When she became the first woman to be elected Presiding Bishop of The Episcopal Church, the Most Reverend Katherine Jefforts Schori preached a sermon that many found offensive, because of one sentence. This one: “Our mother Jesus gives birth to a new creation—and you and I are His children.” Two words, “Mother Jesus,” set off a frenzy of reactions from the heresy hunters in the land.
One conservative website offered some predictable commentary. But what struck me were the keywords—the subject headings—they used for people surfing the web: Try searching under APOSTATES; HOMOSEXUALAGENDA; JESUSHATERS; RADICALFEMINISM; RADICALLEFTISTS; or WARONJESUS. One subscriber to another blog responded with these words: “Presiding Bishop-elect Jefforts Schori, in the name of the God the Father, Jesus Christ the Son and the Holy Spirit, I rebuke you for your BLASPHEMY and call upon you to recant … REPENT or face God’s righteous judgment. You are walking a very bad road, and worse, you are leading others down it.” The rector of a 4,500-member parish in Texas complained to Christianity Today: “When the Presiding Bishop–elect had a chance to build consensus, she chose to interweave the Cross with radical feminism. It seemed Gnostic.” So much for giving up fear …
In today’s Gospel, Jesus had a chance to build consensus, but he chose to interweave the Cross with, well, maybe not radical feminism—he wouldn’t have known what those words meant. But as he alluded to his impending death, he did choose to speak of himself as a mother. “How often have I desired to gather your children together as a hen gathers her brood under her wings, and you were not willing!”
For people who like to speak of God in both male and female terms—and I’m one of them—this is a classic passage. And it doesn’t stand alone. Before St. John called Jesus the Word made flesh, St. Paul spoke of him as Sophia (Lady Wisdom) made flesh: “Christ Jesus, who became for us Lady Wisdom from God” (1 Cor. 1:30). Paul knew all about what we now call the Wisdom Literature in Jewish Scriptures and other spiritual writings. It speaks of Wisdom not just as a virtue but as a person, and not just as a person but as a woman, and not just as a person or a woman but as in some way divine, present and active at the beginning of creation (cf. Proverbs 8:22-31). Nobody objected that this was blasphemy. Nobody called it “Gnostic.” Nobody called Paul a Jesus hater.
Much later—over 1,000 years—St. Anselm prayed to Jesus as his mother. “Jesus, as a mother you gather your people to you; you are gentle with us as a mother with her children.” That’s from one of my Church’s authorized canticles. We have another fourteenth century canticle by Julian of Norwich: “Christ came in our poor flesh to share a mother’s care. Our mothers bear us for pain and for death; our true mother, Jesus, bears us for joy and endless life.” She may have been the first woman to write a book in English. But our Church doesn’t call her a Jesus hater. Instead we give her a feast day, Anselm too, even though they both chose to interweave the Cross with Jesus’ motherhood.
All of this is to say that, as usual, those who shout most loudly on behalf of the Bible or tradition frequently don’t know very much about either. They only know enough to make themselves dangerous to everybody else. They act as if the Bible or our traditions were uniform and simple, which they most definitely are not—not uniform, and not simple.
What we have instead is a diverse, complex collection of testimonies, and the only thing that holds them together is an underlying plot: the boundless, insistent compassion of our God. It speaks of a God who desires again and again to gather us together “as a hen gathers her brood under her wings.” It speaks again and again of God’s people, then to now, as wayward children who keep refusing the invitation. And it speaks again and again of a God who won’t take even our most violent “No” for a final answer.
Lent is a time for us to hear that with Christ God still stands ready to gather all of us together “as a hen gathers her brood under her wings.” And that will never change. We can afford to give up fear. We can afford to hear God named in unfamiliar terms. We can afford even to listen to people who seem hateful, knowing that they can do nothing to halt the boundless, insistent compassion of God at work in the world.
“Our mother Jesus gives birth to a new creation—and you and I are His children.”