Sunday, December 4

The Femininity of God: God Our Mother?

Introduction
"In the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit" is the formula which begins many prayers in the Christian tradition. Although we may not often think of it as such, this prayer is an almost thoroughly masculine image - that of Father and Son - although the Holy Spirit is not, as we will explore, necessarily masculine. In the Christian tradition it is professed that God revealed Godself as Father and Brother, Son and Spirit, not as Mother, Daughter or Sister and Spirit. But if God is Spirit (John 4:24), and not gendered, yet is imaged with masculine qualities, could there not also be feminine and maternal qualities to God? Could we then speak of God as Father and God as Mother? In some sense, there is no language, imagery or metaphor that can truly capture the Divine, but what of the images that are most prominently in use? Now, the major branches of Christianity all identify God as "Father," not as "Mother." If God is traditionally imaged as Father, then, is there any room left for God as Mother?

In the book Blowing the Lid Off the God-Box: Opening Up to a Limitless Faith, Anne Robertson points out, "I remember reading someone in seminary... who noted that we have no problem with God being animal, plant, or mineral, but let God be imaged as a woman and cries of heresy go up from every corner. Lion of Judah, Lamb of God, the Vine, the Rock - all slide through with relative ease, even though non-Christian cultures across the globe have worshiped animals, plants, and stones. But the charge of heresy seems to surface when we use the female image."1 Conflicts that break out over imaging God as a mother often show us that maleness is inferred whenever we refer to God - but if we reduce the Divine to a solely masculine nature, and this becomes the image of God, where does that leave the feminine? If man and woman are made in the image and likeness of God, should we not use both masculine and feminine images? There needs to be a balance of the masculine and the feminine, and an acknowledgment that no single image or pair of images can sum of the great mystery of the Divine -otherwise, an image can become an idol.

What is being proposed, then, is not any sort of pagan goddess worship, but instead an exploration of the feminine and maternal images of God. While God is identified as "Father" in the Biblical corpus, there are also a number of feminine and maternal images used. How are these images used, and what do they mean for modern theology? How have the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit been imaged throughout Christian history as mother? What role has Mary played in imaging the feminine face of God? How can female images of God help to heal those who have turned away from the masculine or patriarchal images? What implications do images of the feminine divine have on our theology and actions, particularly in the realm of social justice? This is not an expansive or exhaustive exploration of each of the images, their various histories, socio-historical and political implications, but merely a glance at the surface of this vast and deep pool of feminine and maternal images of God. 

Biblical Images and Scriptural Considerations 
There are a number of important points to consider from the Biblical texts as it relates to the feminine divine. Throughout the New Testament, God is consistently imaged as "Father," as well as throughout the Hebrew Bible.2 God is also imaged as Father in other Jewish writings - in the Talmud, Mishnah, Dead Sea Scrolls and writings of Ben Sira.3  But when we begin to take a deeper look at the Scriptural corpus, we notice numerous feminine and maternal images of God. The verbs and nouns used to describe God also play a role in this. The very first words of the Hebrew Bible are B'reshit bara Elohim, translated as, "In the beginning God created." In Hebrew, the word Elohim is used to refer to both genders. As a result, the word Elohim was used to refer to both God and a pagan goddess in 1st Kings.4 Further, in Genesis 1:26-27, both male and female were created in the image of Elohim - thus suggesting a male and female nature of God.5 Goddesses and female deities were fairly common in antiquity, especially in the Near-Eastern mythologies, but the God seen in Genesis is unique in being a both / and, meaning, God is imaged as both masculine and feminine, but also as non-gendered. 

Perhaps a clearer expression of the feminine divine can be found in the form of Wisdom, or in the Greek - Sophia. The first nine chapters of Proverbs focus on this Sophia, especially Proverbs 8, and she appears again in the Wisdom of Solomon and Sirach. In some Christian traditions, particularly in the Eastern Orthodox Church, Sophia seen as the personification of divine wisdom in female form. Consider one of the passages found in Sirach 24:24-26, "I am the mother of fair love, and of fear, and of knowledge, and of holy hope... Come over to me, all who desire me, and be filled with my fruits" (emphasis mine). We will return to this image of Sophia later. Consider the Holy Spirit, who has a number of interesting images that connect it to the feminine. The dove, for example, often associated with the Holy Spirit (at the baptism of Jesus, for example), was frequently associated in the Near East in antiquity with a mother goddess. Using the dove as an image for the Holy Spirit could suggest a feminine understanding. Also, the noun used of the Spirit in Genesis 2:7, ruach, meaning breath,6 is feminine, as is the verb used to describe the Spirit's activity during creation - rachaph - which means "fluttering" (Genesis 1:2). This verb is again used in Deuteronomy 32:11, where it describes a mother eagle spreading her wings, carrying and protecting her young - a feminine image of God. 

These and other feminine nouns and verbs used to refer to the Holy Spirit are also found throughout the Hebrew Bible, which may suggest that the Holy Spirit was often understood as feminine.7 There are also a variety of feminine and maternal images of God in the Scriptural corpus aside from Sophia and the Holy Spirit. The name of God is an example of this. One of the names used of God is El Shaddai, which means, "God of the mountains" or, more strikingly, "God of the breasts." God is also portrayed using imagery that would have been considered feminine in its socio-historical context, as we see with God depicted as the washer-woman (Isaiah 4:4), as a midwife (Psalm 22:9-11, 71:6; Isaiah 66:9), as a woman baking bread (Matthew 13:33), and is likened to being a mother (Psalm 131:2). In Hosea 13:8, God is described as a mother bear. 

Consider a few other passages from Scripture which image God as one giving birth and experiencing labor pains:
  • “You forget the rock who begot you, unmindful of the God who gave birth to you” (Deuteronomy 32:18).
  • "From whose womb comes the ice? Who gives birth to the frost from the heavens?" (Job 38: 28-29).
  • “I groan like a woman in labor; I will gasp and pant” (Isaiah 42:14).
  • “You who have been carried since birth, whom I have carried since you were born” (Isaiah 46: 3-4).
  • "Those who believe in God are born of God" (John 1:12).
  • "Everyone who loves is born of God" (John 4:7). 
  • "God is bringing forth a new humanity like the pangs of a woman in labor; her hour has come"(John 16:21).
  • "My dear children, for whom I am again in the pains of childbirth until Christ is formed in you..." (Galatians 4:19). 
Giving birth is certainly not a masculine image, but rather a maternal image. God is here and elsewhere portrayed as a mother who formed creation in the womb and gave birth, experiencing labor pains.8 In Hebrew,  the verb raham, meaning “to have compassion,” comes from the word for “womb” (rehem or rahan). These passages, then, demonstrate God's "womb-like compassion" for God's creation. The image of God compared to a nursing and comforting mother is another recurring feminine image seen in Scripture:
  • "Was it I who conceived all this people? Or was it I who gave them birth that you tell me to carry them at my breast, like a nurse carrying an infant, to the land you have promised under oath to their fathers?" (Numbers 11:12; NAB).
  • "Can a woman forget her infant, be without tenderness for the child of her womb? Even should she forget, I will never forget you" (Isaiah 49:15).
  • "As a mother comforts her child, so will I comfort you" (Isaiah 66:9-13).
  • "How often I desired to gather your children together as a hen gathers her brood under her wings" (Luke 13:34; cf. Matthew 23:37).
These and many other feminine images of God not listed here provide us with a general sense of how feminine images were used to portray God in the Scriptures. However, this feminine and maternal understanding of the Divine changed over time. One may speculate that the Jews preferred not to depict God as Mother or as feminine often because of the numerous cults to goddesses in the Near East during and before their time. In not doing so, they would have been able to differentiate themselves from the cults and other Near Eastern religions. Despite this, although God continued to be imaged as Father, imaging God as Mother remained constant in the tradition, as we will see.

Christian Tradition, History and the Feminine Divine
As previously noted, the Holy Spirit has been identified as mother, even from early on. Although some of these early writings are not all within the boundaries of early orthodoxy, they provide us with insight into early thought concerning the Holy Spirit. In the Secret Book of John (AD 180) we read, "she placed a throne in the middle of the cloud that no one might see it except the Holy Spirit who is called the mother of the living" (emphasis mine). Later on, Origen commented on the Gospel of the Hebrews (2nd century), where "the Savior himself says, 'Just now my mother, the Holy Spirit, took me by one of my hairs and carried me up to the great mountain, Tabor'" (emphasis mine).9 The Gnostic Gospel of Philip (AD 180-250) says, "Some say Mary was impregnated by the Holy Spirit. They err. They do not know what they say. When did a woman become pregnant by a woman?" In the treatise titled the Trimorphic Protennoia (The First Thought in Three Forms; AD 120-180), we find something interesting. The "First Thought" is written from the perspective of a female aeon - a female divine being: 
[She] is the first emanation from the one true inscrutable God. She begins her discourse by revealing her own mysterious greatness, which is so great that it cannot even be spoken of. She then describes the three descents that she made from the heavenly realm in order to bring humans the heavenly knowledge that can illuminate their souls, delivering them from darkness into light. Each of these descents is associated with one of her three forms, since she is the Thought of the Father (or Voice), the Mother (or Sound), and the Son (or Word, i.e., the Logos). It is her final descent in the appearance of human flesh that brings the ultimate illumination to those who dwell in ignorance and darkness, leading to their ascent into the world of Light.10
The "First Thought in Three Forms" is a Sethian Gnostic Christian text and does not represent the orthodox thinking of Christians at the time, but it is important to see the way in which contemporary writings were imaging God. In the orthodox Christian Syriac traditions, however, there was a number of historical developments concerning the Holy Spirit and the feminine. Up until around AD 400, the Holy Spirit was nearly always identified as being grammatically feminine.11 This is seen in a number of early Christian writings, particularly the Odes of Solomon (AD 100-200), the Acts of Thomas (200-225). and the writings of Aphrahat (270-345) and Ephrem (306-373). 

After the 5th century and onward, it seems that - despite the grammatical rules of "the language, [Christians] treated the word ruha as masculine wherever it referred to the Holy Spirit.... From the sixth century onwards what had been only sporadic practice in the fifth century now becomes the norm, ruha, referring to the Holy Spirit, is regularly treated as masculine. Even so, the original feminine was not completely ousted, for it can still occasionally be found, chiefly in liturgical texts and in poetry."12 Interestingly, in the Old Syriac translations of the four gospels (2nd-3rd century), "the Holy Spirit regularly features grammatically as feminine. In the revised translation of the Syriac New Testament, known as the Peshitta, and produced in the early fifth century, we find that although the feminine has been preserved in many places, there are also some where the gender has been altered to masculine. Finally, in the early seventh-century version known as the Harklean... ruha is regularly treated as masculine wherever it refers to the Holy Spirit."13 In other words, there seems to be a back and forth of sorts regarding the understanding of the Holy Spirit as masculine and feminine.


Based on an Icon from St. George Church
in Vologda (Sophia in the center)
In the aforementioned Acts of Thomas we read, "Holy Dove that bears the twin young; Come, hidden Mother...". The Acts of Thomas also invokes the Holy Spirit in the context of baptism, and it calls the Spirit a "compassionate mother." To add to this, in an invocation of the Holy Spirit over the Eucharist, it says, "Come, hidden mother... come, and make us share in this Eucharist which we perform in your name, and... in the love to which we are joined by invoking you."14  This is an instance where God, imaged as a mother, is actually used in sacramental liturgy - for both baptism and the Eucharist, yet it must be noted that this was within the Gnostic Christian branch. Interestingly, the Acts of Thomas also contains a poem, known as the Hymn of the Pearl. The poem tells the story of a royal son who is sent by the king and queen - his father and mother - from "the East (the heavenly world) to go to Egypt (the fallen world) in order to collect a pearl from the mouth of a dragon.... In Egypt the son receives a letter from his parents which begins: 'From your Father, the King of kings, and your Mother, the Mistress of the East', and later he uses the names of his father and mother in an invocation to charm the dragon so that he can extract the pearl. In some sense or other it seems likely that the King and the Queen are to be identified as the Father and the Holy Spirit; in any case, this was the Christian reading of the poem in antiquity.”15 

The Acts of Thomas are not the only time in Syriac literature where we find the Holy Spirit as mother. As previously noted, the Christian author Aphrahat wrote about the Spirit as mother, saying, "as long as a man has not taken a wife, he loves and reveres God his Father and the Holy Spirit his Mother, and he has no other love. But when a man takes a wife, then he leaves his (true) Father and his Mother."16 This interpretation of Genesis 2:24 actually finds roots in the Jewish philosopher Philo, who lived during the 1st century. In his Allegorical Interpretation, he says, "the Mind, when it has become her slave, abandons both God the Father of the universe, and God's excellence and wisdom, the Mother of all things, and cleaves to and becomes one with sense-perception and is resolved into sense-perception so that the two become one flesh and one experience." The Macarian Homilies of the 4th and 5th century also image God similarly, as a "Mother, the excellent Spirit of God."17

This image of the Holy Spirit as Mother is not found only in Syriac writings, however. Around AD 200, Hippolytus wrote in Greek and described the Biblical "Isaac as an image of God the Father, his wife Rebecca as an image of the Holy Spirit, and their son Jacob as an image of Christ - or of the Church."18 In the second Hymn of the Bishop of Gyrene, Synesios (AD 410-413), God is "mother, she is sister, she is daughter; she has delivered [as a midwife] the hidden root." Other examples of similar imagery regarding the Holy Spirit can be found in a number of Latin writers, including the 4th century author Marius Victorinus. The tradition of the Holy Spirit as mother did not completely disappear from the Syriac tradition, however. In the early 7th century, Martyrius, a monastic writer, speaks of "the hovering of the all-holy Spirit, who, like a mother, hovers over us... and through her hovering over us, we are made worthy of sonship."19 The Syrian Orthodox theologian, Moses bar Kepha (AD 833-903) also spoke about this in a homily, saying, "the Holy Spirit hovered over John the Baptist and brought him up like a compassionate mother."20

The aforementioned image of Sophia continued to show up as well. Sophia appeared again in Hellenistic cults, various branches of Mysticism, and Gnosticism, where she was a female goddess who was described as a virgin and as wisdom embodied. Within the "mainstream" Christian tradition, the image of Sophia also continued in use. The Catholic mystic St. Hildegard (1098-1179) used the image of Sophia as a central figure her art and writings. In the 1600s, the English Protestant mystic and founder of the Philadelphian Society, Jane Leade, wrote numerous descriptions of her visions and dialogues with the "Virgin Sophia" who, according to Leade, revealed the spiritual mechanics of the cosmos.21 Leade had been influenced by the theosophical writings of 16th century German Christian mystic Jakob Böhme, who also spoke of this Sophia in works such as The Way to Christ (1622). Böhme's use of Sophia influenced a number of other Christian mystics and religious leaders, such as George Rapp (1757-1847) and the Harmony Society (founded in 1785).22

From this brief glance at early Syriac, Greek, Gnostic and orthodox texts alike, as well as the continued usage of Sophia, we can see that the Holy Spirit was indeed often depicted using feminine or maternal imagery, despite frequent grammatical shifts and changes in theme. The next question perhaps arises naturally - what of Jesus? Historically, Jesus of Nazareth was born as a male,23 and is not known as Jesa, Daughter of God, but as Jesus, Son of God. It may surprise the reader, then, to learn that Jesus was actually frequently portrayed as Mother, particularly in the High Middle Ages. 

Jesus as Mother in Medieval Tradition
The apocryphal Acts of Peter, the writings of Origen, St. Irenaeus, St. John Chrysostom, St. Ambrose and St. Augustine all describe Christ as mother.24 Perhaps the fullest description of Jesus as mother is found in the Paedagogus, written by Clement of Alexandria (AD 150-215).25 Later on, in the AD 800s, Hincmar of Rheims referred in passing to both the bishop and Christ as mother.26 In Medieval theology one could find a variety of images used to depict God, especially animal imagery. For example, the pelican was understood as a maternal image of Christ, as a pelican cared for and sacrificed herself for her young. Since the image of the Church as Mother (later called "Holy Mother Church") was also fairly common at this time, however, it began to be imaged as Mother more than Jesus was as time went on. This transition from Jesus as mother to the Church as mother did not halt the maternal imagery completely, however. In fact, among the mystics as well as Cistercian monks, the image remained a common one. In recent years, this image of Jesus as mother has been retrieved and recovered from the tradition, and is still being discussed and explored.

One of the most well-known of these mystics was Julian of Norwich (1342-1416). When she was 30 years old, she became bed-ridden with illness and later wrote that she experienced visions of Christ. After her recovery she became an anchoress, and recorded her visions in Revelations of Divine Love. In it, she writes, "Jesus Christ therefore, who himself overcame evil with good, is our true Mother. We received our 'Being' from Him ­ and this is where His Maternity starts... Just as God is our Father, so God is also our Mother... [God said] I am the power and the Goodness of the Father, I am the Wisdom [Sophia] of the Mother, I am the Light and the Grace which is blessed love, I am the Trinity, I am the Unity... [God] wanted the Second Person to become our Mother, our Brother, our Savior. It is thus logical that God, being our Father, be also our Mother... we are thus well advised to love our God through whom we have our being... and to pray fervently to our Mother, so as to obtain mercy and compassion, and to pray to our Lord, the Holy Spirit, to obtain help and grace..." (emphasis mine).27 This is one among many examples from Julian of Norwich, but it suffices to say that she is popular in mystical theology for her understanding of Jesus as mother.

(The Pietà on a clifftop in Garrison, NY)
Lest we settle at Julian of Norwich and think that she was the only writer to have imaged God - indeed, even imaging Jesus - as mother, we now turn to just a sample other medieval authors who used similar feminine and maternal imagery of God. During the High Middle Ages, maternal imagery arose from a theological movement that continued to place emphasis and pietistic devotion on and toward the humanity of Jesus. When this occurred, frequent descriptions of God "as a woman nursing the soul at her breasts, drying its tears, punishing its petty mischief-making, giving birth to it in agony and travail, [were] part of a growing tendency to speak of the divine in homey images and to emphasize its approachability.... Seeing Christ or God or the Holy Spirit as female is thus part of a later medieval devotional tradition that is characterized by increasing preference for analogies taken from human relationships, a growing sense of God as loving and accessible, a general tendency toward fulsome language, and a more accepting reaction to all natural things, including the physical human body."28

Turning to the monks, we find Anselm of Canterbury (1033-1109), a Benedictine monk and theologian. In his work titled Monologion, Anselm objected to calling God "mother" directly, but instead referred in a lyrical prayer to Jesus and Paul as mothers of the soul. Yet in the same work, Anselm wrote, "But you, Jesus, good lord, are you not also a mother?... Truly, you are a mother. For what others have conceived and given birth to, they have received from you.... You are the author, others are the ministers. Is is then you, above all, Lord God, who are mother."29 He also wrote that Jesus as father was the one who ruled and produced, whereas Jesus as mother was the one who loves.

Moving toward the Cistercian monks, we find St. Bernard of Clairvaux (1090-1153), who called Jesus, Peter, Paul, Moses, prelates and abbots (including himself) "mother." He used the image of breasts to describe the pouring out of instruction and affective actions of abbots and prelates in monastic life.30 He also used this image to depict Jesus, a bit grotesquely, as Mother, saying to the monks, "Do not let the roughness of our life frighten your tender years. If you feel the strings of temptation... suck not so much the wounds as the breasts of the Crucified.. He will be your mother, and you will be his son."31 In his sermons, Bernard also assigns an abundance of maternal imagery to what is found in the Song of Songs.32 The theological approach that St. Bernard took is similar to what we find elsewhere, as in the Rule of Hermitages written by St. Francis of Assisi between 1217-1221. Francis used maternal imagery to describe the relationship between the Franciscan friars who chose to stay in hermitages. He said, "Let those who wish to stay in hermitages in a religious way be three brothers or, at the most, four; let two of these be 'the mother' and have two 'sons' or at least one. Let the two who are 'mothers' keep the life of Martha and the two 'sons' the life of Mary...".33

Next we come to William of St. Thierry (1085-1148), who avoids explicitly imaging God as mother, but similar to St. Bernard, he comments on the Song of Songs, saying that it describes "Christ feeding and instructing the individual soul, [saying,] '...it is your breasts, O eternal Wisdom [Sophia], that nourish the holy infancy of your little ones.... Since that everlasting blessed union and kiss of eternity are denied the Bride on account of her human condition and weakness, she turns to your bosom; and not attaining to that mouth of yours, she puts her mouth to your breasts instead...'".34 Another writer who picked up on the image of Jesus as mother was Guerric of Igny (1070-1157), who used the image of motherhood to describe the relationship between Peter, Paul, Jesus, and prelates to the soul of an individual believer.35 Aelred of Rievaulx (1110-1167) also picks up on some of these images and themes, but focuses in his writings on the image of Jesus as a "nursing mother as well as the image of Jesus our brother suckled at the Virgin's breasts."36 Aelred internalized this maternal imagery, and on his deathbed spoke of his own role in the monastery as having been maternal.37 Adam of Perseigne (1145-1221) was the only 12th century Cistercian to emphasize the labor pains when he used maternal imagery of God, and the only Cistercian to expound on the image of the woman in labor in John 16:21.38

Regarding the concern in some circles that these feminine and maternal images of Jesus are solely the work of Medieval women, as should now be clear:
It was not women who originated female images of God. And a list of the medieval authors in whom modern scholars have found the image of God as mother makes it clear that such language is in no way the special preserve of female writers: Anselm, Peter Lombard, the biographer of Stephen of Muret, Bernard, William of St. Thierry, Aelred, Guerric of Igny, Isaac of Stella, Adam of Perseigne, Helinand of Froidmont, Gilbert of Hoylan, Guigo II the Carthusian, Albert the Great, Bonaventure, Aquinas, Gertrude the Great, Mechtild of Hackeborn, Mechtild of Magdeburg, Marguetite of Oignt, the monk of Farne, Richard Rolle, William Flete, Dante, Ludolph og Saxony, Catherine of Siena, Bridget of Sweden, Margery Kempe, Julian of Norwich, the Ancrene Rule, the Chastising of God's Children, and a number of anonymous English poems and sermons. Although the most sophisticated use of the theme is Julian of Norwich's trinitarian theology, there is no reason to assert, as some have done, that the theme of the motherhood of God is a 'feminine insight'.39
Along with these writers and theologians, there are still a number of other references to Jesus as mother in the High Middle Ages. In the 12th century Ladder of Monks by Guigo the Carthusian, there is a single reference to Jesus as a mother who nurses her young.40 Marguerite of Oignt (1240-1310) imaged the Passion of Jesus as a mother giving birth. She says in her Pagina and Oeuvres addressed to Jesus that "you labored for... more than thirty years... and bore me through your whole life. But when the time approached for you to be delivered, your labor pains were so great that your holy sweat was like great drops of blood [Luke 22:44] that came out from your body and fell on the earth.... when the hour of your delivery came you were placed on the hard bed of the cross... in one day you gave birth to the whole world."41 At this point, it should be apparent that there was no single theme of Jesus as mother in the medieval period, but many different uses and perspectives. At times it was used to discuss authority, at other times it was used in the generative sense of birth, at times it was used to speak of the compassion and mercy of God, at times it was used to speak of the suffering of Christ, and so forth. Unfortunately, despite their popularity, these feminine and maternal images did not seem to have much of an impact in the High Middle Ages toward the treatment of and respect for women by men.42

One other image of Christ is worth noting here, although it was much earlier than the Middle Ages, and was not a maternal image. This is the image of Jesus as the Divine Logos. The Logos famously appears as the "Word" in the prologue of John's gospel, and interestingly, in the Syriac, Logos - "Word" - is translated as a feminine noun - mellta.43 Thus we see in the Old Syriac version of the Gospel of John that Mellta - the Logos - is feminine.44 This was also picked up by the aforementioned writer Ephrem (4th century), and occasionally showed up in the 5th century and later on, in a prayer from the 7th century, as well as in other places.45 This is interesting, because many have also identified the Logos or "The Word" as the Wisdom of God, the Sophia, which we have seen is certainly feminine. Aside from images of Sophia, however, which continue in the Eastern Orthodox tradition today, theology began to shift away from feminine images of God, of the Spirit and Christ as mother. and more and more began to focus on Mary as the face of the feminine divine.

Mary: Mother of God, or God the Mother?
The early Church saw Mary in a number of ways: as the New Eve, as the new Ark of the Covenant, and as “The Woman.” As has been noted, Mary is not a goddess and should not perceived as such, but nor should she be ignored. Mary played an extremely significant role in the birth, life, and death of Jesus - she was present for each. She was also present when the Church began at Pentecost, and traditionally she lived with the apostle John in Ephesus for several years before she passed on. In the Catholic, Eastern Orthodox and Anglican traditions especially, Mary is seen as still playing an important role as Mother. She is called the Theotokos - the God-bearer, or Mother of God. One of the traditional texts associated with Mary, John 19:26-27, says, "When Jesus saw his mother and the disciple whom he loved standing beside her, he said to his mother, 'Woman, here is your son.' Then he said to the disciple 'Here is your mother.' And from that hour the disciple took her into his own home" (NRSV). This text has been symbolically used to say that Jesus gave Mary to his followers as a mother, and gave his followers to her as her children. 

In the early Christian church, Mary was likely seen as the mother of the Christian community. Although women did not have a very high status in society at the time, Mary was in a sense the first Christian believer due to her Annunciation (when the angel came to her, and she gave her "Yes"). She was the woman who raised Jesus, and she was given into John's care by Jesus.  The fact that property and "all things" were held in common as clearly seen in Acts and the Didache bears out the notion that the community needed a mother to guide them. Therefore, we may look at Mary as the mother of the early community. For many people, Mary has not just been seen as a mother, but has been a sort of feminine face of the Divine. As a result, at times, some have slipped into forms of goddess worship. Around AD 375, the Christian heresiologist Epihanius referred to a heresy known as the Antideco-Marianites, who worshiped Mary as a goddess. This was also known as Collyridianism. Women in Thrace and Scythia worshiped Mary as a goddess as well, and offered her cakes. The Collyridian heresy soon made its way into Arabia, and although it was seemingly less prominent by the time of Muḥammad, the heresy continued until the Middle Ages.46

Mary is also identified as the "woman clothed with the sun" from Revelation 12, hence the later title given to her, "Queen of Heaven." This title actually appeared in the Hebrew Bible, assumed to be a title for the Canaanite goddess Asherah, whom some of the Israelites were offering cakes and drinks to just as the later Collyridian sect did for Mary. Non-Catholics have claimed that using this title of Mary, then, is a form of goddess worship. But the theology and reasoning behind the title actually comes from the Scriptures: in ancient Israel, some of the mothers of Davidic kings would intercede with their sons on behalf of others. They were the Gebirah, or the "Great Lady." Thus we see in 1st Kings 2:20, Solomon said to his mother Bathsheba, seated on a throne at his right, "Make your request, Mother, for I will not refuse you." Since Jesus is seen as the successor and fulfillment of the Davidic kingdom (hence the recurring title "Son of David"; see also Luke 1:32), Mary is thus seen theologically as the Gebirah. Since Jesus is the King of Heaven, she is seen as the Mother Queen - or the Queen of Heaven - in fulfillment of her role as his mother. The LDS / Mormon Church also speaks of a "Heavenly Mother," but she is a deity separate from God the Father, and it is believed that God is married to the divine spirit of the Heavenly Mother. This is not the theological view being advocated here in imaging Mary as "Queen of Heaven," but rather the the fulfillment of the Gebirah.

Certainly, some of the names and titles that developed in regard to Mary have lost the fact that she was a historical woman who lived in 1st century Palestine, who ate, drank, slept like everyone else, and was not a magical goddess; yet for Christians, she is also the Mother of God. Indeed, Christians from the earliest of times realized that Mary should not be worshiped, but as the woman who gave birth to and raised Jesus, several hymns were made in her honor (the Egyptian Sub Tuum Praesidium is the earliest on record), as well as artwork, poems, and other such things. This is when the use of prayer beads came about. The rosary is not a prayer to Mary per se, but rather a meditation on the life of Christ. Our hands hold the beads, our words pour forth, and our heart and mind contemplate Christ. Prayer toward saints is seen in the Catholic tradition as being a communication with those who are already with God, as those who are living and dead are both party of the Body of Christ. Regardless, there are a number of cases where the rosary has been turned into a form of goddess worship, which is certainly not its intended purpose.

How do Marian apparitions factor into this discussion? There are many well-known apparitions, such as Our Lady of Laus (1664-1718), Our Lady of the Miraculous Medal (1830), Our Lady of Lourdes (1858), Our Lady of Fatima (1917), and several others. Arguably the most prominent and well-known of the apparitions is Our Lady of Guadalupe. "Our Lady of Guadalupe" is the name given to an apparition of Mary which appeared in a number of visions as an Aztec Princess on December 12, 1531 to a man named Juan Diego. She called herself "mother of the very true deity,"47 and told Juan to go to the Bishop and have a church built. After a bit of back and forth with the Bishop, the Bishop would not believe him, so she told Diego to fill his cloak with roses. When he opened it in front of the Bishop, the roses fell out and what was left was an image of Mary on Diego's cloak (called The Tilma). This is the famous image that can still be seen today in Mexico City. In it, her head is bowed and her hands are folded to show humility: she is not herself a goddess, but one who points the way to God. At that time, around 8 Million people converted to Christianity, and later on, Our Lady of Guadalupe became known as the Patronness of the Americas. Her Feast day is celebrated each year on December 12.

Marian Shrine at the National Basilica
(in Washington D.C.)
This happened at a time when the Aztecs were going through a bit of an identity crisis, as Patricia Harrington points out, "The Aztecs ... had an elaborate, coherent symbolic system for making sense of their lives. When this was destroyed by the Spaniards, something new was needed to fill the void and make sense of New Spain ... the image of Guadalupe served that purpose."48 The symbol of Our Lady of Guadalupe came to represent Christianity to the newly conquered population, rather than images of Jesus. The Christian missionaries were preaching themes of mercy, compassion, forgiveness and reconciliation - yet not finding it in the God of the conquerors, the Aztecs turned to the Lady. As a result, "Representing Christianity to the newly conquered, the missionaries did not connect these fundamental Christian elements with God in their catechisms; they did connect them with Mary... All of these 'maternal' qualities were attributed to God by the missionaries, but in the conquered population's mind the association of God with the powerful and [conquerors] was primary. Mary, however, was presented as loving, comforting, and accepting; she was clearly the faithful and solidarious one."49 It was Mary who came to fill to "God-role" and became not just the Patronness of the Americas, but in many ways the Goddess of the Americas, as the title of Ana Castillo's 1996 book aptly names her. Mary became the feminine face of the Divine for many.

Marian theology, doctrines, images, apparitions and other aspects of the Marian phenomenon throughout our history has been so influential because of her role in imaging the feminine Divine. The earlier images used to describe the feminine side of God found in the Scriptures, the Patristics or the Medieval period became associated with Mary, and attributes that would have been associated with God have remained with her.50 What this Marian tradition does offer us is a wealth of meaningful feminine and maternal images that can be applied to God. In the process of this integration of imagery, then "the figure of Mary no longer has to bear the burden of keeping alive female imagery of the Divine, and the figure of God becomes our loving Mother to whom we entrust our needs. Again, for some, it may be difficult to image the male face of God as loving provider, but the Marian image is not meant to replace but to enhance the priesthood of God."51

Consider the Marian phenomenon from a psychological perspective. If you have a history of difficult, challenging or even abusive relationships with men, then you may be less likely to connect spiritually, emotionally and theologically to God the Father, because your image of God may be influenced by your male relationships. However, if your image of the Divine is associated with Mary, as with many in the Hispanic community, and you have strong female relationships, you may be more likely to direct your attention toward Mary to the point where she may become an idol. What if one of the reasons why many people choose to reject Christianity is because of the image of God that they are presented with? Further, what if they were presented with a more integrated and balanced image of God that is not solely masculine? The Feminist theologian Elizabeth Schussler Fiorenza once explained this sort of split "by a long process of patriarchalization, as a result of which the divine image became more remote and judgmental, while Mary became the beloved 'other face' of God. Intellectually a distinction was maintained between adoration of God and veneration of Mary, but on the affective, imaginative level people experienced the love of God and the saving mystery of divine reality in the figure of Mary."52

Our Lady of Guadalupe was significant for the Aztec people because she identified herself as a maternal presence who would console, nurture, offer motherly love and comfort "her children." All of these are qualities which could be used as metaphors or images to describe God. By transferring and integrating these images and this sort of maternal language to God, we can begin to see that "God has a maternal countenance. All that is creative and generative of life, all that nourishes and nurtures, all that is benign, cherishes, and sustains, all that is solicitous and sympathetic originates in God/Her."53 There is so much more that could be said of Mary, the Marian dogmas, theological and historical development around how she has been perceived, but this would become another essay or even another book. Bearing all of this in mind, how can we move toward a language of God that is more inclusive? How can we take a more integrated approach to how we image God to others? 

Inclusive Language and Modern Theology 
In Season 1 of the DCTV show Supergirl, the character Maxwell Lord refers to God as "she" when in a dangerous situation. The show already has a reputation for feminine empowerment - with a strong female lead, a female president, and even, apparently, a female God. Although this is a minor example, does something like this off-hand reference give us the briefest taste of a hunger in our world today for feminine images of the Divine? On Mother's Day in 2014, a song titled "God our Mother" was released by the Christian band known as The Liturgists. The song begins, "God our Father / Giver of daily bread / Blessing our hands and covering our heads. / God our Mother / leading us into peace / drawing and comforting all those in need. / Hallowed, hallowed be thy name... in all the earth." A quick Google search will show that the song was received with mixed reviews, with some wondering how "seriously the Liturgists take theology,"54 or declaring the band heretical. To be sure, the image, analogy, theme, metaphor or allegory we have explored here of God as a Mother are not a literal claims of a gendered feminine - or masculine God. Rather, we are suggesting that the Christian tradition has lost some of its feminine and maternal imagery for God, and in the process, some of these images have become associated with Mary instead. A recovery and awareness of these images, themes and metaphors can help lead us to a more well-rounded understanding of who the Divine is. The 2014 song by The Liturgists is one example of this attempt. 

Another way that different Christian groups have tried to bring this into modern theology and practice is through inclusive language. As has been noted, oftentimes masculine language is both used and assumed whenever talking about God. Consider The Catechism of the Catholic Church #239, which says that that "God is neither man nor woman: he is God". It does not say, "God is neither man nor woman: God is Spirit." Instead, it says, "he is God." This is a good indication of the deeply ingrained use of masculine language for God, even when attempting to show the non-gendered nature of God as Spirit. The Church declares that God "transcends gender,"55 but in prayers, in the Mass, in the Liturgy of the Hours and other parts of the liturgical tradition, God seems to be referred to primarily, if not exclusively, in masculine language. 

One of the reasons for this is perhaps a practical one - if we referred to God in a gender-neutral way, would we say, "It"? This is when the language could get tricky, a bit clumsy, or even a bit fumbled. Part of the reason why we still retain such strong masculine language, it is argued, is Jesus taught his disciples to pray "Our Father," not "Our Mother." That being said, however, if Jesus had in fact taught his disciples to pray "Our Mother," how seriously would this new Jewish sect have been taken? If Jesus started to image God as Mother and say that "the Mother and I are one" or "he who has seen me has seen the Mother," would the Greco-Roman and Jewish cultures of the time have accepted the Christian movement? Would others have as readily become Christians? This may seem trivial, but when we consider that the Hebrew faith spoke of God primarily as Father - though as we have seen, sometimes used feminine and maternal images - if Jesus had revealed God as Mother, would they not have rejected his teachings as some sort of Roman mystery cult devoted to a goddess? Some dismiss the Catholic Church today on the basis of Marian devotion, so this speculation may not be far off.

Despite this, however, there are a number of Churches, particularly a number of liberal and mainline Protestant branches which have found a way to encourage and integrate inclusive language - masculine and feminine as well as non-gendered language - for God. This includes the United Church of Christ, the Metropolitan Community Church and the Evangelical Lutheran Church of America. There are also a number of movements within other branches such as the Roman Catholic Church to have a more inclusive liturgical language. The United Church of Christ uses inclusive language for God in their worship and some of their conferences,56 in their New Century Hymnal (1995). In it, they tried to balance masculine and feminine images of God, while retaining the maleness of Jesus in his earthly life. One example of this inclusive language in the Hymnal is the use of the word "Lord." The word is known to imply a rule, an authority or a sovereignty (hence the title "Sovereign Lord"), and it also implies a male gender. On their website, they acknowledge that although the Hymnal keeps the title for Jesus, especially in more well-known hymns, it was used as little as possible, and is used only as a name for Jesus, not for God. The Metropolitan Community Church also uses inclusive language where possible, saying "God - our Parent-Creator" in reference to the first person of the Trinity, but retains the titles of "Jesus Christ the only begotten son of God" and the "Holy Spirit."57

Elizabeth Johnson, the American feminist theologian, in her book SHE WHO IS (1992), explores the effects of the usage of masculine and patriarchal images of God, and the impact this has had on the Christian community, and more specifically on the lives of women. Johnson "draws attention to a fact that has been steadfastly ignored by theologians for centuries: that exclusively male imagery for God has been used in an uncritically literal way, leading to a form of idolatry."58 In an attempt to reclaim and recover some of the feminine and maternal imagery from our tradition, she uses the image of Sophia, and reverses the traditional order of the formula and asks if we could rename the divine persons as Spirit-Sophia, Jesus-Sophia and Mother-Sophia. If we image God this way, she says, "speaking about God as mother fixes as bedrock the idea that relationship is a constitutive way in which divine freedom enacts itself."59 It should be noted that she also keeps the Trinitarian formula of Father, Son and Spirit and notes its importance in our liturgies and especially in baptism, but is suggesting other ways of imaging the Trinity in a theological context.

In a paper titled "Female Symbols for God," Johnson writes further about the role of women in the Christian tradition. She notes that there seems to be an ambiguity about women's humanity, as on the one hand the Church holds that women are created in the imago dei, yet it is because of this sexual embodiment that theology has sometimes seen women as the image of God only in her relation to man. For example, according to Augustine, she is image of God insofar as man is her head; according to Thomas Aquinas, women are defective or misbegotten males; according to Tertullian, women, like Eve, are temptresses of men's virtue.60 She writes, "Behind these traditional, distorted but highly influential male definitions of women is classical Hellenistic dualism which separates reality into spirit and matter, identifying men with spirit (i.e. light, soul, reason, act - what is eternal and divine), while identifying women with matter (i.e. darkness, body, emotions, passivity - what is changeable, uncontrollable, and passing away toward death). By this logic women exist with an inferiority for which there is no remedy. As with any system of oppression, once this theory and its structures get put in place, it begins to be taken for granted. Over time women internalize the images that the male-dominated system feeds them, and begin to think of themselves as less than worthy. As a powerful element in this system, the exclusively male image of God promotes this perception."61

What are some of the other social justice implications of this view of women that has continued through the centuries? For many of us, the consequences are obvious in most churches today, but also in society as a whole. Consider the treatment of women in our world at large, as Johnson points out:
Women have traditionally been marginalized, largely without formal voice or vote, excluded from the official shaping of doctrinal or ethical teaching, prevented from participating in governance, barred from leadership in ritual, banned from preaching the word of God, fit mainly for auxiliary service. This subordinate position in the churches has correlated with rather than challenged the practices of civil society, with ramifications for women’s well-being the world over. Consider statistics reported by the United Nations at the millennium. While forming one-half of the world’s population, women do two-thirds of the world’s work, receive one-tenth of the world’s salary, own one-one hundredth of the world’s land, form two-thirds of illiterate adults, and together with their starving children comprise three-fourths of the world’s starving people... The fact that the UN millennium goals specifically single out women’s education, health care, and economic opportunity, indicates how overlooked these are on a global scale. As the women’s movement has developed in the religions, something akin to a spiritual uprising is taking place. Women are experiencing themselves as beloved of God. They are being converted from trivializing themselves to honoring themselves as genuinely theomorphic.62 
Now, certainly the Church is not directly responsible for all of the challenges and difficulties facing women in today's world, or indeed throughout history. But the Church is responsible, as Christ's ambassadors, for working towards social justice for all people. We as a Church are called to reform the structures of sin found ingrained within our society, our behaviors and our world. While we seem to be working towards this goal little by little, if we are honest about our own Christian tradition, we simply cannot claim that women have been treated as equals, or that women are given equal opportunities to participate in the life of the Church. What kind examination of our liturgy, of our prayers, and of our theology does this call for? How much more should this compel us to re-examine, recover, reform, re-integrate and explore all of these different feminine and maternal images used of God, in order to have a deeper understanding of the Divine reality, and finally, become more inclusive of those inside and outside of the Church? 

Conclusion 
As should be clear now, it is important for the Christian tradition to recover a sensitivity to and a deeper awareness of the feminine and maternal imagery that is already present within it. A number of theologians have written on this very important theological recovery, and continue to do so. But is this work reaching the Christians in the pews? Are we doing enough to share these discoveries, these insights and these images with others? Certainly these images are just that - images, yet they are also allegorical, metaphorical, and convey a deeper reality. We are not saying that God literally has male or female genitalia and somehow birthed the universe throughout a reproductive act. But how much different would our theology have been if instead of "In the name of the Father..." we prayed, "In the name of the Mother, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit?" or, if instead of "Our Father" we prayed, "Our Mother"? Now, this is not a suggestion that either the Trinitarian formula or the Our Father should be replaced, especially as they play such a central role in the tradition - but rather that a certain sensitivity and awareness should arise in us of the images that we are using.

As Johnson points out in her writings, the symbol of God which we use functions, meaning, how we image the Divine can, does and will continue to have an impact on our culture, our society, our behaviors and attitudes, and our inclusiveness in religious traditions. If we imaged God as a vengeful deity, that would have a very real impact on how we treated others. If we imaged God as a parent not involved in creation, we would come to Deism. If we image God as merciful and compassionate, that also impacts how we perceive God and others. It should be noted that there is also a risk in imaging God solely as Mother, or solely as Father. Instead, we must come to find a balance of imagery and understandings of the Divine. This stage of our theological development as a Church today is a very interesting one for a number reasons, and Johnson writes that "As in any passage through the wilderness, this journey towards more just and liberating God-language is not without its dangers. Some fear that Christians will lose their true heritage, which is intertwined with the holy name of the Trinitarian God as Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. As a theologian I am concerned about this. My own conviction, committed as I am to the Christian faith, holds the Trinitarian formula dear and holds to its necessity especially in the sacrament of baptism. But it is not a literal formula, nor was it ever intended to be the only way that Christians address God."63

This fear of losing Christian heritage is often what makes maternal or feminine language for God feel weird, unnatural, or even New Age-like. But when we examine the wealth of images of the Spirit as Mother and God as Mother found in the Bible itself, in the Patristics, in the abundance of Medieval authors who image Jesus as mother as well as other images, we see that we are well within the Christian tradition to call God "Our Mother." Imaging God as Mother does not mean that Christians will slip into worship of a pagan goddess, any more than imaging God as Father would, as there are also plenty of male pagan deities. Further, we are not inventing a whole new way of looking at God or inventing new language or images for God, but rather recovering and retrieving images that have been suppressed and forgotten in our own history and tradition. We do not need to stop calling God "Our Father," but if we believe that God is not gendered, then we must not treat God as if God is only male. Paul Smith, author of Can We Call God "Mother?" notes that if our language is not static, and masculine terminology such as "mankind" or "man" no longer refers to men and women alike, then in today's world, "is it possible by retaining masculine-only language for God we are actually then changing the religion?... if we fail to update our religious language, it will become increasingly masculinized. It is then that we ultimately change our religion from worship of a God who both encompasses and transcends male and female to a God who is exclusively male.”64

Where does this leave us, theologically? We do not need to stop using masculine or fraternal images to describe God, as we find throughout Christianity. We do not need to stop calling God "Our Father." But neither should we choose to ignore the discoveries of God imaged as Mother, Jesus imaged as Mother and the Holy Spirit imaged as Mother that have been found in writings from the Jewish Scriptures, to early Christian writings, to Christian monks and nuns, to Christian mystics and theologians, and many others. If we use feminine and maternal images not exclusively or as our only way of understanding God, but rather in "combination with male, animal, and cosmic images, it is both legitimate and necessary for the healthy life of the church. Such language has profound implications for thought about the divine personality, and actions in the world. It also has critical consequences for practice regarding the human dignity of women as fully equal to men."65 When we begin to explore these questions, we may realize that we need to continue working together toward that famous Pauline statement, where there is "neither Jew nor Gentile, neither slave nor free, nor is there male and female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus."66

May God, the Father and Mother of us all, lead us to deeper connection and understanding, and may we strive to work for the justice of all people. Amen. 


Endnotes
[1] Robertson, Anne. Blowing the Lid Off the God-Box: Opening Up to a Limitless Faith. Harrisburg: Morehouse Publishing, 2005. 21. Print.
[2] God is also imaged as "father" in Deuteronomy 32:6; 1st Chronicles 29:10; Psalm 103:13; Proverbs 3:12; Jeremiah 3:19, 31:9; Isaiah 63:16, 64:8; Malachi 1:6. 
[3]  In the Bablyonian Talmud, Ta’anit 25b says “Our Father, our King, we have no king but you! Our Father, our King, on your own account have mercy on us!”. Prior to the destruction of the Temple in AD 70, Jews prayed “Upon whom shall we depend? Upon Our Father who is in heaven”. (Mishnah Sotah 9:15). In a Midrash on Psalm 25:13 we read, “May it be the will of our Father in Heaven." In the deutero-canonical text of Ben Sira, we read, “O Lord, Father and Master of my life… O Lord, Father and God of my life” (23:1,4), and Also “Lord you are my Father.” (51:10). Further, the 4Q511 scroll of the Dead Sea Scrolls has the title "Our Father" (line 1, fragment 127).
[4] See the Hebrew for 1st Kings 11:31-33.
[5] Coogan, Michael. "Fire in Divine Loins: God's Wives in Myth and Metaphor". From God and Sex. What the Bible Really Says. Boston: Hachette Book Group. 2010. 175. Print.
[6] Also found in Psalm 104:29-30 and in John 3:8.
[7] Hyland, J.R. Sexism is a Sin: The biblical basis for female equality. Sarasota: Viatoris Ministries, 1995. Print.
[8] See also Deuteronomy 32:18; Psalm 90:2; Proverbs 8:24-25; Isaiah 43:1,7,15; 44:2, 24; 45:11.
[9] Origen. Commentary on John 2, 12 and the Homily on Jeremiah 15:4.
[10] Ehrman, Bart. Lost Scriptures: Books That Did Not Make It Into The New Testament. New York: Oxford University Press, 2003. 316. Print.
[11] Brock, Sebastian. "Chapter 5: The Holy Spirit as Feminine in Early Syriac Literature" in After Eve, ed. Janet Martin Soskice. Collins Marshall Pickering, 1990. Print.
[12] Ibid.
[13] Ibid.
[14] This is found only in the Greek; the Syriac versions remove the reference to the Spirit as "mother". 
[15] Poirier, P.H. L'Hymne de la Perle des Actes de Thomas. Louvain la Neuve, 1981. Print.
[16] In his Demonstration 18:10.
[17] Homily LIV.4.5 in Berthold, H. Makarios/Symeon. Reden und Briefe. Berlin, 1973. 156-7. Print.
[18] Achelis, H. Hippolytus Werke. Leipzig, 1897. 54. Print.
[19] Book of Perfection 1.3.13.
[20] Nurse, F. American Journal of Semitic Languages and Literature 26. 1909-1910. 95. Print.
[21] Hirst, Julie. Jane Leade: Biography of a Seventeenth-Century Mystic. Ashgate Publications. 2005. Print.
[22] Versluis, Arthur. "Western Esotericism and The Harmony Society". Esoterica I. 1999. 20-47. Print.
[23] Interestingly, although not very popular theories, there are some who speculate that Jesus was an early sort of transgender, and even some who claim that Jesus was actually a woman. The most widely accepted understanding of Jesus is, however, is that he was a human male. We will assume this going forward.
[24] Walker Bynum, Caroline. Jesus as Mother: Studies in the Spirituality of the High Middle Ages. Los Angeles: University of California Press, 1982. 126. Print.
[25] Ibid., 128.
[26] Ibid., 127.
[27] Julian of Norwich. Revelations of Divine Love 59, 86. 1395. 
[28] Bynum 129.
[29] Ibid., 113.
[30] Ibid., 115.
[31] Ibid., 117.
[32] Ibid.
[33] Armstrong, Regis J., J. A. Wayne. Hellmann, and William J. Short. Francis of Assisi: Early Documents. Vol. I. New York: New City, 1999. 61. Print.
[34] Bynum 119.
[35] Ibid., 120.
[36] Ibid., 123.
[37] Daniel, Walter. Life of Ailred. 58. Print
[38] Bynum 124.
[39] Ibid., 140.
[40] Ibid., 150.
[41] Pagina 30-39, Oeuvres 77-79.
[42] Bynum 142.
[43] Excerpt on the Prologue of John. Lamy, T. Saint Ephrem Syri Hymni et Sermones, II, col. 511, Hymns on Resurrection 1.7.
[44] Ibid.
[45] Found in Fenqitho II, 65a; 272b; 107b.
[46] Cameron, Averil. "The Cult of the Virgin in Late Antiquity: Religious Development and Myth-Making." Studies in Church History. 39 (2004): 1-21. Print.
[47] Sousa, Lisa; Stafford Poole; James Lockhart. The Story of Guadalupe: Luis Laso de la Vega's Huei tlamahuiçoltica of 1649. Los Angeles, California: Stanford University Press, UCLA Latin American Center Publications, 1998. 65. Print.
[48] Harrington, Patricia. "Mother of Death, Mother of Rebirth: The Virgin of Guadalupe." Journal of the American Academy of Religion. Vol. 56, Issue 1, 25-50. 1988. Print.
[49] Rodriguez, Jeanette. "Guadalupe: The Feminine Face of God". From Goddess of the Americas: Writings on the Virgin of Guadalupe, ed. by Ana Castillo. New York: Riverhead Books, 1996. 25. Print.
[50] Ibid., 27.
[51] Ibid.
[52] Ibid.
[53] Qtd. in Ibid., 29.
[54] Visel, Nick. "Some Thoughts about 'God, Our Mother' by the Liturgists." Nick Visel's Blog. Blogger, 08 May 2014. Web. 
[55] Bordwell, David. Catechism of the Catholic Church. Continuum International Publishing, 2002. 84. Print.
[56]  "Inclusive Language Guidelines". Massachusetts Conference, United Church of Christ.; "Inclusive Language Guidelines". Ohio Conference - United Church of Christ.; Worshipping into God's Future: Summary and Strategies 2005, United Church of Christ.
[57] In the UFMCC Bylaws as of July 2013.
[58] Fox, Patricia A. The Cambridge Companion to the Trinity. Ed. Peter C. Phan. Cambridge: Cambridge UP, 2011. 284-285. Print.
[59] Ibid.
[60] From Augustine's On The Trinity, Book 12, ch. 3, par. 10; Thomas Aquinas, Summa Theologiae I, q.92, a.1, P. 466-467; Tertullian, On the Dress of Women 1.1 (CSEL 70.59). Cited in: Clark, Elizabeth. Women in the Early Church. Collegeville: Liturgical Press, 1983. 39. Print.
[61] Johnson, Elizabeth. "Female Symbols for God". International Journal of Orthodox Theology 1:2 (2010). 48. Print.
[62] Ibid., 49.
[63] Ibid., 56.
[64] Smith, Paul R. Is It Okay to Call God “Mother”?: Considering the Feminine Face of God. Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 1993. 35. Print.
[65] Johnson, "Female Images". 40. 
[66] Galatians 3:28.

Wednesday, October 12

“What’s in a Name?": The Power of Name and Identity

Introduction
In William Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet, the eponymous Juliet asks, “What’s in a name? That which we call a rose / By any other name would smell as sweet."1 This inquiry provides us with a deep and profound question - what is in a name? Perhaps the question should not be framed so much in the etymological sense, but in the very powerful connection that our name has to our identity as a person. This connection between name and identity is found even with a cursory glance at ancient human history, as well as the way in which names are utilized in the Biblical corpus, in the Christian tradition today, and finally, the use of name and identity when considering those on the margins of our society and those who have faced suffering, namely - survivors from concentration camps, the homeless and those struggling with addictions. 

Further, it is important to take what could be a heady, academic question and turn the question inward. As a result, I consider how this question of name and identity applies to my own immediate future and identity as someone discerning religious life with the Franciscan friars. In light of these and other considerations, our hope is to be able to recognize the name and therefore the identity of the Other whom we encounter wherever we go, in order to affirm and acknowledge the personhood and worth of each person. What power, then, do our names hold within them that makes one’s name so important to our identity?

The Power of Names in Antiquity
The question of identity shapes and forms the nature of the person. In the ancient Greco-Roman world your identity was given through your town, your nationality and/or the name of your father. For example, in Homer’s epic The Odyssey, after Odysseus has injured the Cyclops he reveals his identity as “Odysseus son of Laertes, King of Ithaca”. Also in antiquity, revealing your name meant that your opponent could have power over you and use your name against you. This is similar to anagnorisis, Greek term for when your identity is revealed to someone else; as in the case of Oedipus and his mother. The same concept is found in ancient demonology and black magic as well, so that once the name of the demon is revealed, it was believed that you could gain control over it and use it. One example of this is found in the pseudepigraphical 1st century text, The Testament of Solomon. In it, Solomon is given a ring with which to control demons in order to build the Temple in Jerusalem - using what is considered bad to help bring about the good.2

Perhaps a better example of this comes from the Synoptic Gospels, and is explored in a work written by Morton Smith titled Jesus the Magician. In it, the professor of ancient history establishes that for some in the ancient world, Jesus was considered a magician. At the time, citing the name of a magician in a spell was thought to be invoking their name as a god. One example of this is found in Mark 9:38, in which Jesus’ name was invoked even during his own lifetime. The passage reads, “’Teacher,’ said John, ‘we saw someone driving out demons in your name and we told him to stop, because he was not one of us’” (emphasis mine). This is also seen in Acts 19:13, “Some Jews who went around driving out evil spirits tried to invoke the name of the Lord Jesus over those who were demon possessed. They would say, ‘In the name of Jesus whom Paul preaches, I command you to come out’” (emphasis mine).3

Clearly, names were important for those in antiquity, as seen in this brief look at the history of the Mediterranean region. Throughout the Hebrew Bible and in a few places in the New Testament we also see this significance where the Divine chooses to rename a person – Abram becomes Abraham, Sarai becomes Sarah, Jacob becomes Israel, Simon becomes Peter, Saul becomes Paul, and so forth. What is the reason for this change in name and in identity?

“I Will Give You... a New Name”
In the Apocalypse of John 2:17 we read, “To the one who is victorious, I will give some of the hidden manna. I will also give that person a white stone with a new name written on it, known only to the one who receives it” (emphasis mine). The idea that God will give “a new name” to those who are “victorious” or those who overcome struggle and turmoil in this life is the idea that they will take on a new identity and a new way of being. As aforementioned, in the Judeo-Christian tradition, there is a precedent for tying one’s name to one’s identity. Biblical names often spoke to the destiny or purpose of a given individual. For example, Abram means “high father,”4 but after making a covenant with God which secured the future of his many descendants, he was re-named Abraham, meaning “father of many.”5 In the book of Job we read of the suffering of the title figure, and it comes as little surprise to know that the name Job means “persecuted,” or “hated.”6

Consider the case of the early Hebrew patriarch Jacob. According to Genesis 32:22-32, on the eve of meeting his brother after two decades, Jacob wrestles through the night with God himself, and at the end of their encounter he says to Jacob, “'Let me go, for it is daybreak.' But Jacob replied, 'I will not let you go unless you bless me.' The man asked him, 'What is your name?' 'Jacob,' he answered. Then the man said, 'Your name will no longer be Jacob, but Israel, because you have struggled with God and with human beings and have overcome.'" If Jacob was actually wrestling with God as the text appears to indicate, why did he not know Jacob's name? One may speculate that God’s question to Jacob may have forced him to recall the last time he had asked for a blessing - the blessing which he had stolen from his brother. In fact, the last time Jacob was asked his name, the question came from his father Isaac, and Jacob lied saying, “I am Esau” and stole his brother’s blessing. 

Years later, Jacob now found himself before God and understood the implication of God’s question. Before he could confront his brother and continue his journey in life, he had to first come to terms with God - and himself. By forcing Jacob to think about his name, God provided Jacob with a way. Modern Judaism still places a value on the name of a child, for as the ancient Jewish saying goes, "With each new child, the world begins anew."7 This harkens back to the Edenic narrative, Adam was appointed the task of giving the creatures each personal names, which is a sort of creative power that Jews feel has been handed down to parents for their children. Again, the Bible corpus is full of examples of individuals who were given specific names - names which later were fulfilled, or names which signified a major shift in identity. For example, Jesus actually means "Savior" or "Saved." Consider the book of Ruth through the lens of identity: Ruth’s identity was once tied to her husband and her homeland - Ruth wife of Kilion of Moab - but by the end of the novella she becomes someone else - Ruth wife of Boaz of Judah. Ruth takes on this identity willing, including changing her god, her location and her being (Ruth 1:16-18).

A further example can be found in the New Testament: that of Simon Peter. In Matthew 16:13-18 (NIV) we read:
“When Jesus came to the region of Caesarea Philippi, he asked his disciples, ‘Who do people say the Son of Man is?’ They replied, ‘Some say John the Baptist; others say Elijah; and still others, Jeremiah or one of the prophets.’ ‘But what about you?’ he asked. ‘Who do you say I am?’ Simon answered, ‘You are the Messiah, the Son of the living God.’ Jesus replied, ‘Blessed are you, Simon son of Jonah... I tell you that you are Peter, and on this rock I will build my church...’”.
By giving Simon the name “Peter,” Jesus gave him a new name with a new purpose in life. Peter comes from the word petros or kepha, which means “rock,”8 which is interesting for a number of reasons. In the region of Caesarea Philippi there is a very large, massive rock wall, formerly used in Roman times as an place of worship to the god Pan.9 When Jesus gave him the name Peter, the strong visual connection would not have escaped him. By calling Simon “the rock,” it may have meant that Peter was very strong-headed, but many Christians throughout history have taken this to mean that Peter became the rock on which Jesus built the Church - the first Pope, traditionally - the one who would launch the early Christian movement. Since Simon was the one to recognize the true identity of Jesus, he himself was granted a new identity and a new name. Taking on the new name “Peter” meant that he was accepting a life of challenges, difficulty and certain death as a follower in this movement.

Today in Catholicism, one chooses the name of a canonized saint for their Confirmation name. When I was entering the Catholic Church through the Franciscans, I chose the name Francis after St. Francis of Assisi. At the time, I was told to choose a saint who I would want to pray with me, journey with me and be my guide throughout the rest of my life – and I could not think of a saint I loved more than Saint Francis. But not everyone chooses their name – and in many cases, parents choose a baptismal name for their child; the child, not being old enough to speak, has no choice in the naming, just as the child does not choose the name they will be given in life. This is also an important point, because it reminds me that regardless of which name was given to us at birth, who our parents are or where we come from, we were all born with an identity that continues to shift, change and grow over time; an identity that is intimately connected to our personal name.

Of further note, although the change has not been as consistent after the Second Vatican Council in the 1960s, many who enter vowed religious life either willingly change their name or are asked to take on a new name. This is done in keeping with the ancient Biblical tradition of taking on a new name as a symbol for an inner change. The inner change can be a spiritual transformation which allows the person to enter more fully and more deeply into their new way of life. “John Doe,” for example, may become Father Mikah, whereas “Jane Doe” may become Sister Maria Jose de Jesus, or something similar. Each person who becomes Pope does this very thing - most recently, former Archbishop of Buenos Aires, Jorge Bergoglio, took on the name of Pope Francis. For the former Archbishop, taking on the name “Francis” meant that the Pope was choosing to not only identify himself with the poor man of Assisi, but was also pushing the Church to identify itself more closely with those on the margins.  

The Name of God is Mercy and Mercy on the Margins
In Pope Francis’ new book, The Name of God is Mercy, he calls mercy God’s “identity card.”10 If mercy is God’s identity card, and we are made in the image and likeness of the Divine, should we not be more concerned about works of mercy, including clothing the naked, feeding the hungry, giving drink to the thirsty, visiting the sick and the imprisoned, and others? 1st John 4:7-8 says, “Dear friends, let us love one another, for love comes from God. Everyone who loves has been born of God and knows God. Whoever does not love does not know God, because God is love.” If God is love, and God’s true identity is mercy, then we ought to be much more concerned about recognizing the image of God in others. This is more succinctly summed up in the famous quote by Trappist monk and author Thomas Merton, who once said, “To say that I am made in the image of God is to say that love is the reason for my existence, for God is love. Love is my true identity. Selflessness is my true self. Love is my true character. Love is my name.”11 If love is our name and our identity, meaning that we should be love to others, to whom do we go?

During the horrors and injustices of World War II, many men, women and children alike would be packed into a cattle car completely naked, for several days with no food and no idea how long their trip would be - and some never survived the trip. Once arriving at a concentration camp, they would be hoarded into different areas, split up, their heads would be shaved, and their clothes, shoes and belongings would be taken. Each person, piece by piece, would have their humanity stripped away. Once they would finally adjust to a new change, more would be taken away, until even their humanity was not recognizable. Even their very name was taken away, and was replaced by a number - an identification code. This identification number was sometimes tattooed on the individual’s arm, as was the case in Auschwitz, or sometimes sewn into a cloth emblem or an armband that the person was forced to wear.12 This is an outright denial of one’s personhood and dignity, and an act wholly contrary to love, mercy and justice. 

Those who live on the margins of society also face a similar oppression - some either become the nameless of society, or, their name is all they truly have left of their identity. For example, when someone walks up to a homeless person on the street and asks their name, that person is given the opportunity for their dignity as a human person to be recognized. You may not have money or food to offer to that person, but sometimes simply asking someone’s name is an acknowledgment of their dignity and an affirmation of their personhood and identity. Each of these individuals living out on the streets come from somewhere - they had parents, possibly siblings, a spouse, children. They have a hometown, they have a history, and they may have come from a very good home and a very good life. 

Conversely, they may have had a tumultuous childhood, a difficult marriage, or perhaps they grew up addicted to alcohol and narcotics or have spent their lives living on the streets. They can be anyone of any age and any background. Every single individual has a story and an identity. Would we ask their names and acknowledge their personhood if we passed them on the street? A few years ago, almost 634,000 individuals in the United States alone were homeless.13 This does not include those who are facing extreme poverty and are almost out on the streets. Do we recognize our brothers and sisters when we see them in these deplorable conditions? Do we recognize that love is their name, and love is their true identity? Will they recognize the same in us?

Consider a further example in Alcoholics Anonymous. Founded in in Akron, Ohio, AA has been a service to those struggling with alcoholism for over eight decades. In their meetings, and in other Twelve-Step programs, when someone speaks they will introduce themselves, saying something along the lines of “Hello, my name is Troy” and everyone will reply “Hi Troy.” This may seem contradictory to the “Anonymous” part of AA, but the “Anonymous” speaks more to the non-publicity of those individuals who are present at a meeting and their anonymity among the larger society.14 It is important for a person to share their first name, because it recognizes their basic human dignity and their identity. If I say, “Hello, I’m Troy and I’m an Alcoholic,” I am identifying myself with my addiction and thereby revealing a part of my self to others I may not have revealed otherwise. Twelve-Step programs such as AA or NA provide the opportunity for people to have a platform in which they can be open, honest and share their stories, fears and anxieties while at the same time identify themselves by revealing their name to the others in the meeting. For some, this opportunity to share their name and identity can be a very healing experience.

On a personal note, I am in the process of making a change in both my name and therefore my identity. A few years ago, I began attending a Catholic-Franciscan university, and although I was raised in a Protestant, evangelical branch of Christianity, I ultimately made the decision to become Catholic. As aforementioned, at my Confirmation I took the name Francis after St. Francis of Assisi, which was not only an addition to my name but to my very identity. During this process of coming into communion with the Church, I was also considering religious life as a Franciscan friar. A little while later, after entering fully into the Church, I made the decision to apply to become a friar (from the Latin frater meaning “brother”), and eventually entered into formation with the Franciscan Friars to further my discernment. If I continue my formation process, I will later on receive the title of “Brother Troy, OFM,”15 or Br. Troy Hillman, OFM. 

This is no small change in my life, as this signifies a major change in my identity. Officially taking on the title of "brother" and adding "OFM" to my name is a name change, one which will officially signify a change in my identity and the core of my being. Becoming a Franciscan friar means that I am joining a fraternity - a brotherhood, and plan on eventually taking the three vows of poverty, chastity and obedience. This means I plan on eventually wearing the brown Franciscan habit, which is an outward sign of solidarity with the poor, the marginalized and the oppressed. Taking on the habit means that I am choosing to identify myself in name, appearance and overall identity with those who live on the margins, which is a radical shift in identity. Taking these three vows also means that I would willingly choose not to have a spouse and children, it means that I choose to live in an intentional community and not live alone, and it means that I choose to live as simply and sustainably as I can. Choosing to enter into a religious order does not mean that you will be given a new life, necessarily, as I am called to share my life with the friars. But it does mean that the life I lead will be changed, and that my very name and identity will change with it. 

Conclusion
“What’s in a name?”, Juliet asked. The question can be considered a deeply philosophical question, but also a question of history, of etymological origin, of personhood, and of one’s very identity. Throughout antiquity and even today, revealing one’s name can mean that you now have power over that person - the choice lies in how you will exert that power. If the name of God is mercy, and mercy as well as love are God’s “identity card,” then we are not only invited but tasked with the responsibility of revealing love as our true identity to others. In Genesis 4, God calls out to Cain and asks about his brother Abel. Cain responds in turn saying, “Am I my brother’s keeper?” This question, which also has varied layers of philosophical and social meaning, is also a question posed to us. We are in fact our brother and sister’s keeper, and part of our responsibility is acknowledging the basic human dignity of each individual. If, as Merton said, love is our true identity and love is our name - then may our hearts and minds be moved to always recognize the inherent dignity, value and worth in our fellow brothers and sisters across the world.

Endnotes
[1] Romeo and Juliet, Act II, Scene II, 1-2.
[2] A case could be made that contemporary Christians do something similar by invoking the name of various saints or angels in order to intercede with them before God, although the difference lies in the matter of power and authority - Solomon had complete control and authority over the demons, whereas the believer is simply requesting the aid or assistance of a saint or angel.
[3] According to Smith (in Jesus the Magician), early magical papyri and other related items provide further credence for this understanding. Jesus’ name was used in a myriad of pagan spells and exorcisms, and was usually identified as a god. For example, a lead tablet from the 3rd century found in Carthage says, “…the god having authority over this hour in which I conjure you, Jesus.” It also names Hermes, the Greek god and others. Another ancient pagan papyri says, “I conjure you by the god of the Hebrews, Jesus” (PGM IV, line 3020). Line 2929 of the same papyrus may also contain an anagrammatized mention of Jesus in an invocation of the sexual goddess Aphrodite for a love charm. 
[4] В. А. Никонов (V. A. Nikonov). "Ищем имя" (Looking for a Name). Изд. "Советская Россия". Москва, 1988. Print.
[5] Ibid.
[6] Ibid.
[7] Bank, Richard D. 101 Things Everyone Should Know About Judaism: Beliefs, Practices, Customs, And Traditions. Avon: Adams Media, 2005. 187. Print.
[8] O'Connor, Daniel William. "Saint Peter the Apostle". Encyclopædia Britannica Online, 2013. Web.
[9] Kent, Charles Foster. Biblical Geography and History. Reprinted by Read Books, 2007. 47-48. Print.
[10] Pope Francis. The Name of God Is Mercy. Chapter I: A Time For Mercy. 2016. Print.
[11] From Merton’s New Seeds of Contemplation.
[12] Piper, Franciszek; Świebocka, Teresa. Auschwitz: Nazi Death Camp. Oświęcim: The Auschwitz-Birkenau State Museum, 1996. 60–61. Print.
[13] The 2012 Point-in-Time Estimates of Homelessness. Rep. The U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development, Office of Community Planning and Development. Vol. I. N.p.: n.p., 2012. 4. Print.
[14] For example, if a celebrity publicly endorsed Alcoholics Anonymous and was then involved in a scandal, this could reflect on the group itself. In choosing not to publicize the names of those who attend meetings, they remain essentially “Anonymous,” but not within the meetings themselves. It is also true that not every person who attends a meeting is asked to or required to speak and therefore can go to the meeting and leave a meeting while never revealing their name, and thereby remaining anonymous.
[15] Order of Friars Minor, one of the three largest Franciscan groups, the other two being the OFM Capuchins and the Conventual Franciscans, although there are also the Franciscan Friars of the Renewal, Franciscan Friars of the Atonement, Secular Franciscans, Poor Clares, Sisters of St. Francis and many other Franciscan groups.