It's amazingly predictable, but it always surprises me. Three days every year have more church visitors than any others. The first two make perfect sense. Christmas and Easter are religious holidays. I expect to have large congregations and many extra guests to celebrate the birth and rebirth of Christ. Even those who don't attend regularly feel a deep call to celebrate on the bright occasions of Christmas and Easter. In the church business we call them "poinsettias and lilies" -- answering a call as predictable and undeniable as the seasons.
The third day that brings many new faces to church, however, is not a religious holy day, but a civic holiday. To retain the floral theme, I suppose we should call our visitors on the third occasion "orchids." As you have likely guessed, the occasion is Mother's Day. It always surprises me at first, but there are good reasons the blooming of orchids on Mother's Day should be as predictable as poinsettias and lilies.
The first reason is that mothers are powerful. Whether we visit our mothers on Mother's Day or they visit us, they exercise moral authority in our lives. If for nothing else, guilt compels even the least devout to accompany their mothers to church on this one day each year. Even those whose mothers have died feel the compulsion and will come to church "because Mom would have wanted me to." Mothers, remember your influence extends even beyond the grave and if you use your powers for good, you will change the face of the world.
I think, though, that there is a second and deeper need that brings more people into church on Mother's Day. It's something deep in every human soul, something Jesus knew, and something the church once understood but has forgotten. Each of us desperately needs a Heavenly Mother. It took a civic holiday to give us the opportunity to express our longing in a holy way.
The Church gives us an image of the Heavenly Father, protecting us, teaching us, and providing for us, but we have somehow left behind the nurturing, comforting, and hugging we most often associate with a mother. We've tried to fill in the blank with the Blessed Virgin Mary, the God Bearer and Mother of the Church, but although she is full of grace and blessed beyond measure, she is in no way the Heavenly Mother our souls long for.
Instead, we have to go back a few centuries in the history of the Church. One of the earliest symbols of Christ was a mother pelican. It seems odd at first, but when you learn that our ancient ancestors believed that mother pelicans pecked open their own breast and fed their nestling with their blood, the connection makes sense. Looking farther back still, Jesus compared himself to a mother hen, gathering the scattered children of Jerusalem under his wings, shielding them from danger with his own body. Motherly power, like Christ's, is rooted in loving, voluntary pain and sacrifice that leads to great good and joy, even beyond the grave.
We are drawn to church on Mother's Day because, in the sacrificial love of our own mothers we taste the divine motherly love of Jesus Christ. In the nurture of our mothers we find the guidance of Sophia, the Holy Wisdom of God. In the hugs of our mothers, we feel the warm breast and bright wings of the Holy Spirit enfolding us and holding us close.
Three days a year, one for earthly birth, one for heavenly birth, and one for those who give us birth, both on earth and in heaven. Suddenly it makes sense.