By Sheri Hostetler
I have referenced Elizabeth Johnson’s book She Who Is: The Mystery of God in Feminist Theological Discourse throughout this sermon. This is the third in an Advent series called “Wings, Wisdom and Womb: Dwelling in our Feminine Divine.”
When Patrick was young, he loved the book, Mama, Do You Love Me? And no wonder! In it, a daughter tries to find the limits of her mother’s love. And again and again, the mother assures her child that there is nothing — nothing — the child could do that would separate her from her love. Set in an Alaskan Inuit village, the girls asks, “What if I put salmon in your parka? Or what if I threw water on the lamp?” “Then,” mother says, “I would be mad, but I would still love you.” “What if I turned into a musk ox?” “Then,” the mother says, “I would very sad, but I would still love you.”
Patrick would often ask his own questions. “What if I kicked the cat?” (Actually, that’s not forgivable, Patrick, as you well know.) Or, the absolute worst: “What if I killed someone?” “Then,” I said, “I would be very very sad, so sad my heart break, but I would still love you. I will always think you are beautiful and precious because I love you.”
This fierce mother love comes at a cost. Very soon after getting pregnant — after 2 1/2 years of trying — I realized, with a shock that felt like someone had stabbed me in the heart, just how vulnerable I was. If anything should happen to this child, I could be hurt more badly than I have ever been hurt in my life. I could be hurt beyond repair. I could be devastated.
Ghazala Khan knows about devastation. Her son was killed while serving in Iraq, and she became a household name during the 2016 presidential race when she and her husband appeared on stage at the Democratic National Convention to talk about their son. She was supposed to speak but couldn’t because do so because she was overwhelmed with emotion standing in front a huge screen bearing the image of her beloved son. In an op-ed article that she wrote after the Convention, she says: “Humayun is my middle son, and the others are doing so well, but every day, I feel the pain of his loss. It has been 12 years, but you know hearts of pain can never heal as long as we live…. The place that emptied will always be empty.”
You don’t have to be a biological mother — or a woman — to hold this kind of love. In fact, God has placed the capacity to love like this into all of our hearts. It’s this capacity for fierce mother love — even for those who are the most unloveable — that Jesus shows us in his life and to which he invites us.
You may recall the movie “Dead Man Walking” that came out more than 20 years ago. It’s based on a book by Sister Helen Prejean, who began serving as a spiritual advisor for men on Death Row in Louisiana and later became a fierce anti-death penalty advocate. Over the course of the movie, she gets to know and love Matthew Poncelet, who is not in the least bit lovable when he first meet him — he is arrogant, sexist, racist, completely unremorseful about what he has done. In fact, he doesn’t even claim responsibility for his murders. Sister Helen doesn’t back away from his ugliness and keeps showing up. Over time, her mother love for him reveals the violated, vulnerable child he, of course, is. He claims responsibility for his crimes, asks for forgiveness. You can almost see him becoming beautiful before your eyes. As she meets with him one last time before he is executed — an execution for which she will bear witness — she tells him, “I want the last face you see in this world to be the face of love, so you look at me when they do this thing. I’ll be the face of love for you.”
There’s a name for this kind of merciful love — love that is willing to love even our ugliness, love that is willing to open itself to the devastation such loving can bring— and it’s found throughout the Hebrew Scriptures. Biblical scholar Phyllis Trible calls it “womb-love.” In its singular form, the Hebrew noun “rehem” means womb or uterus. In its plural form, rahamin (ra-CHA-meen), it means “mercy, compassion, love.” So, when Biblical writers speak about the mercy of God, they are often using a metaphor directly related to the womb and the “womb love” a mother has for her child. As theologian Elizabeth Johnson says (in her book She Who Is: The Mystery of God in Feminist Theological Discourse), “When God is spoken of as merciful, the semantic tenor of the word indicates that the womb is trembling, yearning for the child, grieved at the pain.”
You get a feel for the intensity of this word in this verse from Jeremiah, where God is speaking of Her love for Israel and Her people — and here I’m using Phyllis Trible’s translation that captures the womb metaphor:
“Is Ephraim my dear son?
Is Ephraim the child I delight in?
As often as I speak against him,
I still remember him.
Therefore, my womb trembles for him:
I will truly show motherly compassion upon him.” (Jer. 31:20)
Even though the tribe of Ephraim abandons Mother God, they are still the child in whom Mother God delights, for whom Mother God’s womb trembles in love and pain.
If you are looking for direct metaphors that portray God as Mother, you will find scattered handfuls throughout the Hebrew Scriptures. You will find metaphors where God’s relationship to us is compared to different aspects of being a mother — “conceivng, being pregnant, going into labor, delivering, midwifing, nursing, carrying, rearing” (Johnson). For instance, the prophet Isaiah uses the suffering of a woman in labor as a metaphor for the suffering God feels giving birth to Her new creation;
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 labor,
I will gasp and pant. (Is. 42:14)
But there is much more “Mother God” in Hebrew Scriptures than these handful of direct metaphors would suggest. It’s only by seeing the image of “womb love” hidden within the Biblical word translated as “mercy” that we get a fuller sense of how pervasive the image is of the God who loves us with mother love— who envelops us when we cry; who wakes in the middle of the night, worrying over us, weeping her own tears; who silently, without our even noticing it, provides us with what we need for our nurturance and growth and delight. She who is there, attentive, watching, ready to give herself over to the need and reality and identity of her child. To us. What would it be like to imagine that the Divine loves us with this kind of love? God has placed the capacity to be loved like this in our hearts, whether or not we had an earthly mother who was able to embody Womb Love for us. Can you feel it? Can you imagine it?
Within the Protestant world, we have to imagine Her. Within Orthodox and Catholic Christianity, She is everywhere. Walk into the Catholic Church next door and what do you see? Mary. While it is true that the official theology of these churches says very clearly that Mary is not God, tell that to the people in the pews. Says Johnson: Mary functionally operates as a “caring mother at the heart of the church. For innumerable believers, this village woman, mother of Jesus, honored as Mother of God, functions as an icon of the maternal God, revealing divine love as merciful, close, interested in the poor and the weak, ready to hear human needs, related to the earth and trustworthy.”
This is the image you see here. It’s an icon of Mary in her specific aspect known as Our Lady of Mercy. It was painted by Catholic Brother Mickey McGrath after 9/11. In it, Mary holds open her cape — as she traditionally does in icons — holds open her cape as a place of refuge for suffering humanity below. Above Mary’s head is a star in reference to another one of her titles, “Star of the Sea,” the light which guides us safely in our darkness. We see the Spirit represented by the dove with an olive branch of peace in her mouth — remember our first Sunday? Around her halo are the words from the liturgical prayer “Hail, Holy Queen:”
Hail, Holy Queen, Mother of Mercy,
our Life, our Sweetness, and our Hope.
To You do we cry, poor banished children of Eve.
To You do we send up our sighs, mourning
and weeping in this valley of tears.
Turn then, most gracious Advocate,
Your Eyes of Mercy toward us,
and …show us the
Blessed Fruit of Your Womb, Jesus.
It is Mother Mary, the Merciful, who brings forth from her womb the child Jesus, who will embody Her mercy in his life and teach us to walk in its way. Her child, Jesus, will invite us to open ourselves to this Divine Womb Love, to believe in it — to give our hearts to it. And Her child, Jesus, will also invite us to love others as we have been loved. When we do this, we experience the kingdom of God on earth, he says, which is eternal life. For Mother God so loved the world that She gave her only Son, that whomever would believe in Him and His Way, would have eternal life.
“Mama, do you love me?” The answer, always, is: Yes. Amen.