Sunday, May 12, 2013

The Motherhood of God

My favorite Andrew Mullins mistake was several years ago, when he was reading the blessing from the altar. It was the one that has the phrase, “and the Holy Spirit, who broods over the world as a mother over her children,” but he paused before that last word, “children.” It was clear he couldn’t quite make out what it said on the page… and so Andrew said, “and the Holy Spirit, who broods over the world as a mother over her… chickens…” instead. I nearly lost it—and so did some of you. 

It’s Mother’s Day. And I want to celebrate and contemplate the Motherhood of God. We are God’s children—not God’s chickens—today and every day. The choir is singing an anthem with a text by Julian of Norwich this morning that begins like this: “As truly as God is our Father, so just as truly is he our Mother.” Blessed Julian was in no way a radical feminist—she was a late 14th Century anchorite who had a series of showings, or revelations, while mortally ill. When she recovered, they were written down, and are now known as the “Revelations of Divine Love.” In them she repeatedly experienced God—especially Jesus—as a mother. “To the quality of motherhood belongs natural love, wisdom, and knowledge — and this is God.” There is no gender issue for Julian—if God or Jesus possesses the qualities that she perceives as being maternal, then Jesus can be our mother. A mother is a role—not inherently gender specific—that resides in the qualities of love, wisdom, and knowledge. 

A mother is someone who gives birth to something. I know how painful Mother’s Day was for me when I was trying—and failing—to get pregnant; and I know that for people who have complicated relationships with their own mothers, or are grieving their loss, this can be a hard day. But I’d like to universalize motherhood a little bit—because all of us know what it’s like to give birth metaphorically to something. We all know what it’s like—I hope—to breathe life into an idea or a vocation or a project. We know that satisfaction—that nervousness—that passion and joy that imbue pouring yourself out so that something else can have a life of its own beyond yourself. We know what it is to be frustrated when the things that we have given birth to do not do what we want them to do. We know what it is to love something—or someone—and then wisely guide it, and share our knowledge with it so that it can flourish independent of us.

That’s what Jesus does for us. Jesus is the one who gives us life. Jesus is the one who encourages and chastens and nurtures and steps back and dances the dance of motherhood in guiding us towards divine perfection and relationship. Jesus give us instruction and then freedom… celebrating when we take steps forward, comforting us when we fall down, getting piqued when we err spectacularly, and always, always inviting us into further maturity with him.

No matter how old we are, or how spiritual, we are all still children of God, with much to learn. And we belong to God in as real a way as we belong to our biological parents. We have an inheritance from God—an inheritance of eternal life, but also an inheritance of the Gospel that we must uphold in the face of the hostility and cynicism and violence of the world. Even if we are not fully mature, we grow in faith so that we can, in turn, pass that inheritance on to others. It’s like we are the middle generation—Jesus mothers us, and then we, in turn, give birth to another generation of the Word out in the world.  

So the call this day is to be mothers. Whether you are young, old, male, female, whatever—Jesus has given you a spiritual Word to bring forth and nurture into the world. What will it be? Think about, pray about, search your heart about what piece of the gospel it is that you can give birth to, and raise up, and send off so that it can do its work while you look on proudly. Have a Mother’s Day.  

The motherhood of God is linked to the Ascension, which we’re observing today, because in its own way, the Ascension is that most maternal of acts: it is Jesus saying, “It’s time to get out of the nest. I’ve taught you all you need to know—you’re on your own. I’ll still be watching you, and I’ll send help. But I won’t be there every day in the same way. You’re all grown up.” In each one of the stories of the ascension we hear this morning, Jesus summarizes his teaching and what the apostles are supposed to do next, and then lets them go by ascending. In his own way, he’s affirming those three qualities of motherhood that Julian identified: love, wisdom, and knowledge. He loves them, he has wisdom that says it will be OK if he leaves, and he has imparted the knowledge that they need to be people of faith. 

And he knows he needs to leave so that they will do it. The disciples spend most of the Gospel getting the answers to Jesus’ questions wrong—even in the very moment of the Acts ascension story, they are STILL bungling the message and have to be corrected by Jesus and the angels. He is sending the Holy Spirit to help continue to guide them—and us—now that he will not be physically present, but his love continues, his wisdom lives on, and the knowledge he has passed on endures even to this day. Those apostles can then turn into mothers of the Gospel—mothers like a lot of us: imperfect, overburdened, well-meaning—who somehow, despite their personal frailties, give birth to something greater than they themselves could have imagined. Their child, if you will, is the church, and here we are, building it up, nurturing it, and trying to give it the legs to walk into the second half of the 21st Century. Let us cheer its steps, comfort it when it falls down, and both receive and pass on its wisdom, informed by what we experience and we know. So happy Mother’s Day to all of us.

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