St. Paul’s Episcopal Church - Delray Beach, Florida
6 Easter - Year C - May 12/13, 2007 (Mother’s Day)
Acts 14:8-18; Ps. 67; Revelation 21:22-22:5; John 14:23-29
Preacher: The Rev. William H. Stokes, Rector
Today, Mother’s Day, and also the 6th Sunday of Easter, I would like us to consider our use of language...I would like us to acknowledge that our use of language strongly influences how we view, not only the world around us and its people, but higher realities as well...realities such as God....
When we speak of “man” and “mankind” in our daily language, as though these refer to all persons male and female, the not so subtle effect is to linguistically render women both invisible and inferior.
When we use only male imagery for God, it forms in our subconscious a notion that God is male and has no female aspect. Again, the effect of this is subordinate female as a lesser entity, invisible and inferior.
The use of gender inclusive language about human beings and humanity begins to break down this dividing wall and brings about a greater awareness of women, the female and the feminine...It fosters a sense of the visible and equal....It does not argue that the female is the better or same as the male.....It does not argue that the male is the same or better than the female....There can be equality in difference...
I am also not suggesting that we forget all the traditional language and images of God that have shaped and formed us....A former professor at General Theological Seminary expresses it well.....
In a book titled Faith, Feminism and Christ1, Dr. Patricia Wilson-Kastner has written, “Language, as feminists are acutely aware, communicates affective dimensions as well as cognitive ones. Because of this phenomenon, inclusive language about God does not mean that each word or phrase about the Trinitarian-God must be sex-neutral, or have male and female (or exclusively female) terms side by side.”2
Wilson-Kastner states, “Inclusiveness requires that old and new language be used in worship, teaching and theological endeavors. Familiar language from Scripture, from the tradition is a part of our identity, and truly conveys a part of the divine mystery to which it invites us. But unfamiliar phrases from the tradition (such as the womb of the Father, our Mother Jesus, and the Holy Spirit who gives us of her own life), as well as renewed biblical images and new expressions from contemporary experience all belong to proper Christian theological and liturgical language.” 3
Wilson-Kastner sums up, “Above all, we are to remember that our words about Christ and the Triune God are not simply religious memorials to feelings and past experiences. Our language empresses our relationship in a living cosmos with an ever-living God. The richer our expressions of relationship to this God, the more we as a community open ourselves to fuller communication with God. As our awareness of an openness to the manifold dimensions of God increase, we draw ourselves and our world closer to the divine mystery which made us and for which we are made.” 4
I am in complete agreement with Professor Wilson-Kastner and so it seems fitting to me today, Mothers’ Day, to consider the “Motherhood” of God....
Earlier this month, on May 8, we observed the lesser feast of Julian of Norwich on the Church calendar. Dame Julian was an anchorite who lived a solitary existence in a house attached to a chapel not from Norwich Cathedral in England. Members of our youth group who made pilgrimage to England a few years ago had the privilege of seeing Julian’s house and the chapel and of hearing about this remarkable woman.
According to Lesser Feasts and Fasts,5 she was probably born in 1342. Few details of her life are known beyond that. This we do know, when she was 30 years old she had an extraordinary experience. She was visited with a series of visions, or “showings” as she referred to them, in which the love of God was revealed to her in dramatic ways.
Lesser Feasts and Fasts tells us that Julian had been gravely ill and was given last rites. Suddenly, on the seventh day, all pain left her, and she had fifteen visions of the Passion of Christ. These visions brought her great peace and joy. “From that time on,” she wrote, “I desired oftentimes to learn what was our Lord’s meaning, and fifteen years after I was answered in ghostly understanding.”6
Julian recorded an account of these showings and her reflections about them in her work, The Revelations of Divine Love which is recognized as a spiritual classic. It is also thought to be the first major written work by a woman in English.
As Lesser Feasts and Fasts states, “She became a recluse, an anchoress, at Norwich soon after her recovery from illness, living in a small dwelling attached to the Church of St. Julian. Even in her lifetime,” they note, “she was famed as a mystic and spiritual counselor and was frequently visited by clergymen and lay persons....”7
In her visions, Julian was blessed with deep and rich insights into the nature and fullness of God. She understood, for example, that God, as God, must comprise the fullness of maleness and femaleness...She understood God, not only as “Father,” but also as “Mother.”8
“Thus I saw,” she wrote in her Revelations of Divine Love, “that God rejoices that He is our Father, God rejoices that He is our Mother, and God rejoices that He is our true Spouse and that our soul is His beloved wife...” She later writes, “Thus in our creation, God All Power is our natural Father, and God All Wisdom is our natural Mother, with the Love and the Goodness of the Holy Spirit —who is all one God, one Lord.”9 Isn’t that good?
Julian not only perceived that God as God must comprise the fullness of male and femaleness, she perceived that Jesus, although certainly marked by the historical particularity of “maleness” during his earthly ministry, as one person of God and as Savior and Redeemer, had also to include in his being the fullness of humanity and the fullness of his divinity and so, too, the fullness of male and female. Julian’s reflections on this are both provocative and evocative.
Julian wrote, “…the Second Person of the Trinity [referring to Jesus] is our Mother in human nature in our essential creation. In Him we are grounded and rooted, and he is our Mother in mercy by taking on our fleshliness. And thus our Mother is to us various kinds of actions...for in our Mother Christ, we benefit and grow, and in mercy He redeems and restores us, and, by the virtue of His Passion and His death and resurrection, He ones us to our essence. In this way, our Mother works in mercy to all His children who are submissive and obedient to Him....”10
In a wonderfully rhapsodic passage Julian brings it all together, “As truly as God is our Father, so truly God is our Mother. And that He showed in all the showings, and particularly in those sweet words where he says ‘It is I’ — that is to say ‘It is I: the Power and the Goodness of the Fatherhood. It is I: the Wisdom of the Motherhood. It is I: the Light and the Grace that is all blessed Love. It is I: the Trinity. It is I: the Unity. I am the supreme goodness of all manner of things. I am what causes thee to love. I am what causes thee to yearn. It is I: the endless fulfilling of all true desires.’11
“This fair lovely word ‘mother,’” according to Julian, “is so sweet and so kind in itself, that it can not truly be said of anyone nor to anyone except of Him and to Him who is true Mother of life and of all. To the quality of motherhood belongs natural love, wisdom, and knowledge — and this is God…The kind, loving mother who is aware and knows the need of her child protects the child most tenderly as the nature and state of motherhood wills. And as the child increases in age, she changes her method but not her love. And when the child is increased further in age, she permits it to be chastised to break down vices and to cause the child to accept virtues and graces. This nurturing of the child, with all that is fair and good, our Lord does in the mothers by whom it is done. Thus He is our Mother in our human nature by the action of grace in the lower part, out of love for the higher part.”12 Pretty nice stuff for Mothers’ Day, don’t ‘you think?
In light of Julian’s reflections, I can’t help hearing “Mother Jesus” in today’s Gospel passage from John....Jesus is speaking to his disciples at the Last Supper....He is fully aware that his time has come, that he is leaving them.....His concern for them is deep, filled with love, as of a dying mother for her child. He is instructing them, but he is also assuring them, telling them not to fret...
“Do not let your hearts be troubled, and do not let them be afraid. You heard me say to you, 'I am going away, and I am coming to you.’ If you loved me, you would rejoice that I am going to the Father, because the Father is greater than I.. And now I have told you this before it occurs, so that when it does occur, you may believe” (John 14:27-28).
It was, of course, difficult and painful for them to hear this...In fact, truthfully, they couldn’t even grasp it....And in the days ahead, when Jesus was betrayed, when he was arrested, scourged, crucified and buried, if they remembered his words, “Do not let your hearts be troubled, do not let them be afraid,” they must have considered them nonsense.....
Still Jesus feels it is necessary to say the words, to assure them, to calm and soothe them, and also to prepare them to look for God’s actions in their midst after it all takes place...."Those who love me will keep my word, and my Father will love them, and we will come to them and make our home with them” (John 14:23)
“Remember who you are,” Mother Jesus is saying to them.... “Remember whose you are and be ready to see God at work....”
Jesus’ words to them do contain a promise, an assurance....They will not be left alone....The Holy Spirit, the Advocate, will come to them, will dwell with them and in them, filling them, providing them with everything they need from God,. “...the word that you hear is not mine, but is from the Father who sent me. I have said these things to you while I am still with you. But the Advocate, the Holy Spirit, whom the Father will send in my name, will teach you everything, and remind you of all that I have said to you. Peace I leave with you; my peace I give to you. I do not give to you as the world gives” (John 14:24-27).
The Holy Spirit will be the living presence of Jesus in their midst....There is a reality of Jesus that will not die...That Jesus cannot die....
It is Mothers’ Day....It is also the week before the feast of the Ascension, a feast that commemorates Jesus being taken away, his ascending into heaven into the realm of eternity....And as we prepare for the Ascension and look toward Pentecost, which we will celebrate in just tow weeks, it seems to me the words of Mother Jesus are words we desperately need to hear...They are words we desperately need to accept in our world today which so often lures us into fretfulness and anxiety and neuroses and anger, “Do not let your hearts be troubled, and do not let them be afraid” Mother Jesus says....Perhaps it is difficult for us to accept what Jesus says, to believe him, to trust in him, just as it was difficult for those first disciples....
But you know what, he was telling them the truth....It all came out just as he had promised....To be sure, there were painful and difficult days....Good Friday happened....The cross was real.....But Easter came too....
And those frightened confused disciples, fretful and anxious, experienced the presence and glory and love of the risen Christ....And, just as he had promised, Pentecost came... They received the promised gift of the Holy Spirit, and it assuaged their fretfulness and calmed their fear and emboldened them to go out and proclaim to all the world, the love of God made manifest in Jesus Christ.....
The gift of the Holy Spirit has been given to us as well.....Again, we will celebrate that gift in two weeks...If we trust in this, if we are open to it....if we allow it to, it can assuage our fretfulness and calm any fears we might have...It can fill us with the power of Christ and his love and embolden us to go out and proclaim to all who will listen the love of God made manifest in Jesus Christ,...
And if we sometimes have doubts, sometimes have fears, as the world of our daily lives challenges and threatens us, we might remember the assurance and revelation given to Dame Julian of Norwich long ago by Jesus in one of his showings to her: “I can make all things well; I shall make all things well; I will make all things well; and thou canst see for thyself that all manner of things shall be well.”13
Happy Mothers’ Day.
1. Wilson-Kastner, Patricia Faith, Feminism & the Christ (Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1983)
2. Ibid p. 134
5. See “Julian of Norwich” in Lesser Feasts and Fasts (New York: The Church Pension Fund, 1980), p. 214.
8. See website for the order of Julian of Norwich at http://www.orderofjulian.org/RDL-Motherhood%20of%20God.html
13. See “Julian of Norwich” in Lesser Feasts and Fasts (New York: The Church Pension Fund, 1980), p. 214.