In the long history of Christian thought, there have been (if not frequent, at least notable) writers who emphasized the feminine side of God. Philip Sheldrake writes that “in premodern theology, motherhood and fatherhood were understood as gendered social roles of care and responsibility. For early Christians such as Clement of Alexandria (third century) and Gregory of Nyssa (fourth century), God is both a powerful father and a tender and nurturing mother” (The New Westminster Dictionary of Christian Spirituality, 449).
St. Anselm wrote in reflection on Luke 13:34, “And you, my soul, dead in yourself, run under the wings of Jesus your mother and lament your griefs under his feathers… Christ, my mother, you gather your chickens under your wings; this dead chicken of yours puts himself under those wings.”
Julian of Norwich wrote in Revelations of Divine Love, “I beheld the working of all the blessed Trinity: in which beholding I saw and understood these three properties: the property of the Fatherhood, the property of the Motherhood, and the property of the Lordhood, in one God. In our Father Almighty we have our keeping and our bliss as anent our natural Substance, which is to us by our making, without beginning. And in the Second Person in skill and wisdom we have our keeping as anent our Sense-soul: our restoring and our saving; for He is our Mother, Brother, and Saviour.”
Yet I always resented these sorts of revisionary imaginings of Jesus Christ as a mother. Was he not born a man? Why must we even care what gender he was? Can we not just accept that he was male and be done with it? Why must feminists attempt to revise history?
Granted, there are some times when the Bible depicts God with feminine imagery. Isaiah 66 comes to mind – “As a mother comforts her child, so I will comfort you; you shall be comforted in Jerusalem.” Yet the predominant description of God is as the Father, the King of all kings, the Lord of all lords. As a conservative, I never really felt a problem with accepting male characterizations of God or with accepting that Jesus was a man.
Until I read Proverbs.
That probably wasn’t the book you were expecting, but let me explain. If you’ve read my previous posts, you probably know I’m a bit obsessed with the idea of Jesus as logos. This idea comes mainly from John 1:
1 In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. 2 He was with God in the beginning. 3 Through him all things were made; without him nothing was made that has been made… 14 The Word became flesh and made his dwelling among us. We have seen his glory, the glory of the one and only Son, who came from the Father, full of grace and truth.
The problem is that the word logos does not translate well into English; most translators settle to translate it as “the word.” But this loses much of the meaning of the term, including its definition as “wisdom” or “reason.” This is where the business of Proverbs comes in. Check out what the character Wisdom says in v. 8:22:
“22 The LORD brought me forth as the first of his works,
before his deeds of old;
23 I was formed long ages ago,
at the very beginning, when the world came to be.
24 When there were no watery depths, I was given birth,
when there were no springs overflowing with water;
25 before the mountains were settled in place,
before the hills, I was given birth,
26 before he made the world or its fields
or any of the dust of the earth.
27 I was there when he set the heavens in place,
when he marked out the horizon on the face of the deep,
28 when he established the clouds above
and fixed securely the fountains of the deep,
29 when he gave the sea its boundary
so the waters would not overstep his command,
and when he marked out the foundations of the earth.
30 Then I was constantly at his side.
I was filled with delight day after day,
rejoicing always in his presence,
31 rejoicing in his whole world
and delighting in mankind.
That sounds an awful lot like logos as its described in John 1. According to Peter Steveson, “if we accept the meaning ‘begat,’ [for ‘brought me forth’ in Pr 8:22] the verse then refers to wisdom as the first begotten of God. Proverbs 8:22 therefore becomes the underlying basis for such NT teaching as the equivalency of Christ and Wisdom (Luke 11:49; Col 2:3, 1 Cor. 1:24,30) and the exalted position of Christ as the first begotten of the Father (John 1:1-18, Rom 8:29, Col 1:15, Heb 12:23, Rev 3:14).” (A Commentary on Proverbs, 117-118)
Barnes elaborates that this verse “has played an important part in the history of Christian dogma. Wisdom reveals herself as preceding all creation, stamped upon it all, one with God, yet in some way distinguishable from Him as the object of His love Proverbs 8:30. John declares that all which Wisdom here speaks of herself was true in its highest sense of the Word that became flesh John 1:1-14 : just as Apostles afterward applied Wisd. 7:22-30 to Christ (compare Colossians 1:15; Hebrews 1:3).”
Throughout Proverbs, Wisdom is depicted as a woman, a wife. Throughout John, Jesus is described as the embodiment of Wisdom – the logos incarnate. Perhaps if the logos can be embodied in both masculine and feminine ways, it is not too great a stretch to describe Christ as “our mother.” I may not be fully comfortable with the idea yet, but the Bible was never meant to make its readers comfortable.