God: a Woman in Labor
Miriam Therese Winters wrote:
In traditional Christian piety, in theology and liturgy, God is depicted as male. In Christian spirituality, we address God as our Father. But God is neither male nor female. God transcends all categories, although both feminine and masculine qualities shape what we know of God. To enumerate is to fall into the trap of gender-related stereotypes. Let it suffice to say: The God of history, the God of the Bible, is One who carries us in Her arms after carrying us in Her womb, breastfeeds us, nurtures us, teaches us how to walk, teaches us how to soar upward just as the eagle teaches its young to stretch their wings and fly…
The God of scripture, the living God is One who feeds the hungry, heals the brokenhearted, binds up all their wounds, comforts as a mother comforts, gathers Her brood protectively to Her safe and sheltering wing. God-with-us is the Word-made-flesh, steadfast love, mother-love, love incarnate, the love one has for a child in the womb, on whom we depend like a child in the womb, in whom we live and move and have our being, the Holy and the wholly Other. So why shouldn’t we as the Spirit moves sometimes call God Mother?
It is delving into such imagery that makes me quake! I can hear the critiques. “Oh, what is it with you feminists who want to change the way we look at God?” “We know that God is male! The Bible attests to that!”
We’re going to get into some of the Biblical imagery that contradicts that assertion, inviting us to have a broader image of who it is that God is. But, it was also interesting to find, this week, some very strong indications that this tradition of seeing God as male has not always been a part of Christianity. The early church “fathers”, that is leaders and teachers, rejected any notion of God as male. They understood that God transcended the sexes. So, they wrote of God as Mother and one of the powerful images they used was that of nursing. They used a common image of “milk” as the food which God provided. Ireneaus, Bishop of Lyons, wrote in ways that combined the imagery of mother with the language of father.
For as it certainly is in the power of a mother to give strong food to her infant, [but she does not do so], as the child is not yet able to receive more substantial nourishment; so also it was possible for God Himself to have made man perfect from the first, but man could not receive this [perfection], being as yet an infant. … and therefore it was that He, who was the perfect bread of the Father, offered Himself to us as milk, [because we were] as infants. He did this when He appeared as a man, that we, being nourished, as it were, from the breast of His flesh, and having, by such a course of milk-nourishment, become accustomed to eat and drink the Word of God, may be able also to contain in ourselves the Bread of immortality, which is the Spirit of the Father.
Even Augustine (whom I don’t consider to be particularly female friendly) wrote: “Let us then understand the Father saying unto the Son, ‘From my womb before the morning star I have brought thee forth.’”
Winner looks to Isaiah 42 for strong imagery about God as “a laboring woman.” “For a long time I have held my peace, I have kept still and restrained myself; now I will cry out like a woman in labor, I will gasp and pant.” This, Winner says, is one of three images using childbirth that Isaiah draws on to picture God. Isaiah uses, as well, the image of the midwife and the image of a nursing mother. Winner notes that these images would have meant little to men for centuries – maybe one of the reasons that this imagery was lost to the church – visible because it is in the scriptures, but not lifted up, not noticed because it spoke of aspects of life that were not connected to leaders’ experiences. Today’s world is different, however. Many men are present for the birth of their children.
Winner suggests this is a difficult image because it presents God in a much more emotional and even vulnerable way. We need to consider the real stories of women in labor to begin to experience the breadth and the power of this image of God. “Isaiah focuses on God’s breathing and the sound of that breathing: in this one verse [Isaiah 42:14], Isaiah uses three verbs that pertain to breath. Each verb means something slightly different, and none of them is merely a synonym for ‘breathing.’” The NRSV says, for the first, “cry out.” The Hebrew is pa’ah. It is the only time that word occurs in the Bible. Winner suggests a better translation would be “bellow” or perhaps, “groan.” She thinks of the way women describe making animal type noises while in labor. “Deep guttural, almost animal-noises came from within me. Loud noises. Noises I had no control over.”
The next words again stress that God is not at ease. God “gasps” and “pants.” The God who breathed life into human beings is portrayed as struggling to breathe life, new life, into the people who are in exile and the people who are living with despair. Winner says, “God’s breath is again the agent of life.” For us, we remember that when the Church speaks of God’s Spirit we connect with breath imagery – Spirit – Breath – Life – they all connect. In Paul’s letter to the Romans, he speaks of the Spirit praying for us with “sighs” (maybe groans) too deep for words.
Winner speaks of the “breathing of childbearing” as a way of managing the pain. I remember in child birth classes being taught particular ways of breathing that included making noises. “The groans of labor signal the woman’s active participation in the birthing process, a participation that does not fight the pain…Isaiah gives us this groaning woman as a picture of the sovereign God, the God who is in control of redemption: God chooses to participate in the work of new creation with bellowing and panting. God chooses a participation that does not fight the pain, but that works from inside the pain.”
She notes that, historically, theologians sought to distance God from human pain. That’s evident when the pain of childbirth is connected only to the story of the fall. This pain was identified as a mark of God’s punishment of the woman. The pain was deserved. I read, years ago, that such an interpretation had an impact on medical approaches to childbirth. There was a hesitancy to do anything to help a woman struggling through the pain because it was “her punishment from God.” Winner suggests, instead, that this passage from Isaiah (and others like it) indicate that God so identifies with human beings that God is willing to take on the “very punishment” that God had assigned to us.
Today, there is a recognition that this groaning in labor actually helps bring about new life. It helps the body relax. It can also indicate the need for help. Women don’t (usually) go through childbirth alone. The baby has an active part. And there is a support team. That support team can take many forms. Maybe there is a midwife, or a medical team, (or both!), and a partner, a friend, or relative who serves as a birthing partner or coach.
At some point during the birthing process that team becomes vitally important. There often comes a moment when the woman thinks she can’t go on. “I cannot do this anymore.” Author Stina Kielseier-Cook reflects that we can see such a point in Jesus’ life. Before the crucifixion, in the Garden of Gethsemane, he prayed, “Please, Lord, take this cup from me.” Stina says “Jesus is the mother in labor saying, ‘I cannot do this anymore.’ Jesus knew that new life would be born out of His suffering on the cross, yet He still asked God to take away the cup.” Stina notes that what is said to a woman in labor at such a point matters – and is remembered by the mother. Winner wonders what Jesus heard from God that gave him the courage to go forward.
Stina also reflected on “unproductive labor.” This is where “you’ve been doing your job...and it doesn’t seem to be accomplishing anything.” And she wondered if “this is what God feels, looking around our world; at our wars; at our heedless destruction of the environment; at the violence behind closed doors in every one of our neighborhoods… Does God wonder if the labor is working?”
Winner writes of our assumption that redemption is easy work for God. But, this image of God as the laboring woman challenges that assumption. We meet God who labors to bring new life into the world, to redeem the creation.
There is a vulnerability in this birthing of new life. That, perhaps, is the greatest source of discomfort with this image for God. We’re used to the image of God, the all powerful – not God who struggles, who groans, who can be hurt in the process of creating something new. Yet, is that not the story of Jesus? Winner says, “Strength is not about being in charge, or being independent, or being dignified. If our picture of strength is a laboring woman, then strength entails enduring, receiving help and support, being open to pain and risk. If our picture of strength is a laboring woman, strength entails entrusting yourself (to medicine, or to the wisdom of your own body, or to the guidance of someone who is there in the room with you). Strength even entails giving yourself over to the possibility of death.”
Winner connects this portion of Isaiah 42 with the first part that I used today – the part that speaks of singing a new song. She talked about the way that music is increasingly recognized for its power to help in many medical procedures – and in birth. Midwives suggest finding music that a woman loves that can be played during labor. So, perhaps, our tradition of hymn singing can be seen as a way of supporting God in the delivery of new life. We are the musicians who provide support to the birthing of the new creation.
We are the musicians. We are the midwives. We are the medical staff. We are the partners, relatives and friends who are invited to be present in God’s work of giving birth, of bringing forth the new creation.