From the Prophet Isaiah:
Listen to me, O house of Jacob,
all the remnant of the house of Israel,
who have been borne by me from your birth,
carried from the womb;
even to your old age I am he,
even when you turn grey I will carry you.
I have made, and I will bear;
I will carry and will save.
(From the Daily Office Lectionary – Isaiah 46:3-4 (NRSV) – January 26, 2013.)
As anyone who knows me will testify, I am no Calvinist! But hats off to John Calvin who wrote about these verses, “God has manifested himself to be both Father and Mother so that we might be more aware of God’s constant presence and willingness to assist us.” (Commentaries, Vol. 8, Baker Books:2005) Isaiah’s words on behalf of God are among the strongest maternal images of God in Holy Scripture. Just three chapters later, speaking through the prophet, God will ask and declare, “Can a woman forget her nursing child And have no compassion on the son of her womb ? Even these may forget, but I will not forget you.” (49:14-15) And, again, Calvin wrote, “God did not satisfy himself with proposing the example of a father, but in order to express his very strong affection, he chose to liken himself to a mother, and calls His people not merely children, but the fruit of the womb, towards which there is usually a warmer affection.”
So forgive Calvin his use of the masculine pronoun and laud him for his forward thinking and astute observation of God’s Motherhood. Would that modern American Christians would follow his lead! I can’t count the number of times I’ve seen something from the conservative wing of the Church (from Orthodox, Roman Catholic, Anglican, and Protestant writers) decrying maternal metaphors as “Gnostic” or “pagan”. How sad that a theological tradition rooted in Scripture (and developed by preachers as early as Augustine of Hippo and John Chrysostom) should be ignored, devalued, debased, and rejected by so many. By doing so, they accomplish two things: they run the risk of alienating women (and, in fact, have done so), and they fail to communicate with those for whom the “fatherhood” metaphor is problematic. How much better might the church address the modern world if it remembered the words of Pope John Paul I that “we are the objects of undying love on the part of God. . . God is our father; even more God is our mother.” (Spoken at the time of the Camp David peace accords.)
My own biological father, of whom I have only vague memories, was an alcoholic whose most influential action contributing to the formation of his sons’ lives (at least my own, if not my late brother’s) was killing himself in a single-vehicle roll-over accident while driving drunk when I was 5-1/2 years old. When my mother remarried five years later, it was to a man to whom I could not relate at all for several years (though we became quite close once I’d been an adult for while); because of that strained relationship, at age 14 I chose to move away from home. Thus, I am one of those for whom the “fatherhood” metaphor is not all that significant. My best parental memories are of a strong and resourceful single mother; God described as “our true Mother in whom we are endlessly born and out of whom we shall never come” (Dame Julian of Norwich) makes a whole lot of sense to me.
This Isaiah passage resonates for me, and I am grateful to Calvin and Julian of Norwich, to Augustine and Chrysostom, and to John Paul I for developing the maternal metaphor. “Even more God is our mother.”
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Father Funston is the rector of St. Paul’s Episcopal Church, Medina, Ohio.