Texts: Psalm 131; a reading from the Shewings of Julian of Norwich
I have this problem where, every few years, I forget just how unbelievably misogynistic the wider church can be, until some article or personal experience reminds me again. I was raised American Baptist, a denomination that has ordained women since the late 19th century, about 80 years before the Episcopal Church. I went to a college founded by an American Baptist minister, Adoniram Judson Gordon, who actually wrote that men had lost the moral authority to lead the church, and who was arrested for his agitating for women’s rights. And yet there were students at this college, and even a couple professors, who believed that women shouldn’t speak in church. So four friends and I helped start a feminist group on campus. We talked about a range of issues, from the biblical stories of the creation of men and women, to women’s ordination, to inclusive-language Bibles. And of course we talked about the overwhelming use of masculine language and images of God, and tried to reclaim feminine language and images.
In some ways, this last issue was the most hotly contested. Even some people who supported the ordination of women could not accept calling God “Mother” or the Holy Spirit “She.” Their thinking was, they claimed, that God tells us through “his” Bible that he is Father, Lord, and all those other masculine names, the ones the church uses almost exclusively. If God wanted to be called Mother, they said, God would have said so in Scripture.
So we called in a feminist biblical scholar from the neighboring seminary, and combed the Scriptures, looking for evidence to the contrary. Here is some of what we found: in Hosea 13:8, God describes herself as a mother bear deprived of her cubs—here the motherhood of God is decidedly non-nurturing, but rather violent and terrifying. In Matthew 23:37, Jesus says, “Jerusalem, Jerusalem, the city that kills the prophets and stones those who are sent to it! How often have I desired to gather your children together as a hen gathers her brood under her wings, and you were not willing!” The first time I saw a turkey hen with her chicks, with their little heads popping out from between the feathers of her wings, I understood the challenge of accomplishing what Jesus desires.
God also compares herself to a human mother. Isaiah 42 shows the flexibility of the ancient world when it came to metaphors: in verse 13, the prophet says, “The LORD will go forth like a warrior, He will arouse His zeal like a man of war.” But the very next verse depicts God herself saying, “I have kept silent for a long time, I have kept still and restrained Myself. Now like a woman in labor I will groan, I will both gasp and pant.” And later on in Isaiah (49:15), God asks, “Can a woman forget her nursing child, or show no compassion for the child of her womb? Even these may forget, yet I will not forget you.” In other words, as impossible as it is to imagine a loving mother forgetting her child, it is even more impossible to imagine God forgetting us. Here, God’s motherhood is evidence of her deep and undying faithfulness, love, and care for her children. This contrasts with the human faithlessness of idolatry; Deuteronomy 32:18 reads, “You neglected the Rock that begot you, forgot the God who gave birth to you.” In that verse, God is both begetting father and birthing mother, the totality of parenthood, and all we humans could ever need.
As for forgetting God, we do seem to have forgotten this half of God’s person, the rich descriptions of God’s motherhood—even outright denied it at times. That last verse from Deuteronomy has been deliberately mistranslated again and again, and it is only in recent translations that God’s motherhood is made plain. Most older translations have obscured the feminine side of the parent imagery, and heightened the masculine: some of them read, “Thou hast forsaken the God that beget thee, and hast forgotten the Lord that created thee.” Many of the translations change the verb “gave birth to” to “formed” or “gave life,” out of discomfort with the impact of a description of God physically giving birth. It seems it’s one thing for God to say she is like a woman in labor, but another thing entirely for God to say she actually gave birth.
And yet the church has supported language for God in the past that seems almost ludicrous to modern sensibilities, like the late medieval devotional theology that spoke of Jesus as a mother. Julian of Norwich, an English mystic writing around the time of one of the many plague outbreaks in Europe, is thought to have been a mother herself. She writes with such authority and certainty of God’s mother-love, and it is possible that she was married and had children, only to lose her family during the plague, prompting her to become an anchoress in the local church. Whether or not she was herself a mother, what is clear is that Julian was unhappy with a theology that emphasized too much the shame of sin, and the distance that sin created between God and the sinner. She recognized that a God of love would not be happy with human beings’ fear of punishment, but, like a mother with her children, would want us to run to God for comfort. But it was not just God that she saw as a mother; like some other medieval theologians, Julian saw Jesus as a mother, as well.
In medieval medical thought, breast milk was believed to be a form of transmuted blood, so it may have been natural to imagine the blood from Jesus’ side, pierced during his crucifixion, as life-giving milk, especially when you consider that medieval Eucharistic theology held that the wine of the Eucharist was Christ’s actual blood, feeding and transforming the faithful. Some paintings show Jesus offering the wound in his side as if it were a breast full of milk. Lorenzo Monaco’s painting, “Intercession of Christ and the Virgin,” has Jesus interceding for sinners to the Father, while pointing to the wound in his side, while Mary, holding her breast, says, “Dearest son, because of the milk that I gave you, have mercy on them.”
The next, inevitable phase, then, was to see Jesus as mother, as Julian did, as well as Hildegard of Bingen and Bernard of Clairvaux. While the Middle Ages were not a time when women, as individuals, were respected, it was a time when the feminine role of motherhood most definitely was. And Jesus filled a role similar to motherhood, including feeding people from his body, nurturing believers, and comforting sinners. Bernard counseled others to “suck the breasts of the Crucified. He will be your mother and you will be his son.” Touchingly, he reminded all leaders, especially abbots like himself, to emulate Jesus, becoming mothers to their monks. St. Francis of Assisi did the same, writing to his friars “to be mothers, to bear Christ and give birth to Christ in others.” This image lasted even until the Puritan era; the Massachusetts minister John Cotton wrote that a minister is “the breasts of Christ.”
In the end, paying attention to the motherhood of God in the Bible or the motherhood of Jesus in medieval theology invites us to question the monolithic language for God in our culture. As the feminist theologian Mary Daly wrote, “If God is male, then the male is God.” That is, it’s one thing to use some masculine God-language, but if that’s all we use, then we are strengthening the connection between maleness and God. When the church gets knee-jerk reactionary to suggestions that we use feminine God-language, it is betraying the fact that it has associated divinity with maleness to such an extent that the oft-repeated claim that God has no gender is a lie. We may cerebrally believe that God is genderless, but our gut tells us God is male.
“If God is male, then the male is God.” This means that cultures that view God as solely masculine will also view human males as superior, as closer to the divine, and as God’s sole representatives. A church with an all-male priesthood, for example, is a church that has failed to live out its own biblically-based written theology that men and women are made in God’s image, because such a theology does not seem as compelling to its members as the deep-down, gut-level belief that the male sex is the only sex that can represent God. A church in which women may not speak, teach, or preside over the sacraments is one that has become idolatrous, worshipping the maleness of God over the full humanity of women.
One of the larger church’s mandates in this young millennium, along with the full inclusion of its LGBT members and the protection of the earth and all its creatures, is to expand the way we think about God’s gender. For the sake of girls and women everywhere —and boys and men as well, since patriarchy hurts male and female alike—we must stop thinking of God as entirely masculine. Reclaiming some of the biblical and historical imagery for God as feminine is a first step, though hardly the last. It may well be that such a reclaiming by the church at large opens us up to imagining new metaphors we haven’t even dreamed of yet. After all, the texts of the Bible and the writings of theologians and poets throughout the past centuries are only the beginning of a conversation that will last until the end of time. If we are to respond to the invitation of those who began the conversation, then I believe we are invited to contribute our own images, always remembering that no one image can capture God, and that God’s nature is ultimately beyond our comprehension. It may be that, in the end, using a greater variety of images and metaphors for God is best for our limited human understanding, given how easy it is for our most common metaphors to harden into idols.
I want to add that those who find mother language for God unappealing for whatever reason can use this as an opportunity to look for other lesser-known or underappreciated images for God. There’s God as gardener in the Eden story, God as infant in Jesus’ birth narratives, God as lover in the Song of Songs and throughout Jewish, Christian, and Muslim devotional theology. There’s God as lion and as lamb; God as builder, potter, midwife, even knitter. God as friend.
But, as someone who once had a hard time calling God mother, I found Psalm 131, our first reading today, helpful in purging some of my negative associations of mothers. No matter what a person’s relationship is with their difficult mother, they will have seen a fractious baby soothed by being raised to its mother’s breast. They will have seen a contended infant, just after feeding, sleeping deeply on its mother’s breast. It is an image perhaps more universal than any other in the Bible or all two thousand years of Christian theology, and it calls us not only to recognize the motherhood of God, but also the divine in every loving mother. It calls us to remember our intimate dependence on God and her community throughout our lives, even we are most assured of our self-sufficiency. And it reminds us of our calling to birth God into the world again and again, to be midwives of God’s peaceful presence in others, and to be constantly re-creating the community that our lives depend upon.