Reflection as part of a church service on the first Sunday in January 2021.The final section includes quotes, in italics, from Shirley Murray’s hymn, “Where is the Room?”.
Do you remember—if you’ve been a birth parent or lived in a multi-generational home—life with a week old baby?
Imagine being in the downstairs garage of a distant relative’s home, amongst the outgrown toys and motorbikes and oily rags and furniture hastily shoved in to make space in the spare rooms for the cousins who arrived earlier. Imagine if your first experience of parenthood is in a lowly garage, amongst the detritus of lawnmowers and shovels and dirt-encrusted gardening gloves and the stink of sheep pellets and blood-and-bone. Imagine birthing God in the most disreputable part of an overcrowded factory town.
The birth day came at last. The pushing and sweating and squeezing this strange, messy, brand new human into the world, and the indignity of people—strangers or family members, which is more embarrassing?—peering at your most private, exposed parts, and maybe having to have stitches there. The exhaustion transformed to bliss as at last you hold the most perfect, lovely, precious small person who seems to gaze back at you with adoration in their barely open eyes.
Do you recall—or can you imagine—the four-hourly or on-demand feeding, depending on your generation and advisors? After months of sleep disturbed by indigestion and a belly too big to lie comfortably and the urgent need to lumber to the loo because the bump is pressing on your bladder, still your nights are broken, will be broken for months, even years, to come.
Welcome to motherhood, Mary, Mother of God. Welcome to fatherhood, Joseph, descendant of King David, reduced to borrowing swaddling cloths and a water bucket and something to hide the bloody, messy sheets in until they can be washed, and your travel-weary donkey taking up limited space in the family’s stable.
But at last, a few precious moments to gingerly hold the baby and reassure Mary that’s she’s a brave, clever girl for getting through the awfulness of giving birth—something no man can imagine, and the guilt for making her endure it!—but no. There’s no peace to be had, not yet.
Shepherds from the hillsides, or inquisitive aunties, who knows? Bursting with curiosity, responding—as only a mother can—to the tug on heart and womb of a new-born’s cry and the sweet, musky smell of his little head. Wanting to be charmed, wanting to fall in love with this little stranger, but also scandalised: will he look anything like Joseph, or their side of the family? And wondering how long they’re expected to house and care for this young woman who’s no better than she should be, but who seems to have Joseph wrapped around her little finger.
Welcome to the family of God, aunties and cousins and not-yet-in-laws, village gossips and respectable matrons.
Welcome to a world of political instability, oppression, Empire, little child of Bethlehem or Nazareth or Mangere or the tragically misnamed Bay of Plenty.
Welcome to a new year of international unrest and local prison rioting, of obscene wealth and grinding poverty; welcome to the starry skies and space junk, thousands of human-made objects polluting earth’s air space[ii] as plastics pollute our seas; to the river of life, too contaminated to drink from or swim in.
Welcome, newborn baby, to the back seat of an unregistered car on a relative’s street, and a diet of the cheapest white bread and bottles of sugary drinks that are cheaper than water, and takeaways cheaper than fresh vegetables even if you owned a stove and pots and pans. Welcome to temporary stays in damp and mouldy state houses; to pain-blotting alcohol misuse and memory-numbing drug dependence. Welcome to the kingdom we’ve prepared for you, with our needs-based assessments and welfare ‘reforms’ and under-funding of community education programmes and health services.
Welcome to the night bus, the cheapest transport back to wherever home was, full of sleep-deprived parents and whining kids, jittery teenagers and smelly old alkies, hoping this time there might be a prodigal father’s welcome and a decent meal.
Welcome, God-Child, to your early weeks spent in Refuge, before your mother takes you home—as she will, several times, with your siblings—before she finds the strength to leave. To leave the strong, charming, sexy man she fell in love with, who might or might not be your dad, who’s a really great guy most of the time—except when he’s had a few, and dinner’s not ready because you’ve kept your mum busy cleaning up your sick and washing your pooey clothes and maybe fighting undiagnosed post-natal depression—and when it’s all too much, he uses his fists because he hasn’t learned the words, hasn’t admitted the feelings, hasn’t been raised to know it’s not okay.
Welcome to an environment where men expect to be good providers, where it’s exhausting and shaming to scrape by on minimum wage; where redundancies are announced just before Christmas; where middle class TV series like Breaking Bad make it seem okay to deal a bit of gear for extra cash, for work boots, for school lunches, for a night out with the missus. Welcome to an entertainment world that glorifies and rewards the idea of breaking bad: a phrase which connotes more violence than ‘raising hell’ does … that can mean to ‘go wild’, to ‘defy authority’ and break the law, to be verbally ‘combative, belligerent, or threatening’… where to break bad on is ‘to dominate or humiliate’.”[iii]
Welcome to Godzone, where the hope of owning a home, and having savings, and even a fraction of a quarter acre, diminish with each decade and every generation.
Mary, Mother of God, pray for us! Mothering God, how we have denied you with our self-interest and individualism! Mother Earth, help us to heal you, and ourselves.
Twenty years ago I took a couple of Religious Studies papers at Victoria University of Wellington, and the incident that follows is from an essay on “demythologizing miracles”:
I stand with friends and strangers in a circle around the communion table, hands folded, palms upright to receive the bread and wine. [The late] Judith Dale has spoken movingly about Hildegard of Bingham and Julian of Norwich, including Julian’s concept of Jesus as Mother.
Elders move around the circle with the loaf of bread and chalice of wine, murmuring the traditional, “the body of Christ for you,” “the wine of the new covenant for you” to each communicant. It is my turn to receive the wine. Rosemary looks me in the eye as she offers me the cup, and says, “Milk from the breast of Christ for you, Bronwyn.” I suppress the urge to giggle; her words are liturgical and appropriate and draw on our shared appreciation of the day’s sermon.
Recalling this incident later, I’m surprised by my response: for years I’ve cheerfully if solemnly drunk “the blood of Christ” as part of the communion ritual, yet the idea of drinking “milk from the breast of Christ” makes me want to gag. If I believed the bread and wine to be the actual body of Christ, if I was starving in the desert, would I prefer to drink blood or breast milk? Yet when I allow myself to imaginatively enter a worldview where the Christ is a mother figure, the milk from Christ’s breast as a symbol of spiritual sustenance becomes attractive. Recalling my own long-ago time as a breast-feeding mother, the experience of re-creation becomes at once more “real” and more “miraculous”[iv].
I’d pretty much forgotten about this essay until last year when I discovered Lilian Keil’s blog post “breastfeeding and the eucharist”. Lilian says she became a Christian in her 20s. She writes:
“I always thought communion was a little weird…The vague cannibalism implied by “this-is-my-body” and “this-is-my-blood” made me wonder if the whole thing wasn’t just a misquote of Jesus. Didn’t the church have more important works of justice to do than sit around feeding each other stale wafers? …It wasn’t until I became a nursing a mother that I began to understand the Eucharist. My experience of breastfeeding has been very straightforward… By some mysterious process, my body produced the perfect nourishment for my babies… When [my son] was a few months old, an acquaintance asked if I was breastfeeding. When I responded in the affirmative she said, “I knew it! I could tell by the way he looks so adoringly at you. He’s like ‘You’re all I need, Mom.’”
Perhaps this is what Jesus had in mind for the Eucharist, blogs 30-something Lilian. Through the breaking of the bread, God invites us into the nursing relationship: the meeting of all our needs. I think about the cracked nipples and the itchy thrush, the aches and fevers of mastitis, the midnight trek across the house to feed a crying baby, fatigued to the point of nausea: “This is my body, broken for you.” I think about the times I missed out because of the chore it was keeping [my baby] fed, the chained-up feeling of pumping at work, the moments when I wish desperately for a break: “Poured out for you and for many…”
I think about God, who has given me these children and the means to sustain them, who is present in the Eucharist and in my nursing chair, who by these rituals invites me to participate in [God’s] life-giving power: “Do this, in remembrance of Me.”
The concept of God as Mother isn’t new.
Around 1374, Julian of Norwich wrote: “The human mother can suckle the child with her milk. But our beloved Mother Jesus can feed us with himself. This is what he does when he tenderly and graciously offers us the blessed sacrament, which is the precious food of true life… Christ the Mother is entwined with the wholeness of life which includes all the sacraments, all the virtues…The human mother can tenderly lay the child on her breast, but our tender Mother Jesus can lead us directly into his own tender breast through his sweet broken-open side..”
Even earlier, Meister Eckhart (who lived from 1260 to 1327) preached: “What does it avail me if the birth is always happening, if it does not happen to me? That it should happen to me is what matters! Why did the indescribable God take on flesh? In order that God may be born in the soul and the soul be born in God.”
Matthew Fox gives us a more contemporary version of Eckhart’s words and offers this commentary: “What good is it to me if Mary gave birth to the Son of God 1400 years ago and I do not give birth to the Son of God in my own person and time and culture? . . . We are all meant to be mothers of God.”[v]
The very names of God in Hebrew Scripture imply or can be read as feminine, motherly, abundant. “Thus says the Lord,” wrote Isaiah, “as a mother comforts her child, so I will comfort you.” From the Greek, Sophia has become an image of the divine feminine—the essence of divine wisdom and a co-partner with God in the work of creation. Shekinah, in Hebrew, means “the act of dwelling”; it’s in the feminine form, and means the female earthly aspect of God that dwelt among people.
“I will extend prosperity to her like a river, and the wealth of the nations like an overflowing stream; and you shall nurse and be carried on her arm, and dandled on her knees. As a mother comforts her child, so I will comfort you, and you will be comforted over Jerusalem.[vi]” The comfort that Mother God provides for Her people is the comfort of home; restoring the people to the place they belong, rebuilding their ruins, and providing them in riches and security. Under God’s nurturing care, the very bodies and spirits of God’s people receive restoration[vii].
One of the names for God, El Shaddai, is used in contexts where God appears as the source of fertility and life[viii]. Various rabbis and bible scholars agree that El Shaddai can be translated as “the Breasted One”; it can also be rendered as “God is my breast(s)” or “God All-Sufficient”.
Think about this for a moment. In all the metaphors and descriptors we have for God—whatever that means to us—imagine if, for a week, or even a year, we used only female words for God. What if we left out of our weekly Word in Texts and contemporary readings all the male images, all the potentially jealous, judgmental, colonising, paternalistic male imagery and spoke exclusively of God as our Mother.
This is not to deny that some human mothers are not nurturing, accepting, life-affirming; that some experiences of motherhood are dehumanising and destructive. In talking of God, we’re in the realm of metaphor and imagery, not literalism.
Imagine if every one of our names and metaphors and references to the divine, the sacred, were deliberately and pains-takingly gender-fluid or female? How transformational, how nourishing for many people that could be!
Molly Marshall [ix] writes that both Jewish and Christian Scriptures recognize the important mother-child relationship when they use the metaphors of pregnancy and birth, nursing and feeding, and carrying and training. Potent depictions of the anger of the mother bear and the protective wing of the mother hen refer to God’s creative relationship with the world.
“Why has the church so little used these wonderful pictures of God’s mothering nearness?” she asks—and concludes, “For one thing, our mothers are involved in our messiness! The language of birthing is hardly sterile. Writhing, panting, struggling labour is necessary to bring new life. Picturing God in mothering terms sounds a bit too intimate, too vulnerable, too embodied for most of us.” She suggests that learning to name and embrace the mothering God might help in several ways, including that we might learn to share in the tasks of the work of God, as children whose mother has suggested it’s about time we learnt to do our part.
Because recognising the Mothering God of Julian and Eckhardt and the Psalmist and Isaiah is only one half of the story; there’s also our role in mothering the God who appears to us in friend and stranger: “Inasmuch as you do it for the least of these, my sisters and brothers, you’re doing it for me.” (Matthew 25:40-45)
Imagine if we took seriously the concept that “God is my breasts”. What does that do to our relationships with others? With the unchurched, with the poor and naked and imprisoned and homeless and brutalised and hungry?
Where is the room? In the blood-stained straw, in the food bank parcels; in fiercely protecting our little ones from bullying and violence, unhealthy housing and hunger; in refugee advocacy and mentoring.
Where is the house of Christmas? It’s in the Women’s Refuge and the interventions for children living with family violence.
Where are the signs of home? On the phone on Shine Domestic Abuse and the Safe to Talk sexual violence helplines, the Hey Bro helpline for men who fear they’re going to harm a loved one or whanau member.
Love to be shared all year: As we mother and are mothered in our turn, in dismantling colonialism and systemic racism; in the ordinary miracle of birthing and midwifing the Beloved Community.
Welcome, week-old baby Jesus, and blessed be all who are nurtured by the metaphor of a Mothering God, who are nourished from the Breast of Christ and sustained by our Mother the Earth.
In this new year, What does it avail us that this birth is always happening, if it is not happening in us?
[iv] Extract from Essay for Religious Studies course at Victoria University of Wellington, January 2000. Manna from Heaven: “Is demythologization helpful in understanding the miracles of the Bible?” – Bronwyn Angela White, 2000
[vi] Isaiah 66:13
[vii] Mothering God—First United Methodist Church https://www.fumcomaha.org/2016/05/08/mothering-god/
[viii] Dr. Eli Lizorkin-Eyzenberg (Research Professor of Jewish and Christian Studies) Israel Institute of Biblical Studies, November 6, 2013 https://blog.israelbiblicalstudies.com/jewish-studies/he-is-our-el-shadai-insight-by-dr-eli/
Download the complete the Order of Service with liturgy: readings, prayers, blessings and lyrics. Images (below) include source information where possible, but I would appreciate hearing from the photographer or rights holder of any image that is not in the public domain.