God is both Female and Male* 05-09-2013

As we reflect on Mother’s day, let us honor the women in our Christian tradition and most importantly let us honor the female nature of God.

To me one of the most profound yet overlooked examples of the prominence of women in Jesus’ ministry is the resurrection.  In all the Gospel accounts of the resurrection Mary Magdalene and Mary the mother of Jesus are the first to behold the risen Christ (along with “Salome” in Mark).  I can’t think of any greater honor for a disciple.  Given that the resurrection is the most important event of the Gospels, it is fitting that women were the first to witness it.  This speaks volumes for Christ’s estimation of his female disciples. It was to the two Marys that Jesus could entrust the climax of his life mission.

Throughout the gospels Jesus is continually associating with women, which was radical for his time—a time marked by unequal treatment and separation of the sexes.  When Jesus addresses the crowds, it is clear from the earliest translations of the Gospels that he was addressing both women and men equally.  Jesus’ parables such as the widow and her mite, the woman who anoints Jesus’ feet, and the Syro-phonecian woman give Christianity some of its most powerful images of transformation.

Elizabeth Schussler Fiorenza in her groundbreaking book, In Memory of Her argues convincingly that women exercised profound leadership in the early church.  They were missionaries, preachers, and teachers.  They often presided over the shared meal, which later evolved into the Church’s celebration of Communion.  Fiorenza proves that the contributions women made were deeply significant, yet often neglected or forgotten by mainstream historical scholarship.

Recently historians have uncovered many texts written by prominent women of Christian faith.  Detailed studies of the lives and works of saints and mystics such as Hildegard of Bingen, Teresa of Avila, and Catherine of Genoa have contributed to our understanding of the vast contributions women have made to Christian thought over the centuries.  Yet, even in the case of Hildegard it is estimated that only ten percent of her writings are available in satisfactory modern editions.  So much work remains to be done.  Such research gives us a more complete picture of Christian history and of the prominent role that women play in this history.

Recently some historians have also turned their attention to the much neglected stories of powerful women in the Old Testament such as the prophet Deborah (Judg. 4) and Miriam, the sister of Moses and Aaron (Exod. 15).

Most importantly, recent Old Testament scholarship has revealed that God was often referred to as female in scripture.  Early Hebrew manuscripts reveal that Greek and Latin translators of the Old Testament often turned feminine Hebrew words for God into masculine words.  Even in the earliest Latin and Greek manuscripts of the Old Testament, however, maternal metaphors are often used to describe God.  Phrases such as “God’s womb” and “God’s breasts” occur throughout the Latin and Greek translations of the Old Testament (Isa. 46: 3-4, 49: 14-16, 66: 7-13).

During the Month of May, and especially on Mother’s Day let’s remember that Jesus was radically inclusive of women in every way.  Let’s also remember that the wider Christian tradition will be imbalanced and incomplete until women across all denominations take their rightful place at the altar of God.  For God is both female and male.

Christian tradition points to Jesus as the incarnation of God, yet in my mind this was a functional necessity of the time. Jesus’ gender was expedient given the power structure of first century Palestine. In the vast scheme of things Jesus’ gender is insignificant.

Mother God, thank you for the gift of life!  Mother Mary, thank you for the gift of Jesus!  Mom, thank you for weaving me together in your womb and for nurturing me with your love!