Happy Mother’s Day, Moms!
In light of Mother’s Day, I thought I’d take a pretty conservative approach to thinking through the topic of God as Mother.
I know it sounds odd (and to some reading this, the opposite of conservative), but I recently read up on 14th century anchoress, Julian of Norwich’s work on Jesus as Mother…and it was so incredibly moving, I felt like I had an almost second “salvation experience.” Here’s why:
The idea of God as my Father always felt sort of foreign to me. The reason is because I’ve never had a relationship with my father, and while I have an incredible stepfather, his role as stepfather has always come in second to my mom’s role as my mother. For the first chunk of my life my mom was a single mother, acting as both mom and dad. My grandma also helped raise me, serving as a second-mom and pseudo-dad. So inevitably, when I read in Scripture about all the ways God is a parent, I naturally related that metaphor to my mother and grandmother’s parenting.
I noticed how this influenced me a couple years ago while traveling in Peru. I was sitting at a coffee shop doing some midday devotional reading when I arrived at Romans 8:15, which reads: “You didn’t receive a spirit of slavery to lead you back again into fear, but you received a Spirit that shows you are adopted as his children. With this Spirit, we cry, ‘Abba, Father.’”—it hit me in that moment that I’ve never actually cried, “Abba, Father.” In fact, the word, “father” has never been uttered from my mouth, directed to anyone—not to a human, nor to God. I thought this was interesting, and for a while, I tried to force saying it toward God because, as everyone always told me, “God is THE perfect father,” regardless if I knew what that meant or not…
It never stuck, though. Father just wasn’t a name I used for God. But, despite my not referring to God as Father, I never once thought of referring to him in motherly terms, either. Because, well, thinking of God as Mother can be rather awkward.
However, putting pronouns and labels aside, we all know and understand that the Divine is a Spirit, which means God is not exclusively male or female. God is non-gendered, or to put it in a more “God-like” way: God is beyond gender.
If this is true, then why is Mother God such an uncomfortable term for most people?
Well, recent history within the church has steered pretty far from using feminine imagery for God. Interestingly though, this has not always been the case. In fact, our early church fathers and mothers used elaborate language concerning God, most of it rather fluid when it came to gender. Men like Calvin, Augustine, Origen, Iraneaus, Clement of Alexandria and others seemed rather comfortable using feminine imagery for Jesus.
For example, Clement of Alexandria says, “The Word [Christ] is everything to his little ones, both father and mother.” Likewise, Chrysostom is known to pray, “Thou art my Father, thou art my Mother…”
Before the female body was hyper eroticized, Augustine had a lot to say about breastmilk, nourishment, and God. He refers to the disciples “drink[ing] at the fountain of the Lord’s breast,” and uses motherly imagery: “For just as a mother, suckling her infant, transfers from her flesh the very same food which otherwise would be unsuited to a babe … so our Lord, in order to convert his wisdom into milk for our benefit, came to us clothed in flesh.”
Theologians before us had a rather sophisticated knowledge of language, rightly assuming that there really aren’t words to describe the vastness of God. John Calvin affirmed this when he said, “If it be objected that God is everywhere called Father and that this title is more appropriate, I reply that no figures of speech can describe God’s affection towards us; for it is infinite and various…By no metaphor can his incomparable goodness be described.” Concerning the title Mother, Calvin also says about God, “He did not satisfy himself with proposing the example of a father, but to express his very strong affection, he chose to liken himself to a mother and calls them not to merely ‘children’ but the fruit of the womb…”
If it was common for the church fathers and mothers to use feminine imagery for God, why does it feel so awkward for us now?
The main argument from those who oppose calling God “Mother” is that in Scripture, God reveals himself as a Son, who in turn, calls God his Father. Because this is true, I don’t argue that we should seek to change what Scripture says.
However, it’s important to understand that God’s revelation involves contextualization. For example, God did not reveal himself in a hypothetical way to a group of people who lived above or beyond history—he revealed himself to a specific and historical group of people with their own specific culture. This is pretty obvious for us when we read how in antiquity, not only was it common for people to own slaves, but women were also considered property, oftentimes paid for with a bride price. God’s revelation was communicated in a way they could understand. And because we understand the patriarchal nature of the society in which Scripture was written, wouldn’t it be safe to argue that the dominance of male imagery for God is due to the way the patriarchal culture shaped them? As Marianne Meye Thompson says, “Thus God is pictured as a warrior, not because God loves to fight or kill, but in part because the world of the Bible was a world often filled with violence and warfare.” Patriarchal language is not incidental to Scripture, it’s normative.
Another interesting thing to note is that language about God is not only masculine…
God refers to himself as a nursing mother (Isaiah 49:15; Numbers 11:12), a midwife (Psalm 22:8-10), and as one who gives birth (Isaiah 42:14, Psalm 131:2). God relates to his people as a bear to her cubs (Hosea 13:8), an eagle hovering over her young (Deuteronomy 32:11), and a mother comforting and weaning her children (Isa 66:13, Psalm 131:2). Jesus compares himself to a mother hen (Matthew 23:37).
On that same token, the Old Testament uses the word “spirit” to refer to the Holy Spirit 84 different times. From those 84 occurrences, 75 of them refer to the Holy Spirit in feminine terms. For example, in Genesis 1:2 where the term “Spirit of God” first appears, it is in feminine form. In Judges, the spirit is always feminine. And in Proverbs, the Wisdom of God, which Christian tradition understands to be the Holy Spirit, is personified as a woman. In fact, this is one of the greatest ways that God is referred to in feminine terms. Throughout Scripture, Wisdom (God) is a she.
However, despite all of this—early church fathers’ and mothers’ fluid language for God, or Scripture’s reference to feminine attributes to God and Wisdom—I wasn’t particularly inclined to think of Jesus as Mother. Until…well, until I was assigned to read Julian of Norwich for class.
Julian lived in late fourteenth-century England. At the age of thirty, she fell seriously ill. As she lay dying in the presence of her mother and the priest who had given her the last rites, she had a lengthy vision of Christ’s suffering on the cross and his redeeming love. She recovered and became an anchoress, walled into a small apartment, with one window into a church and one window onto the world where she had an active ministry providing spiritual advice to hundreds of people over several decades. Julian recorded her visions and her reflections in a book she called Divine Revelations.
In parts of Divine Revelations, Julian talks about how Jesus is a Mother:
Our true mother, Jesus, he who is all love, bears us into joy and eternal life. So he sustains us within himself in love and was in labour for the full time until he suffered the sharpest pangs and the most grievous sufferings that ever were or shall be, and at the last he died. And when it was finished he had born us to bliss…
The mother can give her child her milk to suck, but our dear Mother Jesus can feed us with himself, and he does so most generously and most tenderly with the holy sacrament which is the precious food of life itself…
This fairly word “mother” is so sweet and so close in nature itself that it may not truly be said of none but him. To the property of motherhood belongs natural love, wisdom, and knowing; and it is good: for though it be that our bodily birth be but little, low and simple in comparison with our spiritual birth, yet it is he that does it in the creatures by whom it is done.
A natural loving mother who knows and sees the need of her child keeps it full tenderly, as the nature and the condition of motherhood will. And as the child grows older, she changes her working, but not her love. And when the child is older still, she allows it to be beaten to break down its vices, to make the child receive virtues and graces. This working, with all that is fair and good, our Lord does it in them by whom it is done: thus he is our Mother in nature by the working of grace…
The mother may allow the child to fall sometimes, and to be hurt in diverse manners for its own profit, but her love will never allow any manner of peril come to the child. And though our earthly mother may allow her child to perish, our heavenly Mother, Jesus, will not allow his children to perish: for he is All-mighty, All-wisdom, and All-love; and so is none but he. Blessed may he be!
But oftentimes when our falling and our wretchedness is shown to us, we are so afraid and so greatly ashamed of ourselves, that we scarcely know where to turn. But then our courteous Mother does not want us to flee away—far from it! Instead, he wishes us to be like a child: for when it is hurt, or afraid, it runs hastily to its mother for help, with all its might. So wills he that we do, as a meek child saying thus: “My kind Mother, my gracious Mother, my beloved Mother, have mercy on me!”
As some of you mommies are experiencing, there’s something incredibly special about motherly love…from the fact that your body literally forms the child inside of you, to the fact that it provides the food necessary for it’s survival. The physical, emotional, mental and even spiritual bond a child can have with its mother is too much for words. I argue this kind of connection is so heavenly, so close to the connection we have with Jesus, that meditating on his love from this perspective can be unbelievably intimate, as it was for me—a woman who will one day be a mother, whom never had an intimate connection with a father—when I first read these words.
The truth is, “Mother God” is not intended to ever replace “Father God,” but perhaps expanding our view of language can not only help us understand the bigness and the beauty of God, but also benefit those who have never had a father to relate to.
Either way, may today be a little different as you celebrate the motherlyness of our Savior.
To be a Mother is to suffer;
To travail in the dark,
stretched and torn,
exposed in half-naked humiliation,
subjected to indignities
for the sake of new life.
To be a Mother is to say,
“This is my body, broken for you,”
And, in the next instant, in response to the created’s primal hunger,
“This is my body, take and eat.”
To be a Mother is to self-empty,
To neither slumber nor sleep,
so attuned You are to cries in the night—
Offering the comfort of Yourself,
and assurances of “I’m here.”
To be a Mother is to weep
over the fighting and exclusions and wounds
your children inflict on one another;
To long for reconciliation and brotherly love
and—when all is said and done—
To gather all parties, the offender and the offended,
into the folds of your embrace
and to whisper in their ears
that they are Beloved.
To be a mother is to be vulnerable—
To be misunderstood,
For the heartaches of the bewildered children
who don’t know where else to cast
the angst they feel
over their own existence
in this perplexing universe
To be a mother is to hoist onto your hips those on whom your image is imprinted,
bearing the burden of their weight,
rejoicing in their returned affection,
delighting in their wonder,
bleeding in the presence of their pain.
To be a mother is to be accused of sentimentality one moment,
And injustice the next.
To be the Receiver of endless demands,
Absorber of perpetual complaints,
Reckoner of bottomless needs.
To be a mother is to be an artist;
A keeper of memories past,
Weaver of stories untold,
Visionary of lives looming ahead.
To be a mother is to be the first voice listened to,
And the first disregarded;
To be a Mender of broken creations,
And Comforter of the distraught children
whose hands wrought them.
To be a mother is to be a Touchstone
and the Source,
Bestower of names,
Influencer of identities;