things, even with just a simple idea – say, getting local mothers together to go and inspect milk so children won’t die of a preventable disease.

This is something the world laughs at, frankly. Peace? What does that have to do with the issues we confront today, this complex War on Terror. Unless we strike them, and strike them dead, they will get us. Peace? Unless we show the pictures of a dead man to the world our strength will not be revealed. Peace? And how can you show us, Christians, what peace you have brought to this planet in the last two millennia? Peace?

But Jesus’ peace is given on a night, long ago, in the midst of great anguish, pain, anxiety and dread. Jesus’ peace does not wipe away any wars, neither civil wars nor world wars nor a war on terror. Jesus’ peace doesn’t alleviate our anxiety, like taking a pill at night. The world, as such, will still feature and, in fact, feed on violence and bigotry and destruction and – yes – it’s all caused by people just like you and me. We live, today, in deadly times, but we always have. Throngs rejoice, celebrate a killing. So many wrestle with ambivalence between rejoicing and fear, glee and, well, sickness. Threats of car bombs invade our major cities. Political conversation, across the aisle between two broken parties, is dead. The American experience seems under threat of collapse, economic, political, religious and otherwise. The creation, as we know it, is also not eternal, and through our own consumption of natural resources we can threaten its livelihood even as we sit and read these words.

No, Jesus’ peace is not an elixir or a drug. It’s a reality that, deep down, we are already redeemed, that we are already given gifts. So that peace is only activated when we use it. Jesus told his disciples, in the fourteenth chapter of the Gospel of John, to go out and spread the message: heal the brokenhearted, bind up the sinners, proclaim release to the captives. “Do not be afraid,” for this peace you have is mine, it is eternal, it is yours. Use it.

Someone we might remember this weekend, named Anna Jarvis, believed so much in the strangely counter-cultural values of peace, womanhood, goodness, mercy, and compassion that she stuck her neck out there, in a deadly, blood-lusty time. She risked faith, and was redeemed. And you and I remember her, or at least remember her day for it.

Or do we? Honestly, how many thought of the second Sunday in May as a radical cry for peace?

For the long ending of the story is that Anna Jarvis, who sought to lift up her mother’s memory in establishing this holiday, died in utter poverty, having spent everything she and her sister had to de-commercialize the holiday. As early as fifteen years after President Wilson established the Second Sunday in May as a holiday, she was disgusted by how quickly it grew into a buying spectacle and how suddenly it lost its focus on what her mother worked so hard to claim – a focus on mercy for the downtrodden, compassion for the prisoners, justice for the poor, and peace for all humankind.

Perhaps that’s the Christian story in a nutshell – that future generations might not know us for our great deeds and monumental tales but we do them nevertheless. We stand against violence and war-mongering. We love the downtrodden. We clothe the naked. We feed the hungry. We tend the poor.

Not because it’s popular, but because it’s right – and the right, the only way to peace.

The Rev. Greg Syler is the rector of St. George’s Episcopal Church in Valley Lee, Maryland, and serves on Diocesan Council in the Diocese of Washington.

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