Mother’s Day 2019 is now in the books, and each of us has attempted in a nuanced way to honor those who have nurtured us, to come alongside those for whom the day is hard, and to think about how expansive the concept of mothering can be. A pleasant surprise came to me mid-afternoon on Sunday: two of my dearest friends called to sing “Happy Mother’s Day to You” (in harmony!), and they then remarked about the kind of mothering/mentoring I have been about as a professor and leader of a theological school. What a kind affirmation, especially since I have not done any biological birthing.
The Jewish and Christian Scriptures recognize the important of the mother-child relationship when they use the metaphors of pregnancy and birth, nursing and feeding, and carrying and training. Potent are the depictions of the anger of the mother bear and the protective wing of the mother hen to refer to God’s creative relationship with the world.
Why has the church so little used these wonderful pictures of God’s mothering nearness? For despite the value of maternal metaphors in human language and the legitimacy of their occasional appearance in biblical texts and theological tradition, it is highly characteristic of Christian speech that the origin and care-giver of all things is name almost exclusively in terms of the paternal relationship. The ancient words in Moses’ mouth are still borne out in Christian discourse: “You forgot the God who gave you birth” (Dt. 32:18). Omitting material imagery in official and unofficial speech about God is a hallmark of our heritage.
Why is this? For one thing, our mothers are involved in our messiness! The language of birthing is hardly sterile. Writhing, panting, struggling labor is necessary to bring new life. Picturing God in mothering terms sounds a bit too intimate, too vulnerable, too embodied for most of us. I remember as a child when one of the three of us would get sick, my mother was the one who could handle it. If he ventured near the place where one of us had thrown up, Daddy would get sick, too. She would wearily sigh, “Go back to bed, Truman.”
Since Christian heritage has devalued the feminine, we do not want to associate God with it. Further, the power of the feminine is seen as negative—manipulating, controlling, and devouring. It is not recognized as honest, straightforward power; rather, the female must trick or seduce her way. Two beloved biblical heroines, Ruth and Esther, come to mind.
Yet, I suggest that learning to name and embrace the mothering God might help in varied ways.
We give thanks for our mothers, but even more we thank God for mothering us. She continues to give birth to us through the midwifery of the Spirit. She continues to shelter us under her wings. She continues to provide the holy space in which we live and move and have our being.
Molly T. Marshall
Central prepares leaders for seeking God, shaping Church, and serving humanity and all of creation.