"I heard a voice from heaven saying, 'Son, let this woman be a bride to you in the restoration of my people. Let her be a mother for these people, regenerating souls through the salvation of spirit and water.'" (Hildegard of Bingen, Scivias)

Wednesday, February 24, 2016

Scripture Reflection: John Paul II on Mother God

In a beautiful and little known section of Mulieris Dignitatem St. John Paul II reminds us of some of the lovely biblical passages which present God as a loving mother birthing, nursing, and comforting her child--a perfect balance to the passages which image God as a loving father as well as the wealthy of other images (human, animal, natural, and conceptual) which all reveal something of divine glory and plenitude while also being inadequate to fully describe the glory and beauty of our purely spiritual and transcendent God.

[I]n different passages of Sacred Scripture (especially in the Old Testament), we find comparisons that attribute to God "masculine" or "feminine" qualities. We find in these passages an indirect confirmation of the truth that both man and woman were created in the image and likeness of God. If there is a likeness between Creator and creatures, it is understandable that the Bible would refer to God using expressions that attribute to him both "masculine" and "feminine" qualities.

We may quote here some characteristic passages from the prophet Isaiah: "But Zion said, 'The Lord has forsaken me, my Lord has forgotten me.' 'Can a woman forget her sucking child, that she should have no compassion on the son of her womb? Even these may forget, yet I will not forget you'" (49:14-15). And elsewhere: "As one whom his mother comforts, so will I comfort you; you shall be comforted in Jerusalem" (66:13). In the Psalms too God is compared to a caring mother: "Like a child quieted at its mother's breast; like a child that is quieted is my soul. O Israel, hope in the Lord" (Ps 131:2-3). In various passages the love of God who cares for his people is shown to be like that of a mother: thus, like a mother God "has carried" humanity, and in particular, his Chosen People, within his own womb; he has given birth to it in travail, has nourished and comforted it (cf. Is 42:14; 46:3-4). In many passages God's love is presented as the "masculine" love of the bridegroom and father (cf. Hos 11:1-4; Jer 3:4-19), but also sometimes as the "feminine" love of a mother.

I composed the following reflection featuring Isaiah 49, fittingly, while nursing my newborn younger daughter after being invited to serve as a guest speaker at the Lutheran church where her older brother--and later she herself--had a marvelous experience of a loving Christian preschool. We listened to it in the car recently and I was truly honored by her honest twelve year old eval: "That was really great, Mom--not like most sermons that make me want to fall asleep but I can't cause they won't stop talking!" < br />

"Set your minds on things that are above, not on things that are on earth, for you have died, and your life is hidden with Christ in God." Today is the fourth Sunday of the Easter season, and we reflect on Paul's exhortation to be completely transformed by the resurrection of Christ. Today is also the day when we honor our mothers and grandmothers, and all who nurture the gift of life. But what is the connection between these two ways of describing May 11, 2003--between our Christian liturgical calendar and our American secular calendar? If holiness means turning our minds away from things on earth, it would seem that there is no connection between Mother's Day and resurrection thinking--for there is nothing more earthly than the daily joys and challenges of motherhood.

Morning sickness; dirty diapers; sticky kisses; loud arguments; algebra homework, and soccer practice, and prom dresses, and weddings that begin the cycle again for the next generation--all these realities are vividly and exuberantly physical. Is Paul joining the many voices in history that have branded the physical world--and women, whose body cycles are so visibly linked to that physical world--a temptation and distraction from the search for God? Does he advocate a spirituality for mountaintop gurus--finding enlightenment by escaping the mundane concerns of lesser human beings? Does his Christianity peddle "pie in the sky by and by when you die"--telling victims of injustice to humbly accept their crosses on earth and patiently wait for rewards in heaven? If so, the letter to the Colossians is justly included in Karl Marx's condemnation of religion as the "opiate of the masses"--one of the most effective weapons in the hands of oppressors.

Tragically, there is some compelling evidence for this possibility. The verses in the epistle which immediately follow today's reading order wives to submit to their husbands and slaves to obey their masters. Passages like those reflect the cruel hierarchies of the Roman empire, not the freedom of the Gospel, and have helped perpetuate shameful evils like slavery and domestic violence throughout the centuries. But I would still dare to argue that the heart of today's readings, and of Christian faith as a whole, is a healthy and liberating spirituality. I invite you to travel with me thousands of years into the past, to the worlds where these scriptures were first written. Let's listen carefully to a prophet speaking to Jewish exiles in Babylon, and an apostle writing from prison to new Christians in Colossae. They introduce us to a God who cares passionately about all aspects of human life, who heard the cries of despairing captives and brought them home to freedom. They urge us to believe in a God who became a crying infant pushed from a woman's bleeding body, and a criminal suffering a messy and painful public execution. They sing praise to a God who calls all of us to join in Her labor of nurturing and mentoring and justice making--a mother of fierce and tender compassion.

In the first reading, we hear words of comfort spoken by the prophet Isaiah to people who thought their God had abandoned them. God had freed the Israelites from slavery in Egypt and brought them into a promised land. But then the mighty empire of Babylon snatched them away from their country to endure seventy years of homesickness and despair. As time wore on without deliverance, the chosen people began to bury their elders in an alien land, and to raise children to whom Israel was just an unbelievable story. How often they must have cried out in anguished prayer, "The Lord has forsaken me! My Lord has forgotten me!" So Isaiah speaks God's word to them: "Prisoners--come out!" "Those in darkness--show yourselves!" He promises that God will bring them home, that like their ancestors being led out of Egypt they too will be given refreshing springs of water and a safe path through the lonely desert. And when they can't believe him, when the years of suffering have worn them down to the bitter conviction that God can't possibly love them, Isaiah plays his trump card: "Can a mother forget her nursing child, or show no compassion for the child of her womb?"

You can't remember how God freed our ancestors, he challenges them, or the good times we knew in our own land? You call to God for help, and wait, and wait--and hear only silence in response? You see your oppressors enjoying blessings you are denied, and wonder if it would be worse if there were no God, or if God existed only to torment and betray you? Then remember a time when you were sick, or hurt, or afraid, and your mother held you close and sang to you in the night. Remember when you watched your wife brave agony and danger to bring your son into the world. Remember when you rushed joyfully home to your daughter's embrace, because your breasts were tingling and overflowing with milk, and you needed her as much as she needed you. Feel the love of these memories in your heart, Isaiah says, and know that God is not just a judge and a king, not just a nurturing father, but also a strong and gentle mother, who utterly delights in you.

If your life feels cramped and lonely and hopeless, try to believe that your dark dwelling is not just a prison cell, but also a womb--a safe and holy place in which an unseen God surrounds you, and grieves for your pain, and labors to bring you forth into freedom. Even the Hebrew word used here for God's compassion, rachamim, comes from the root word rechem, which means womb. God speaks though Isaiah to the Israelites and to us: "My love for you is womb-love, the love of the one who gave you life and cares for your always. I am your faithful mother; I will never forget you; I have inscribed you on the palms of my hands."

And here we find the connection to our reading from Colossians, for it describes a God in whom we are hidden as in the womb, and a savior whose love is inscribed on the palms of his wounded hands. Chelsea spoke God's word to all of us in the children's message this morning when she said, "Jesus is like a mother." This wise young girl follows in the footsteps of great mystics throughout the ages, like Julian of Norwich and Catherine of Siena, who said, "Look at Jesus! His death on the cross is labor pains to give us life. His presence in the bread and wine of the Eucharist is sweet breastmilk to feed us. He gently teaches us, as a mother does her child. Christ shows us that God is our loving Mother."

Like the Jewish exiles in Babylon, we all face suffering in our own lives and those of others, and perhaps the most overwhelming anguish comes in the fracturing of intimate relationships. Every day throughout the world, mothers bury their children--through illness and accidents and hunger and violence. Every day throughout the world, children are hurt by their mothers--through the ordinary mistakes of imperfect human beings, or the tragic betrayal of ongoing cycles of abuse. This suffering can make us question, and despair, and cry out, "The Lord has forsaken me! My Lord has forgotten me!" And in the letter to the Colossians Paul relays to us God's answer. It goes beyond delivering us from suffering from afar, to the deepest form of compassion--entering every kind of agony with us. In Christ, the glorious and invisible God was clothed in human flesh to share with us, and mysteriously transform, and someday fully conquer evil and death.

Did you notice how often in today's reading Paul uses this image of clothing to describe the Christian life? "You have stripped off the old self with its practices," he reminds us, "and have clothed yourselves with the new person, being renewed in the image of God the creator." "As God's chosen ones, holy and beloved, clothe yourselves with compassion, kindness, humility, meekness, and patience." "Above all, clothe yourselves with love, which binds everything together in perfect harmony." This is a perfect image for God our Mother, because so much of a mother's time is spent clothing her children. Dressing infants and toddlers; working to buy the clothes; shopping for the clothes; washing them and mending them and--for those more talented than myself--even custom tailoring them. Clothing is sacramental, an outward sign that makes present and visible the inner reality of a parent's love.

When I was seven years old my mother made me a flower girl dress for my aunt Cele's wedding. It was crafted of plush, blossom-covered blue velveteen, with short puffed sleeves and a bow in the back; I felt like a princess as I walked down the aisle of Transfiguration church. After the ceremony Mom shortened the dress for everyday wear, and because she turned up a very large hem and repeatedly let it down, I got to relive that feeling of being honored and special over and over for the next three years. Can you remember a lovely outfit that incarnated your beauty, and God's love for you, through the care of the one who provided it?

We chose the last verses of this Colossians passage to read at our wedding, because it described our dream for letting God's love shine out through our relationship, our parenting, and our life in the community. In the fourteen years since that ceremony we have experienced great joy, and huge challenges, and tragedy beyond imagining. The strain of those things has sometimes overflowed into our hearts and made Paul's call to all these incredible virtues seem an impossible dream, a difficult task set by a harsh God. But we find new hope when we remember the real God, who is clothed in compassion and peace and reconciliation, and who clothes us with these qualities as my mother clothed me with my flower girl dress. Sometimes the most important thing that overworked mothers and fathers and friends can do is to first receive the love of God for the self, in whatever way is right for each person. Do something to feel that love today. And as that rachamim, that womb-love, that crucified and risen love soaks into your being, it will clothe you and flow through you to others. You will be dressed in radiant wedding garments that show forth to all who see you the endless gentleness of our miraculous God.

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