Why I Like Mothers’ Day Again
As a trained and practicing liturgical theologian, I usually struggle over the relationship between secular holidays and the Lord’s Day worship. Mothers’ Day was no exception until I came to appreciate it as an opportunity to broach a subject that is taboo in many churches, namely the idolatry of God as Father.
Of course Jesus taught his disciples to pray to God as Father in Matthew and Luke. He is not unlike typical Jews of his day for whom Father was one of many titles used for God. Remember that Paul also addressed God as Abba. Nor is addressing God as Father to be unexpected in sacred texts arising out of patriarchal cultures. Thus it is a perfectly legitimate practice to address God as Father.
That being said, however, there are counter currents to be found also. For example, in Matthew 23:37pp, Jesus assumes the voice of God and 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 that it is a female metaphor is worth noting.
The prophet Isaiah 66:13 offers this simile for God: “As a mother comforts her child, so I will comfort you.” 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.” Here God is quite comfortable being likened to a mother. Watching my wife mother our children, I can see why.
At the heart of the issue theologically is not whether some references to God are “mere” metaphors (for example “God is my Rock,” 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.
The second commandment is the prohibition of idol making. God’s people are not allowed to create images of the divine, much worse to worship such images. God preserves God’s divine position and status by refusing to be domesticated by an idol. This is obviously the case when it comes to 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.
This is why it is so important to recognize not only the potential of words to help us understand and articulate the numinous, but the limitations of words 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 super-mom 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. God as Mother, just as God as Father, is redeeming my parents’ parenting.
This is, I hope, an allowable interpretation of Psalm 27:10 which says, “If my father and mother forsake me, the LORD will take me up.” It is certainly God’s intent that we learn dependence upon our biological parents but that we transfer that dependence to God later in life. Not that we don’t ourselves become adults, even parents, but that fundamentally our orientation is towards trust in God. Our parents lay that foundation. But if they don’t, God doesn’t abandon us. “The LORD will take us up.”
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 people 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, the conversation won’t just cease. I hope people will feel the freedom to find another metaphor. For not only are we free to do so, we are required to do so.