Manifest in Beauty

(I delivered this homily at the Unitarian Universalist Fellowship of the Peninsula on May 12th 2013.)

A seasoned minister once warned me about Mother’s Day services.  “We have people who don’t get on with their mothers,” she told me.  “Or they never knew their mothers.  Or they were abused by their mothers.  We have women who always wanted to be mothers but because of health or relationship challenges never had children.  Or society tells them there’s something wrong with them because they don’t want children.  There are all too many reasons why people would rather not be reminded that it’s Mother’s Day,” she concluded, “or else they’d simply prefer to dismiss it as yet another commercialized, ‘Hallmark’ holiday.”

It’s perhaps not too surprising, then, that Mother’s Day is a fairly popular choice of Sunday for Unitarian Universalists to hold their Flower Communion services.  After all, any Sunday in the months approaching the Summer would do, providing a nice symmetry between the Water Communion in early Autumn as a celebration of everything we share in common with one another and the Flower Communion in late Spring as a celebration of everything that makes us unique and special.  But the more of a Sunday service on Mother’s Day that’s devoted to something like the Flower Communion, well, the less time there is to deal with that fact that it is Mother’s Day.  Plus, there’s already that association between Mother’s Day and flowers, so it’s not too hard to justify.

Of course, Mother’s Day didn’t begin as just another opportunity for the vendors of flowers, chocolates and jewelry to make money: Unitarian writer and activist Julia Ward Howe first campaigned for such a day in the late nineteenth century as a way for women everywhere to bring healing and peace in the wake of the horrors of the Civil War.  And challenging our society’s narrow views of motherhood and the resulting oppression of women, the Unitarian Universalist Association is partnering with the Strong Families Initiative, a coalition of organizations and individuals that crosses society’s often artificial boundaries of “generation, race, gender, immigration status, and sexuality”.  The UUA, by the way, is the first religious organization to partner with Strong Families, joining the effort to broaden Mother’s Day into a more inclusive celebration of motherhood in all its forms.  Jessica Halperin, who is the UUA’s women’s issues program associate, explains, “Strong Families is a national initiative to change policy and culture in support of all families.  Their annual ‘Mama’s Day’ campaign lifts up and celebrates the magic and heartbreak of being a mama and honors the experiences of motherhood that often don’t fit ideas of a traditional Mother’s Day.”

Another dimension to this, of course, comes in association with the word “beauty”.  I actually picked the title of this service, “Manifest in Beauty”, based on my description of previous Flower Communion services, where I explained that just “as the idea of a flower finds expression in many varieties and infinite forms, so too does our shared humanity manifest in so many beautiful ways.”  Then, shortly after I’d chosen my title, the Dove soap people came out with a new advert as part of their “Real Beauty” marketing campaign, comparing a forensic artist’s sketches of women’s descriptions of themselves with those based on other people’s descriptions of the same women.  Putting each pair of sketches side-by-side, it’s clear that the women described themselves in overly critical and, frankly, inaccurate ways, whereas other people — women and men — described their appearances more favorably.  It’s a powerful advert, but it received a lot of criticism because, at the end of the day, Dove’s message seems to be that, simply put, it’s physical appearance that really matters when it comes to a woman’s self-confidence, her success, even her ability to be a good mother.  (Oh, and, of course, that Dove soap and other products from the Unilever corporation can help with that.)

Now there’s a whole series of sermons’ worth of material here — from the complex ways that inner self-confidence and outer self-image are related, including the differences between men and women in how that typically happens, to the intentional marketing of the artificial problem of falling short of some idealized standard of beauty in order to support the growth of the cosmetics industry — but I bring it up here because it does indeed relate to the reason why Unitarian Universalist congregations celebrate the Flower Communion.

flowersAfter all, when Norbert and Maja Čapek left the United States, where they had lived during World War I, to create in Prague what would be, for a while, the largest Unitarian church in the world, they wanted to inspire their congregants to recognize the inherent worth and dignity of all people, to think of themselves and everyone else, too, as a different embodiment of a spark of divinity struggling for higher expression in its own way.  Inspired by the beauty of the Czech countryside, the Čapeks asked everyone coming to services to bring with them a flower, and to put all of the flowers together to form a huge bouquet.  The assembly of flowers, of course, was just like the congregation of people: remove or change just one flower, and it wouldn’t be the same bouquet!  Then, as part of the Flower Communion, each person was to select a flower to take with them when they left, a reminder that each is special in and of itself, simply for being itself, for the carnation doesn’t complain that it’s not a rose nor the tulip that it’s not an orchid.

In a few minutes we’ll be celebrating the Flower Communion ourselves, taking the opportunity to once again manifest in shared beauty our diverse humanity.  But it is Mother’s Day, and so in tribute to everyone — regardless of age, race, class, gender identity or sexual orientation — who deserves to be recognized for their mothering, I’d like to share a reading by mother and writer Beth Brubaker with you.  By way of an introduction, I’ll simply say that this reading is in the style of the books by Laura Numeroff that began with If You Give a Mouse a Cookie, but even if you’ve never read those books, many of you, I suspect, will find Brubaker’s description of household events awfully familiar.

1 Comment »

  1. […] May 12th: “Manifest in Beauty” […]

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