"God Who Gives Us Birth," by Claire Helton
Today we veer off the liturgical calendar and take a detour toward what we might cynically call the Hallmark calendar. Now, normally it’s important to us at Northminster that we order the rhythm of our communal life to the beat of a different drum than the one our culture is often playing. We keep time according to the sacred stories and seasons that guide us. But, as I’ve seen so many of you post recently, it’s sometimes hard even to keep track of what day it is right now, so I trust that you’ll forgive me this once. We are still in the season of Eastertide, but today is also Mother’s Day. Mothering Sunday, as it’s known in some other countries.
This is an important day, an important kind of day – or at least it has the potential to be, if we can see past the marketing gimmicks. It’s actually kind of shocking when you think about it, that in a culture such as our own we have this practice of stopping each year to turn, every one of us, to those who have cared for us, nurtured us, pushed us, supported us; to those who have mothered us in every sense of the word; and to practice gratitude. I know I’m grateful today for my mother and grandmothers, for all those who have been like a mother to me. I imagine you are, too.
Like many significant days that have passed during the pandemic, it doesn’t really “feel like” Mother’s Day. We won’t go out to eat with the whole family, many of us won’t even be with the whole family at all. Our gift-giving has been affected – I imagine there are a lot more gift cards being given this year and it will be some time before the experiences those gift cards facilitate can actually come to pass. For some of us, though, perhaps the unusual nature of this Mother’s Day comes as a welcome relief. For some, this is a day that is always difficult, because of whatever grief they carry surrounding mothers and mothering. Perhaps, for them, this year is a chance to catch a break on observing this difficult day. And then for others, those who do find joy and meaning in this day, the fact that it’s been taken from them too is just one more loss added to an ever-growing list of small griefs which, in time, amount to enough to really weigh on us.
Women are also facing all kinds of new and unique challenges on this Mother’s Day. There are the mothers with kids who are now stuck home and going stir-crazy; mothers who are trying to navigate working from home while maintaining their sanity; mothers who are dealing with job insecurity, or food insecurity, or both, and are faced with very real questions about their ability to provide for their families. There are women dealing with infertility who have had to press pause on an already difficult and often time-sensitive process; those who are pregnant or giving birth in the midst of a pandemic and facing all the normal anxieties of that season in addition to those layered on by this virus.
There are women and children facing violence at home who are now stuck at home on lockdown with their abuser. There are mothers – too many of them – like Wanda Cooper-Jones, the mother of Ahmaud Arbery, women who are afraid that this pandemic might steal from them the justice their children deserve.
There are mothers who are working on the front lines, who are unable to be with their children if they want to ensure their safety. There are mothers in assisted living who can’t have visitors today or any day; there are families who are wondering if this is the last Mother’s Day their mother will see, and they can’t be together; and there are those who would have grieved this Mother’s Day regardless because of the mother or child whose life they are remembering, but now with the added weight of all these other griefs piled on top.
Despite our gratitude, there is a heaviness in the air. So on a Mother’s Day when what many of us could most use more than ever is a cup of tea and a hug from Mom, but when most of us won’t be able to see that happen – or even if we can, we have so much else weighing on us this year – let us stop for a moment and remind ourselves of our first Mother, of the God who gives us birth, who welcomes us home, starts the hot water, and draws us into her embrace.
What does it mean to speak of God as Mother? Is it accomplishing anything other than stirring the pot? Before I answer that, it’s worth taking note that this is not a newfangled idea. Even the Hebrew scriptures, which (we all know) were forged in the primordial fires of patriarchy, are laden with female images for God, and especially God as mother. Aside from the groundwork laid in the claim of Genesis 1 that humanity was created in the image of God, (quote) “male and female,” Hosea describes God as a mother teaching nations to walk, bending down to feed them as an infant; in Deuteronomy God is a mother eagle carrying her young; elsewhere in Hosea God is a mother bear; in Isaiah God is a woman in labor, then a nursing mother, and then a mother comforting her child. And in Moses’ prophetic song offered to the nation of Israel near the end of his life, he reprimands them:
“You were unmindful of the Rock that bore you; you forgot the God who gave you birth.”
It seems like Jesus must have had these images on his mind that night when Nicodemus approached him under cover of darkness.
“Rabbi,” Nicodemus prompts him, “surely you’re the real thing, right? You seem like the real thing.”
Jesus responds with an enigma. “Here’s what’s real,” he says in this passage that would become so central for ‘born again’ Christians. “No one really sees the kingdom unless they are born of the Spirit.” In other words, “…unless you remember the God who gives you birth.”
For a faith that has such a terrible track record when it comes to supporting or validating women’s worth and wholeness, this Christian story certainly is grounded in rich and beautiful imagery of our Mothering God.
So here we are, back at that question: When it’s so jarring and even uncomfortable for some of us, why is it even worth it to go out of our way to use feminine language for God? To call God ‘Mother,’ or to use ‘she,’ ‘her,’ or ‘hers’? Even reading through that litany of images from scripture, it’s clear enough that despite the existence of some beautiful feminine metaphors, the writers of the Bible defaulted to male language for God most every time.
But here’s the thing. Most of us, if pressed, would say of course we don’t believe God is really male. We don’t believe God has a physical body, like humans, that can be assigned a gender. God transcends gender; this is the only way we can make sense of an idea like the one found in Genesis 1, that both male and female are created in the image of God.
However, when we allow ourselves to default to male language, every single time, we reinforce the idea that God is male, and it’s a short stretch for the human psyche from ‘God is male’ to ‘male is God.’
Some hear that and conclude the only option is to use feminine language to balance things out. Others want to take the middle road. If God is genderless, let’s use gender-neutral language. ‘Godself’ instead of ‘himself’ or ‘herself.’ Or we can go with ‘they’ and ‘their’ instead of ‘his’ and ‘her.’ This is what some of our newer translations are attempting in order to address this same concern. Only, here’s the problem with that. When you’ve spent your entire life hearing the word ‘God’ and making the association, ‘male,’ you can’t just flip a switch and decide to now register the word ‘God’ as gender-neutral in your subconscious. If I were to say, “Then God reached out God’s hand” – was that a man’s hand, or a woman’s hand, in your mind?
This is why I believe we owe it to ourselves, and we owe it to God, to give back to God the other half of Her being, of which we have deprived Her for far too long. When we are truly able to conceive of a God who transcends gender, there will be no more need for the hierarchies that have kept women ‘in their place’ for millennia, that have facilitated inequality and repression, that have pained the heart of our Mother God.
Beloved, you who are made in the image of this God who transcends gender, are you, like God, a mother laboring to birth into this world something beautiful and true in this season? Your Mother God stands behind you, supporting you, holding your hand, whispering, “You can do this.” Beloved, are you a child in need of a divine mother today? Your Mother God cares so deeply for you, welcomes you home, welcomes all of you in – all of your fears, your anxieties, your anger and outrage, your grief. God our Mother knows it and welcomes it, for She is the Mother of us all.
May we find solace in the knowledge of Her. May we find in Her comforting presence the strength to carry on.