“For atheists there’s no good news, they’ll never sing a song of faith; in their songs they have a rule: the he is always lower case; the he is always lower case.” [sung]
So says the Gospel according to Steve Martin, in the form of a hilarious song called “Atheists Don’t Have No Songs,” which you can find on youtube. My personal favorite verse is “Catholics dress up for mass and listen to Gregorian chants; atheists just take a pass, watch football in their underpants.” The song is silly, but I quote it here for a serious theological reason. Our churches and synagogues have tragically lost their traditional wisdom affirming the fullness of both men and women in God's image and the many female images of God in Scripture and Tradition. John Paul II beautifully affirmed this in Mulieris Dignitatem and in other documents composed in his original Polish, which is much less sexist than traditional English; unfortunately, poor translation choices there and in the new Roman Missal have obscured his insights. And this has spread to popular culture, as the Steve Martin song demonstrates. Even atheists, who don’t believe in God, agree that if there were a God, he could only and always be described with male language! “The he is always lower case; the he is always lower case.”
Our first reading from the book of Wisdom tells us something very different, with a powerful image of God’s love which is an important part of scripture and of our Christian tradition, as well as the Jewish faith that gave us birth. It describes God the Mother, in this case personified as Lady Wisdom—Hochmah in the Hebrew of the book of Proverbs, and Sophia in the Greek of this later-written book of scripture. She allures, teaches, guides, and comforts us with love that the biblical writer says is far more satisfying than any material riches. It is that divine love, the only thing that can give real meaning to our lives and hope to our struggles, to which Jesus calls the rich young man in today’s Gospel. And hopefully, though in this story he walked away sad because he loved his wealth more, he saw that love in Jesus’ eyes and it planted a seed that would bear fruit later in his personal journey.
The creative, saving, transforming power of God is so wonderful that the bible uses an immense variety of images to describe it. Life-giving love, saving truth, challenging way, resurrecting life, majestic lion, gentle lamb, soaring eagle, reliable rock, living water, consuming fire, nurturing parent, passionate lover, faithful friend, and so many more. Each image, like the facets of a precious diamond, shows us something rich and different about the Holy One of blessing—and their variety and diversity, like the wondrous diversity of creation, reminds us that God is far beyond all our human language and concepts as well. But the feminine language and images for God in scripture have been so neglected in both progressive and conservative churches that they are almost forgotten today. Some believers become fearful and confused when they hear them, questioning whether Christian feminist theologians reject Jesus’ physical embodiment, or want to banish our loving Papa God from prayer and liturgy. Not at all!
So if God is Spirit, beyond all our language and images, why does gender matter when we speak of God? Why does this community craft its prayer and worship to balance male language for God with neutral and female, following Jesus’ Hebrew-speaking example and calling the Holy Spirit “she”? It matters because everyone deserves a personal experience of God’s love, and the more ways we have to present it the more people will find a living connection with that love. If one image doesn’t work, another will. It matters because everyone is created in the image of God, and deserves to be recognized as such, and treated with the justice and dignity that confers. It matters because when people know they are like God they know their strength and dignity and refuse to accept hurtful treatment for themselves and others.
For instance, the more I had a personal experience of God as mother the more I could honor the life-giving and nurturing power of my own body as an image of Jesus’ incarnation of God’s love—rather than a reason I and other women can’t represent him to his beloved people. This is a great consolation in the painful wait for the restoration of women's ordination to the diaconate, which Phyllis Zagano has demonstrated is totally orthodox and could happen tomorrow with no contradiction of JPII's and BXI's statements forbidding female priesthood. (I sent Pope Francis a copy of the book so will feel like I played a small part if he is the pope with the courage to undertake that crucial step for the service of God's people!)
One of my academic specialties is the theology and mysticism of the middle ages. It’s a wonderful period to study but also means that I frequently become frustrated when people use “medieval” as a synonym for everything ignorant, backward, and barbaric in both church and society. Most people are very surprised when I share that medieval women had a more active role in society, including professionally, than they did after the Industrial Revolution. Or that liturgy and spirituality were quite diverse, and that highly centralized Roman control of so much of church life developed later, in a response of fear and anger to the changes of the Reformation.
The thing that would most shock modern Christians, though, is the creative and diverse ways that medieval Christians saw God and Jesus. Like the early church, medieval writers were familiar and comfortable with Lady Wisdom and other feminine images of God from the Bible. St. Bernard of Clairvaux, in writing about the Song of Songs, used beautiful homoerotic imagery urging his monks to embrace Jesus as their lover and bridegroom. And Blessed Julian of Norwich spoke of Jesus as a mother. Christ’s death on the cross spilling forth blood and water, she wrote, was labor pains to give us life; Christ’s precious body and blood in the Eucharist were sweet breastmilk to feed and refresh beloved children.
Think about that: Jesus is a bridegroom who is also a nursing mother. That’s kind of a shock…a paradox—definitely not binary—in fact, it sounds pretty transgender. Jesus, the beloved Child of God, true God whom we adore, true human who shows us how to live, encompasses and surpasses gender. Jesus is one with the brave and beautiful people upon whom our culture—and most tragically, our churches—spew forth the most intense and deadly fear and disgust and hatred. Every year countless transpeople die tragically and prematurely—murdered on the streets, and in their homes, and in the ultimate triumph of hate driven to an epidemic of suicide. Those who suffer the most are transwomen, whom patriarchal masculinity sees as the ultimate traitors—and, most among them, transwomen of color, additionally despised in the racism which still pervades our country and world. Like Jesus, our mother and bridegroom, their precious bodies are broken and their sacred blood is spilled by evil before being transformed and raised up by the power of God’s love.
So as we come to the holy table where we receive the real presence of trans Jesus, let’s defy the lies and hate of the evil one. Let those of us who are cis repent of our unjust privilege and transphobia, and discern how we are being called to work for justice, and say to our beloved trans sisters and brothers: thank you for your courage; thank you for your holiness; thank you for your presence in our community; thank you for imaging Jesus to us and to all his people.