Jesus our mother (wherein I court controversy)

What follows will likely either offend some Christians in different ways whilst leaving most thinking, ‘So what?’ I hope it will appeal to somebody out there (maybe a Classicist or two), and I have no doubt, if I’m right, a biblical scholar has already addressed the bit where I talk about Greek. #philologywillsavetheworld

In Chapter 8 of A World Transformed, ‘Being Reborn’, Lisa Deam discusses the Ebstorf Map, from c. 1300, where Jesus’ head, hands, and feet peek out from behind the round globe of the world. She argues that this represents Jesus pregnant with the world. Not being an art historian, I can neither affirm nor deny this idea. It’s kind of neat — I’ll take it from Deam, who is an art historian, that this is a feasible interpretation of the map. Here it is:

This leads into a discussion of medieval piety to Jesus as mother. Interestingly, Julian of Norwich doesn’t come up, possibly because Julian’s references to Jesus as mother are so fleeting as to be almost content-less (in my non-expert opinion). Instead, we get something much more powerful, much more vivid, combining late mediaeval crucifixion piety with the image of Jesus as mother. Deam quotes Marguerite d’Oingt (d. 1310), A Page of Meditations, one of whose passages is this:

Oh, Sweet Lord Jesus Christ, who ever saw any mother suffer such a birth! But when the hour of the birth came you were placed on the hard bed of the cross where you could not move or turn around or stretch your limbs as someone who suffers such great pain should be able to do; and seeing this, they stretched you out and fixed you with nails and you were so stretched that there was no bone left that could still have been disjointed, and your nerves and all your veins were broken. And surely it was no wonder that your veins were broken when you gave birth to the world all in one day. (World Transformed, p. 104)

First, given that this piety is around the same time as the Ebstorf Map, this lends weight to Deam’s interpretation.

Second, this is, I think, totally acceptable, along the same lines as ‘Jesus is my boyfriend’ (that is, keep it to yourself; don’t add it to the liturgy). It is a pious meditation upon the salvific event of the crucifixion of our Lord and Saviour. And it is a realisation that his death brings life. His agony allows me to breathe. The cross, as the ultimate kairos, is an event with trans-temporal significance, backwards to Abraham and Adam, forwards to Judgement Day. The true life of the world is brought forth in the cross.

The theology expressed in what, for us, is entirely novel, is also entirely in keeping with the theology of St Irenaeus of Lyons or St Ephraim the Syrian.

Deam also points out that has nothing to do with the historical gender of the real Jesus. God the Word Incarnate may have had two natures, but he had only one sex. Jesus was a man. This has more to do with seeing His role in our lives and in salvation history in a light we’re not used to.

The argument leading up to Marguerite is also of interest, reminding us of the various biblical passages where God and Jesus are discussed with maternal imagery. Jesus even uses it of himself, after all! I, however, am one of those people who are quick to say that a metaphor or image doesn’t have anything to do divine names or attributes, but points beyond itself to the divine Person in some other aspect of His Person(s). God the mother is about the oikonomia of God the Father acting in our personal and world salvation history, not about renaming the First Person of the Trinity.

God as Father fulfils all the functions of fathers and mothers perfectly. But God is not named Mother in Scripture; therefore, I refuse to use feminine pronouns for God and I refuse to call God ‘Mother’.

However, I am not sold on the reading of Acts 2:24 provided on page 101.

God raised him up, loosing the pangs of death, because it was not possible for him to be held by it. (ESV)

ὃν ὁ θεὸς ἀνέστησεν λύσας τὰς ὠδῖνας τοῦ θανάτου, καθότι οὐκ ἦν δυνατὸν κρατεῖσθαι αὐτὸν ὑπ’ αὐτοῦ

The word for ‘pangs’ here is τὰς ὠδῖνας. Following Margaret Hammer, Deam renders it ‘birth pangs’, because this is exactly what the word means in Greek. If you check your big, fat Greek dictionary, this is what you’ll find under ὠδίς. It can, however, be used metaphorically, in which case St Peter is not necessarily saying that Jesus was giving birth to the world. In fact, the ὠδῖνας under discussion are not necessarily those that Jesus went through, in the first place. They are what Jesus has loosed, has set free by his death (λύσας from λύω).

Thus, it is our ‘birth pangs’ that Jesus has loosed, not ours.

But I don’t think that St Peter said τὰς ὠδῖνας in the first place, because he would have been preaching in Aramaic, right? If you read the entry for ὠδίς in Liddel & Scott to the end, you’ll find citation of the word in the plural to mean ‘bonds’:

ὠδῖνες θανάτου, ᾄδου, the bonds of death, LXX 2 Ki.22.6Ps.17(18).56 (due to confusion of Heb. [hudot ]ēbel ‘pang’ with [hudot ]ěbel ‘cord’), cf. Act.Ap.2.24.

The ESV, translating Hebrew, gives us this as 2 Samuel 22:6 (LXX 2 Kingdoms):

the cords of Sheol entangled me;
the snares of death confronted me.

This is the same as Ps. 18:5:

the cords of Sheol entangled me;
    the snares of death confronted me.

The difference between ‘cords of Sheol’ and ‘pangs of Sheol’ is the length of the first vowel in Jebel. You can see how the translators of the Septuagint (the Greek Old Testament, aka LXX) could easily have mistaken the Hebrew, given that Hebrew is written in consonants with little markings to represent vowels. If we imagine that Acts 2:24 is, in fact, parallelling 2 Sam. 22:6/Psalm 18:5, then we see St Peter drawing a scriptural parallel, using scriptural language for the great, powerful, salvific act that is Jesus’ death and resurrection.

It works with both the wider and immediate context.

So, in sum: If you want to imagine Jesus as your spiritual mother, that’s totally legit. It’s a medieval thing. It’s not my style, but whatevs. However, I don’t think Acts 2:24 has anything to do with it.

Keeping the bike upright on the pilgrimage to Jerusalem

Candles at a pilgrims’ shrine in Germany

I realise I’ve just mixed metaphors, but I hope you don’t mind. In response to my post about how I’m having trouble getting things rolling again, I got some good tips and refreshing perspectives. Keep the bike upright is one of them. As someone who cycles to work, I understand that. Momentum is necessary, you need to keep pedalling.

But how to keep pedalling?

Well, I need to realise that part of the martyrdom of parenthood is not having the free time to pray all the offices. But that’s okay — taking care of my son, my household, is an act of love, and is itself part of the disciplined life. Thus, a little twist on the Benedictines — ‘laborare est orare’.

As I’m working through what disciplines I can reasonably and prayerfully engage, I’m also reading Lisa Deam, A World Transformed. This book is ostensibly about the spirituality of medieval maps. But a lot of it is about pilgrimage, and the pilgrimage of the heart.

We are all headed to Jerusalem, to the heavenly city.

Along the way, we need to watch out for the many perils on the road. Robbers, thieves, hunger, thirst, cold, shipwreck when sailing from Venice, snow in the Alps. Unbelievers at the gates restricting our access. Medieval pilgrimage wasn’t all just a happy trek through Spain in the summer. It was death-defying and life-transforming.

I once walked two hours of a pilgrim route in Germany, to a little pilgrims’ chapel. As I walked, I realised that, while we think of these chapels and the destinations as defining pilgrimage, there is a lot of open countryside. That’s where you meet with God.

That’s where you meet with danger.

So here I am, on my pilgrimage, trying to make the pilgrimage of the heart to Jerusalem in the midst of finishing up one job, taking care of a feverish and sick one-year-old, preparing to take up another job, sorting out a transatlantic move. There are dangers everywhere on this road.

This is why setting in motion manageable goals of discipline is essential — prayer, Scripture, study.

We’ll see how it goes.

Time for a boost

It’s a strange thing. I blogged I don’t know how many posts about the Rule of St Benedict. I read canon law and theology for work. I am always reading something Christian alongside my ‘fun’ book. (Right now, that’s Lisa Deam, A World Transformed, all about the spirituality of medieval maps.)

But what good does it do to have read With Christ in the School of Prayer without praying?

Not that I never pray.

But life has been disconnected and, in many ways, frustrated this year in England. And I did not do a good job of refocussing devotional life in the wake of the birth of my now one-year-old son. It’s all my fault, whatever the circumstances. And some of the circumstances are blessings — but still. One should avoid having prayer life and Scripture and whatever other disciplines being derailed.

So what to do?

How do I get a boost and reshift and refocus, discovering the devotional life of being a parent?

Sometimes it has worked — the 4:00 AM feeds proved a good time for Nocturns. But now he sleeps all night. And from waking to getting on my bike to work, where do I find a moment to pray? And then, getting home, his supper, bath, bed, our supper, whatever’s needful in the evening, some time with my wife, bed. And so again.

So, people who read this blog. Some of you are parents who work full time.

What do you do? Where do you find time for all those happy disciplines — contemplation, intercession, mindful Scripture reading? How can fatherhood work for me spiritually? I want to be a good dad and a strong disciple of Christ who models Christlikeness to my son. I think that to be able to do this, I need to stay plugged into the Divine source of all things.