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As a trained and practicing liturgical theologian, I struggle over the relationship between secular holidays (Valentine’s Day, Veteran’s Day, etc.) and the Lord’s Day. For a long time, Mothers’ Day was no exception — until I came to appreciate it as an opportunity to broach a subject that is taboo in many churches: the idolatry of God as Father.
Of course, Jesus taught his disciples to pray to God as Father in Matthew and Luke. He was not unlike typical Jews of his day for whom “Father” was one of many titles used for God. Nor is addressing God as Father to be unexpected in sacred texts arising out of patriarchal cultures. Addressing God as Father is a perfectly legitimate thing to do.
But there are counter-currents to be found. In Matthew 23:37, Jesus assumes the voice of God as he laments over Jerusalem: “How often I have desired to gather your children as a hen gathers her brood under her wings?” Here it is obvious we are dealing with a metaphor — no one would address God as Hen. But note that Jesus was using a female metaphor to represent God.
God is quite comfortable being likened to a mother. And as I watch my wife be a mother to our children, I can see why.
The prophet Isaiah offers this simile for God: “As a mother comforts her child, so I will comfort you” (66:13). Earlier, Isaiah 49:15 assures us with this image: “Can a woman forget her nursing child? Even if she could, I will not forget you.”
God is quite comfortable being likened to a mother. And as I watch my wife be a mother to our children, I can see why. My wife loves our children in ways that are different from mine. She provides a more complete experience of God’s parental care — she is more fun-loving, decisive, and practical. Through both parents together, God offers a reflection of divine nature to our children.
At the heart of the issue theologically is not whether some references to God are “mere” metaphors (e.g., “God is my Rock” in Psalm 42:9) and others are to be taken more literally. In fact, they are all metaphors. All linguistic and visual references to God are metaphorical because, as Jesus taught the woman at the well in John 4:24, “God is spirit, and those who worship God must do so in spirit and truth.” She was a literalist, wanting to know on which mountain it was proper to worship. Jesus explodes her literal religious understanding and invites her into the language of metaphor.
We usually think of [idolatry] in terms of animal representations or statues. But what about language like “Father”?
But there is an even more pressing theological issue here — idolatry. The second commandment is the prohibition of idol making. God’s people are not allowed to create images of the divine or to worship such images. God preserves God’s divine position and status by refusing to be domesticated by an idol. We usually think of this problem in terms of animal representations or statues. But what about language like “Father”? Words are not “mere” words — they create images. In Jesus Christ, after all, we witness a word becoming flesh.
Words can help us understand and articulate the numinous, but they are limited in their capacity to capture completely that which is mysterious. To say nothing is unfaithful; to speak literally is idolatry.
Which brings us back to Mothers’ Day. I rather like Mothers’ Day because it invites me to conceive of God as Mother, not just as Father. In doing so, I am reminded of the supermom qualities of the divine — all those things my biological mother did well which are merely a reflection of God’s nature. But I am also redeeming all my biological mother’s failures — all those things she did that did not reflect God’s intentions but can’t obstruct them, either. Worshipping God as Mother, alongside worshipping God as Father, is redeeming my parents’ parenting.
God desires that we speak to God, of God, and for God. But God does not bind Godself to our words. God is faithful to use them, but not restricted to them. Very much like the sacramental symbols of water, bread, and wine, God is present, but not contained. So it is with our words.
On Mothers’ Day, I invite the people in my congregation to pray to God as Mother. If they choose not to, then at least they are reminded that whatever metaphor they use — God as Father, Warrior, Rock, whatever — it is metaphorical and not literal language. My hope is that when their chosen metaphor fails, they will feel the freedom to find another metaphor. For not only are we free to do so, but we are required to do so in order to avoid worshipping a god of our own making.
Image: “God the Father” by Cima da Conegliano, 1515.