It might well have been a child in a faith formation class. She was busily drawing with all of her crayons and all of her might when her teacher asked her what she was drawing. “I am drawing a picture of God,” the child said. Her teacher replied, “But, my dear Lucy, nobody knows what God looks like.” To which the little girl replied without stopping her strokes: “They will when I am finished.” And of course, she was right. God has many faces. Not all of them, I suspect, as touching and true as the one Lucy drew.
There are many faces of God in the bible. One that our religious tradition has not taken with proper seriousness is the feminine face of God. The prophet Isaiah uses richly expressive metaphors of caring and loving to imagine God. He compares God to a mother who has just given birth. God is the feminine one who carries us in her arms and fondles us in her lap. The scripture says, “We suck at her breasts. Her milk is not only nourishing, but it’s comforting.” About two centuries before Isaiah wrote, Hosea also described the maternal compassion of God who claimed: “It was I who taught Ephraim to walk. I took them up in my arms…I led them with hands of love. I was to them like those who lift infants to their cheeks…I bent down to them and fed them.” (Hosea: 11:3-4) When despair threatened to overwhelm the people, another Isaiah assured them: “Can a mother forget her nursing child, or show no compassion for the child of her womb? Yet, even though the love of a human mother should wane, I will not forget you. I have your name written on the palm of my hands.” (Hosea: 49:15-16)
Pope John Paul II, addressing a gathering of women from all over the world, said: “God is our father. Even more, God is our mother…If children are ill…if they are sick…If they are on the wrong track…They have an additional claim to be loved by their mother.” (St. Peter’s Square, 1978) The image of God as mother is an image of intimacy and warmth. It is an image of peace and tender love, acceptance and belonging, a comforting and protective love that is yet strong and challenging.
That feminine image, the face of God as mother, is nowhere more visible than in the person of Jesus, our brother and Lord. Before Jesus sends his disciples forth into a world that would be hostile and unwelcoming, Jesus counsels them as a loving mother. He calls them lambs. He warns them to be careful. He invites them to travel light. He gives them instructions to teach his message, not at a distance, removed from intimacy with people, but close up. They are to witness his message, not in a synagogue, but on a street corner. “Go into their homes,” he says. “Greet them.” Say: “Peace be to this house.” Live with them, get to know them, share their lives. Their peace will nourish you; your peace will nourish them. Do what you can for them.
Who among us has not been comparably counseled by a loving mother concerned for every aspect of our safety and success? How many of us have had experiences that one author calls “the litany of the doorway.” Each time a child leaves the house, the author describes a series of loving reminders from a loving mother. “Be careful.” “Look both ways before crossing the street.” “Don’t talk to strangers.” “Call me if you’ll be late.” As children mature, so does the level of motherly advice. All the advice is summed up in words constantly spoken, regardless of age, “I love you.”