Images of Divine Love, God as Mother, God as Father
We are so used to saying, “Father, Son and Holy Spirit” that we automatically limit our thinking and imagery to the male gender. The impact of the words Father and Son are such that we tend to think of Spirit as male also. But for many people this is not always helpful, and there is much biblical imagery and evidence to the contrary.
Most of you will have heard me remark on the Hebrew word Ruach, meaning Spirit, as being feminine. Thus there is a feminine at the heart of the Trinity. Jesus himself uses distinctly motherly imagery in the gospels, notably his lament over Jerusalem, wishing to gather the city and its people tenderly as a mother hen gathers her chicks under her wings. And there are many examples in the Prophets of maternal imagery for God and God’s love for us all.
Traditionally most societies and cultures have thought in binary terms – male or female. It seems that this is being challenged now in our own culture, but for those brought up on strict duality, this is still quite difficult to get one’s head around. Something is either male or female. For languages with gendered nouns, there is also ‘neuter’.
But even that word may not help – for it suggests ‘neither’. And what is at the heart of all this is that God is ‘both’. God is ‘all’. God embraces and encloses both the feminine and the masculine, is both at the same time, and is also beyond and more than either.
The mystics have long understood this, and Julian of Norwich is perhaps one of my favourites on this topic.
In Chapter 54 (Long Text) she writes:
For the almighty truth of the Trinity is our Father, for he made us and keeps us in him. And the deep wisdom of the Trinity is our Mother, in whom we are enclosed. And the high goodness of the Trinity is our Lord, and in him we are enclosed and he in us.
And in Chapter 59, she continues:
Our high Father almighty God, who is Being, he knew us and loved us from before-any-time. Of which knowing, in his full marvellous deep Charity, by the foreseeing endless counsel of all the blessed Trinity, he willed that the second Person should become our Mother, our Brother, and our Saviour.
Whereof it follows that as truly as God is our Father, so truly is God our Mother. …
And therein is a forth-spreading, by the same grace, of a length and breadth, of a height and a deepness without end [see Ephesians 3:18–19]. And all is one love.
Julian understood love in its biggest and most Divine sense. She realised its inclusivity – not just that Love includes us all as its objects, but that Love is not limited by gender.
Mothering Sunday is traditionally about Church being our spiritual Mother. In the old patriarchal model of the Trinity (exclusively male), the Christians found their feminine models in Mary and in the Church. God may be loving, but in the more remote nature of the traditional Father. Whereas in contrast, it is Mary, and the Church, who tend to our spiritual grazed knees, and our tears.
But in establishing this, I feel that we miss something so vital. Nurturing is not exclusively feminine – though women have by and large done the lion’s share, it is true. Men also nurture and care for the young, more so in the modern age. And there are also all the uncles and aunts and grandparents who offer nurture in all kinds of different ways.
Perhaps most of all, and regardless of age, we nurture one another. We all have times of pain and struggle, moments when we wish we had a gentle loving ‘mother’ to confide in, who might wipe away the tears. Not everyone had this experience growing up, and for those people it is most difficult to speak of God in parental terms.
I wonder, by removing the gender stereotypes from God and seeing Divine Love in all its wonderful and glorious breadth and inclusivity – the “both/and” – whether we might rediscover the incredible gentleness and nurture at the heart of God. And that it is this nurturing Love that we celebrate on Mothering Sunday – in God and then mirrored in both the Church and in one another. For we – you and I – are the Church, the Body of Christ.