Recently I read a book by Lauren Winner, an ordained Episcopal priest and professor at Duke Divinity School. The book is entitled Wearing God: Clothing, Laughter, Fire, and Other Overlooked Ways of Meeting God.
Winner begins by reminding us that all the ways we describe God are inadequate. God is beyond anything we could ever say about who God is. Yet the Bible offers us many images or metaphors of God that can give us insights into Who God is. Many Christian denominations, however, focus on only a few of those biblical images of God such as king, shepherd, father. By doing so, says Winner, we “have truncated our relationship with the divine.”
Winner’s book explores other scriptural images of God that are often overlooked. What images? God as clothing… smell… bread… laboring woman… laughter, to name a few. Today I want to look at one of those images: God as a woman in labor. (It is a mere coincidence that I am posting this on Labor Day!)
A clear description of this image is found in Isaiah 42:14 where God says through the prophet: “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 section of Isaiah was written when a significant part of the Judean population was living in exile in Babylon with little hope of return. These words, in the wake of such a catastrophe, were meant to assure the people that God was with them even now. God was one with them in their pain—a pain that would lead to birth. God was at work among them bringing them to new life.
Other scripture passages echo this image of God as a laboring woman. The psalmist puts these words into God’s mouth: “Out of my womb before the morning star I bore you” (Ps. 110:3).” We might ask in shock, “You mean God has a womb?” Isaiah later gives the people these tender words from God: “Can a woman forget her nursing child, or not show compassion for the child of her womb? Even if these forget, yet I will not forget you” Is. 49:15). So, God is portrayed not only as a woman who gives birth, but also as a woman who nurses her child.
Some people are disturbed by these images of God as a laboring woman groaning, writhing in pain, bleeding, shaking uncontrollably. Do we want a God so utterly vulnerable? Or a God so out of control? But Winner suggests such images tell us that “God chooses to participate in the work of new creation with bellowing and panting.” God somehow participates in our pain. And God, especially through Jesus, continues to nourish us with his own body as a woman nourishes her child with her own body.
The image of God as a laboring and nursing woman gave Winner another insight into who God is. She says because God is all-powerful, we can assume that redemption is “easy for God… a snap of the divine fingers.” But Isaiah’s image tells us how hard God is working to bring forth redemption. I would add, if I am participating with God in the work of the new creation, then I too will experience times of gasping and panting and moaning. I too will know periods of intense pain and vulnerability and loss of control. I too must be willing to nourish others with my whole being.
Winner concludes her chapter on God as laboring woman with a prayer by St. Anselm of Canterbury written in the 11th Century. Anselm employs the feminine image that Jesus himself gave us:
And you, Jesus, are you not also a mother?
Are you not the mother who, like a hen,
gathers her chickens under her wings?…
It is by your death that (we) have been born…
For Winner, God as laboring woman impacts her understanding of Jesus’ crucifixion. She says we have “sanitized” the crucifixion. It no longer shocks or disturbs us. We have turned a horrific, bloody state execution into a “tidy doctrine.” Perhaps “God as a woman in travail” can help reclaim some of the anguish involved in Jesus’ cruel death. Perhaps it can also reclaim some of Jesus’ great love.
As I said earlier, all images of God are incomplete. Words, sooner or later, fail us when we are speaking of Divinity. Yet good images and metaphors can offer us glimpses into who God is. And in doing so, they can enrich our relationship with the One who loves us far more than words can say!
What do you feel and/or think about the image of God as laboring woman, as nursing mother?
Are there some images of God that speak to you? What are they? Why do they speak to you? Are there any images of God that do not speak to you? Why?
In our Catholic tradition there are few songs of God as mother. Landry’s “I Will Never Forget You My People” is one I found. (We have many songs about Mary as mother.) But I wanted a song that speaks of God as mother, so I reached into the Hindu tradition. This song, “Hymn to the Divine Mother,” is from a CD entitled 108 Sacred Names of the Divine Mother by Craig Pruess and Ananda. It is 10 minutes long. I’d be interested in knowing what you think of it.
Now it’s your turn to respond below—to the reflection, or the questions, or the song. I always enjoy hearing from you!