Today is Mothering Sunday. Note - Mothering Sunday not Mother’s day. Mother’s Day is a recent American invention started at the beginning of this century that occurs on the second Sunday of May each year in the States. Our Mothering Sunday is a much older institution which goes back into the depths of pre-history. Our pagan ancestors had a high regard for motherhood due to its importance in the cycle of life and this regard was reflected in their worship of female gods. In many religions throughout the world, the mother god was seen as the main god, and in almost all religions she was seen as a god to be offered special worship. Gifts would be taken to the shrines of the Mother of the Gods and this custom continued after the Christianisation of the old religions, although the gifts were then laid at the altar of Mother Church rather than the altars of the pagan goddess. Gradually this custom became more formalised and the fourth Sunday of Lent was adopted as Mothering Sunday. Mother Church started to share the limelight of the festival with human mothers and the day became an occasion when married men and women would return to their mothers for the day bringing them gifts to emphasise the fact that the connection between mother and child was still there even though they were physically separated by marriage. In many regions it was the time when simnel cakes would be baked and given as presents, and the custom continued in this country, especially in the west, even during the era of puritanism when many festivals of the Church were suppressed. In the East End of London and in some country parishes it became the custom on Mothering Sunday for the children of the parish to bring bunches of violets to church to be blessed at the altar after which they would then be given to the mothers sitting in the pews. This custom has since been adapted in some form or another in many, if not most, of our churches.
But why is Mothering Sunday such an enduring custom? I think that the answer lies right back at the beginning of the festival in its pagan roots. Mothering Sunday is primarily a celebration of that which is feminine, hence the concentration on motherhood. Our pagan ancestors understood the importance of the feminine in the scheme of things and this understanding led to the creation of female deities. Looking at the world, and the balance between male and female, our forebears projected their world view onto their gods, and because they had many gods, they could have both male and female gods. Of course, this could not be done in the monotheistic religions, the religions, such as Judaism, which only had one god. In such religions all the attributes of godliness had to be included within the personality of just one god. In a fair world this would have meant that the understanding of God would have been of a deity who was both male and female or neither. Unfortunately, human projection of their own society onto the society of the godhead, meant that in a predominantly patriarchal society, God came to be seen as predominantly patriarchal himself . God was seen as male. A full blooded, dominant, aggressive male at that.
However, the need for a balance in the human understanding of the divine nature of God, meant that there was never complete acceptance of a completely male God. Even in Judaism, that most male dominated of religions, there can be found hints of femininity within God’s personality. In the book of Isaiah God says, “For a long time I have held my peace, I have kept still and restrained myself; now I will cry out like a woman in labour, I will gasp and pant,” and elsewhere, “ For thus says the LORD: I will extend prosperity to her like a river, and the wealth of the nations like an overflowing stream; and you shall nurse and be carried on her arm, and dandled on her knees. As a mother comforts her child, so I will comfort you; you shall be comforted in Jerusalem.” In Psalm 131 we hear the psalmist say, ‘But I have calmed and quieted my soul, like a weaned child with its mother; my soul is like the weaned child that is with me. O Israel, hope in the LORD from this time on and forevermore.”
More important than these brief references was the Old Testament understanding of the Wisdom of God. Wisdom is seen in the Old Testament as one of the primary characteristics of God and is almost regarded as a separate person within the godhead, and wisdom in this respect is most definitely female. For example, Wisdom, chapter nine, states,
“With you is wisdom, she who knows your works and was present when you made the world; she understands what is pleasing in your sight and what is right according to your commandments. Send her forth from the holy heavens, and from the throne of your glory send her, that she may labour at my side, and that I may learn what is pleasing to you. For she knows and understands all things, and she will guide me wisely in my actions and guard me with her glory.”
It is interesting to note that the Egyptian god of wisdom was the great goddess, Isis, herself. The people of the Middle East definitely believed that wisdom was very much a female characteristic. It is even more interesting to note that, within Christianity, the Wisdom of God becomes the Word of God, and the Word of God becomes the Son of God in his incarnation as Jesus Christ. We have a situation where the preexistence of Jesus within God is not of necessity male. This multi-gendered God became man. Genderwise, the Word was something else before becoming man. That is an important point for us to remember.
But what about Jesus, the man? What did he have to say about the nature of God?
Firstly, Jesus affirms the maleness of God, over and over again. Jesus refers to God as his father; he prays to God, his father. There is no doubt that the language Jesus uses indicates a masculine deity. However, the personality that Jesus attributes to God, God's caring, forgiving nature, God's physical and emotional closeness to God's children is not archetypical male. Furthermore, I think this scares the male hierarchy of the church. So much so that they took all the female attributes Jesus said God the Father had and put them on Mary, the mother of Jesus. The cult of the Virgin Mary is in reality a displaced reverence for the feminine in God as revealed to us by Jesus Christ.
And, although Jesus was physically a man we must be very careful not to confuse this mere accidental with the real nature of the Word incarnate. When God became man in Jesus Christ he took on both the limitations of human language and the limitations of the human culture of the time. No human language can fully describe God, it can only give us a very limited view of our creator. Jesus had to use human language and so he had to give God a gender because the conventions of human language demanded it. That is why Jesus did not restrict his teaching to the spoken word alone. He preached the good news about God through action, through the things he did, and when he did speak about God it was often in parables that were meant to be understood within the heart rather than just within the mind. Within these parables, parables such as the one about the prodigal son, we see a God who is not restricted by the stereotypical ideas of maleness current at the time. God is loving of his children, he embraces them like a mother embraces her children, and we see this also in Jesus, in his gentleness, in the way he deals with people. Within Christ and within Christ’s understanding of God there is a balance between the male and the female. There is the necessary maleness of Jesus overturning the tables in the Temple, but there is also the gentle Jesus, calling the children to him.
To a very large extent Jesus broke free from the bondage of the male dominated society of his time. The way he related to women broke down barriers and he ignored the taboos of his era by conversing with women and by having women within his circle of disciples. Even though the New Testament was written by men we still catch glimpses of just how much of a revolution Jesus preached in respect of the way that men should treat women. It also seems that this revolution carried on in to the early church with women having positions of importance within the new movement. Women were evangelists, prophets and deacons. There is no doubt that some women in the early church did the jobs that we would now restrict to the ordained priesthood. However, it was not long before men imposed themselves and their systems on the new Church, and a strict maleness on the nature of God.
Not that everybody agreed with this. Throughout history people have challenged the assumption of God’s maleness. I think we see this in two different ways. Firstly within the writings of certain mystics, especially during the mediaeval period. Writers such as our own Julian of Norwich who wrote many passages about the motherhood of both God the Father and God the Son. For example, in her ‘Revelations’ she wrote that, “God is the true Father and Mother of nature.... God almighty is our loving Father, and God all wisdom is our loving Mother.”
Then there was Mechtild who wrote, “God is not only fatherly. God is also mother who lifts her loved child from the ground to her knee. The Trinity is like a mother’s cloak wherein the child finds a home and lays its head on the maternal breast.”
And Meister Eckhart acknowledged the creative imperative of God when he wrote, “What does God do all day long? God gives birth. From all eternity God lies on a maternity bed giving birth.”
However, if we really want to see the persistence of the idea of the motherhood of God we need to look at popular culture within the Church, in particular at the cult of the Virgin Mary within much of that Church. However, the problem with the cult of the Virgin Mary is that it is, in many ways, idolatrous. Mary is Theotokos, the God Bearer, but she is not God. She is the mother of our Lord, but her role in our salvation stops there, she is not a co-redemptorist with her son. Mary is venerated by many over and above what is really acceptable. I think this is because there is a need among ordinary Christians to show their love for the motherly qualities of God. The answer to this problem is for the Church to accept and understand these motherly qualities that are within God, so that there is no need to invent another god. And, if we do that we allow Mary to be, for us, her true self and that, as an example of true faith, will be of far more use to us than she will ever be turning up on pieces of toast and repeating our prayers to God when God has already heard them straight from our hearts and lips.
Mary's journey was a painful one. It was also one of tremendous grace. She ministered, she watched, she prayed, she followed. She recognised her role and did not try to make it something else. And so she never got in God's way but went on enabling his will to be done, doing her part to make straight his paths. Mary gives us a model for any relationship as much as for motherhood. Truly to love someone is to enable them to grow and to become the person God intended them to be. It is about encouraging them to reach their potential, even if that means they cannot be exactly what - or where - you want them to be. It is about giving them space to become themselves. It is always about letting go; being there, but recognising when it is necessary for you to stand back.
This is, of course, exactly the way that God treats us. Like a mother he comforts us when we run to him. Like a mother he grieves for us when we obstinately ignore him and go our own ways. Like a mother he welcomes us back.
God is both Mother and Father. He is both male and female. We know this to be true because we are told that it is true right at the beginning of the Bible. In the book of Genesis it clearly states:
“So God created humankind in God's image, in the image of God he created them; male and female he created them.”
For that statement to be true then the image of God must contain both a male and a female aspect.
Perhaps if we accepted the ambiguity of the nature of God, then we could accept the ambiguity of our own natures, and move towards a more balanced society where nobody is excluded because of their sexuality. Where the Church, the bride of Christ, gives equal merit to all God’s creatures whatever their gender, whatever their sexual identity. Where women can celebrate the Fatherhood of God because it is a true fatherhood and where men can celebrate the Motherhood of God because it is a true motherhood.