Yesterday was Mother’s Day. I always take the opportunity to preach about God as Mother. Here in the United States, we do not talk much about God as Mother. Most people I talk to say that they believe “God” is neither male nor female, is beyond gender and sexuality, yet when we really examine the way we think about God or the images of God which are most familiar to us, most of us imagine God as male/masculine. Mother’s Day is a good time to challenge ourselves to expand our image or understanding of God by considering some of the maternal aspects of God. In the the most ancient civilizations, where people’s survival depended on the beneficence of the earth, the most universal image of God was primordial Mother, Great mother, Mother earth. Great Mother as the one who birthed us and all creation, as the one who nurtures and sustains us. Today still in many of the world’s religions there is a balance of male and female in the understanding of God: Shiva/Shakti in Hinduism, Mother Earth and Father Sky in Native American spirituality, Yin and Yang in Buddhism. When I travelled in Turkey, a country which today is 90% Muslim, I was struck by the many images of Mary, Mother of Jesus, in the mosques I visited.
Our guide, who was Muslim, said that Mary is a very important figure in Islam, and he feels that this is because before Islam came to that region, the people worshipped the Great Mother, so Mother Mary was a familiar image which spoke to the hearts of the people. In the Anatolian Cultural Center, which has some of the most ancient artifacts in the world, There are many statues, four-five thousand years old, of the Great Mother, as seen below. Unfortunately, this balance of male and female in our image of God is most lacking in my own Judeo-Christian tradition. This is because when Judaism developed around 2000 BCE its image of God was monotheistic and patriarchal. The Gods/Goddesses of all of those Canaanites, Amorites, Hittites, and other “-ites” had to be wiped out and destroyed. As is usually the case, when we define ourselves as “over and against” something else, we often go a bit too far. So as patriarchal Judaism defined itself against all of its surrounding neighbor nations, which worshipped God as Mother, it wiped out most of the feminine aspects of its own image of God. Most aspects. The Hebrew bible (Old Testament) does have some images of God as Mother, but as Krister Stendahl, one of my favorite professors at Harvard Divinity School, said, “It is like balancing a canary against an elephant.” In the Hebrew bible, ironically, the word which is most often translated as “God’s tender love” or “God’s compassion,” literally means “ womb love,” (Rachamim, from the Hebrew word for womb, Rechem) In other word’s “maternal, Mother Love.”
There is a great deal of feminine God imagery in what bible scholars call Third Isaiah. (The biblical book of “Isaiah” is actually considered three different books by most bible scholars, who label these three portions, First Isaiah, Second Isaiah and Third Isaiah). This imagery is all about nursing, and it is something which spoke to me powerfully when I was a young mother, who nursed my three children. Might the author of Third Isaiah have been a nursing mother herself? For example, one of my favorite texts is from Isaiah 49:15: “Can a woman forget her nursing child; or show no compassion (womb love) on the child of her womb? Even should these be able to forget, I will never forget you, says Yahweh, see, I have inscribed you on the palm of my hand.” I always thought this was a beautiful passage, but when I became a nursing mother, I realized that there was a whole other layer of meaning I had never understood before: a nursing mother CANNOT forget her child.
As every nursing mother knows, it is physiologically impossible to forget your child. When it is “feeding time,” your breasts ache. They become hard as rocks, filled with milk to the point that you are in pain until you are able to nurse your child. Whoever wrote Third Isaiah knew about that! S/he (I would say She) gives us an image of a God who aches to feed us from her “consoling breasts,” and who “dandles us upon her knees.” (Isaiah 66)
In the new Testament Jesus refers to himself as a mother hen, who aches to gather her chicks under her wings, but her rebellious chicks will not have it. This passage takes place the final week of Jesus’ life, as he enters the holy city of Jerusalem. You can hear the aching in his heart for his “children:” “Jerusalem, Jerusalem, how I have longed to gather you under my wings, as a mother hen gathers her chicks, but you would not.” (Matthew 23:37). One of the most famous Christian saints and mystics, Saint Juliana of Norwich, (1342-1416) writes about “Jesus our Mother.” She says that just as a pregnant woman feeds her child with her own body, and her own blood, so Jesus our Mother feeds us in the eucharist with his own body, his own blood.
In the Hebrew bible (Old Testament) the word for Holy Spirit is Ruach, which is a She! In the Greek language of the New Testament the word for Holy Spirit is pneuma, which is a neuter word, but a “feminine concept,” my Greek professor explained to me. Why it has consistently been translated as “He” is beyond me, perhaps because historically most of the translators were male. I remember the day in the early 90s whenI was meeting with the same Rev. Dr. Krister Stendahl, and the Harvard Divinity Bookstore got in the shipment of brand new bibles, New Revised Standard Version(NRSV). Dr. Stendahl and I went to the HDS bookstore,and immediately opened to the Gospel of John, to see if at last the word for Holy Spirit had been translated correctly as “She” or at least as “It,” but alas, we were both dismayed to see the incorrect translation of “He!” Only in the last few years have I started to see scholars and theologians in the Judeo-Christian tradition starting to refer to God as “Godself,” and the Holy Spirit as “She.” Only in the last few years have I seen hymns and liturgical prayers begin to address God as Mother and Spirit as She. The Wisdom literature in the Hebrew bible does, however, translate Wisdom, God’s consort and counterpart in creation, as “She.” But we still have a long way to go. Jesus also gives female images for God. In Luke 15 God is portrayed as the Shepherd who searches for the lost sheep, the Father who yearn’s for his prodigal and lost sons, and the woman who sweeps her house in search of the lost coin.
Ironically, in the Roman Catholic Church, the largest stronghold of patriarchy in Christianity, where sadly even under the beloved new Pope Francis, women’s ordination and equality is still not a reality, there is nevertheless a tremendous veneration of Mary, the Mother of our Lord, the Mother of the Church.
Many theologians, myself included, feel that this is because God IS neither male nor female, but has equal aspects of both male and female, and that those aspects will come out somewhere, hence, Mother Mary reflects that feminine aspect of God. Some of you might be bristling at this. Some of you might find this comforting or exciting. I know it takes awhile to truly crack open the “Box” we have constructed around who we think God is. I was a student at Harvard Divinity School in the Eighties, a time of radical feminist theology. I handed in a paper for one course, where I inadvertently named God as “He,” and it was handed back to me, with the “He” circled in red, and a note which said, “Correct your paper.” Surrounded by radical feminist theology, I remember trying to divest myself of all of the male God imagery, praying to God as Mother, to the Holy Spirit as She. But the old guy with a beard kept showing up in my head! It took about six months of daily practice before the feminine side of God finally broke through. But She has continued to do so. Today I continue to hold many images of God: masculine, feminine, and genderless. Because, of course, God is always beyond any and all of our images. We also need to remember that having only one predominant image may actually prevent people from drawing close to God. I say this remembering a Vacation Bible School program for children I taught at an inner city church when I was in Divinity School. The VBS theme was about how God is like a Father. I had a wonderful father, who loved me dearly, so the image of God as my Father filled me with warmth and comfort. But a boy, about ten years old became extremely angry with the image of God as Father: “If God is like a Father, then I want nothing to do with him!” he shouted. “My father abandoned me when I was just a baby.” In other words, every image is limited. On this Mother’s Day I therefore invite you to examine your images of God, and if they are mostly male, to explore the feminine Mother images, since God is Holy/Whole. Especially for those of us who may have been wounded by patriarchy, and by patriarchal churches, our own healing (the word for healing literally means “to be made whole”) and the healing of our world will only come about when we have reached a place of balance and wholeness within ourselves and our world, a balance of masculine and feminine, yin and yang, Carl Jung’s animus and anima, God as Father, and also God as Mother.
May you see God in all you encounter,
and may you reflect god to all you encounter.
Pastor Linda Forsberg, Copyright May 12, 2014
Today’s Blog is in Loving Memory of My Mother,
Helen Forsberg, whose birthday was today, May 12
Photo Credits in order, all used with permission: Pregnant woman: Renata Ricci, photographed by her friend of Perretta Photography; Ceiling of Hagia Sophia, Istanbul, by Linda Forsberg;Linda Forsberg photographed at Anatolian Museum by Theodore Gibbons; Linda Forsberg photographed at Anatolian Museum by Theodore Gibbons; Eugenia Gibbons and Sylvie photographed by Tim Alperen; Eugenia Gibbons and Sylvie photographed by Linda Forsberg; Linda Forsberg and Victoria Forsberg-Lary, photographed by Timothy Alperen; Linda Forsberg at House of Mary, Mother of Our Lord, Ephesus, by Theodore Gibbons; Prayer Wall at Mary’s House, Ephesus; Nicolette and John Luca Bosco, photographed by Linda Forsberg; Helen Forsberg and Linda Forsberg, photographed by Theodore Gibbons