Column: God is both father and mother — yet more

Father Mike Stubbs is the pastor of Holy Cross Parish in Overland Park and has a degree in Scripture from Harvard University.
Father Mike Stubbs is the pastor of Holy Cross Parish in Overland Park and has a degree in Scripture from Harvard University.

by Father Mark Stubbs

What is your favorite comfort food? macaroni and cheese, meatloaf, apple pie? Those foods not only taste good, they also stir up memories of childhood, of our mothers who cooked them. That is how they give us comfort.

Sunday’s first reading, Is 66:10-14c, also seeks to provide comfort. In fact, the word “comfort” itself appears four times in the reading. But rather than ap- pealing to memories of the past, it promises hope for the future.

The prophecy addresses the Israelites who have seen their holy city of Jerusalem destroyed and who have gone into exile in Babylon. The prophet foresees prosperity for Jerusalem.
Its former inhabitants will rejoice again: “Oh, that you may suck fully of the milk of her comfort, that you may nurse with delight at her abundant breasts. For thus says the Lord, Lo, I will spread prosperity over Jerusalem like a river, and the wealth of nations like an overflowing torrent.”

In its description of this future prosperity, the prophecy places two images of liquids next to each other. As they intermingle, they complement and enrich each other. The image of the river, in which thousands of gallons of water can flow by in a few seconds, speaks of abundance. The image of a mother’s milk, that most basic and nourishing of foods, speaks of loving care.

Together, they speak of God’s abundant love.The prophecy personifies the city of Jerusalem as a woman, as a mother. We might compare a similar personification by Catholics, who sometimes speak of “Holy Mother Church.” This personification of Jerusalem as a mother should not surprise, although some of the details may startle us by their earthiness.

Even more shocking, though, is the comparison that the prophecy makes of God with a mother: “As a mother comforts her child, so will I comfort you.” We are accustomed to imagining God as a father, but as a mother? The image is effective, insofar as the tender love of a mother can help us to appreciate God’s love.

At the same time, the foods not only taste good, they also stir up memories of childhood, of our mothers who cooked them. That is how they give us comfort.Sunday’s first reading, Is 66:10-14c, also seeks to provide comfort. In fact, the word “comfort” itself appears four times in the reading. But rather than appealing to memories of the past, it promises hope for the future.

The prophecy addresses the Israelites who have seen their holy city of Jerusalem destroyed and who have gone into exile in Babylon. The prophet foresees prosperity for Jerusalem. Its former inhabitants will rejoice again: “Oh, that you may suck fully of the milk.”

It is “truly scandalous” that the global level of food production is enough to feed the planet’s people, yet millions of people are malnour- ished and millions more “must be satisfied with the crumbs falling from the table,” Pope Francis said. Addressing the United Nations’ Food and Agriculture Organization conference June 20, Pope Francis said the global financial most basic and nourishing of foods, speaks of loving care. Together, they speak of God’s abundant love.

At the same time, the image has its limitations. Unlike a mother, God does not possess a body. Unlike a mother, God has no sexuality. God is spirit.

While useful, the image of God as mother is incomplete, as is any image that we mortals might form of God. God always remains beyond our imagining.

On the other hand, God is capable where we ourselves are powerless. The best image of God comes from God, in Jesus Christ: “He is the image of the invisible God” (Col 1:15).

In Jesus Christ, we see the God who comforts us in our afflictions, as well as the God who challenges us to repent.

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