by Father Mike Stubbs
In this age of heightened ecological sensitivity, we often hear the phrase, “Mother Earth.”
But if the earth is our mother, who is the father? Among many ancient peoples, the sky often emerged as the figure who would fertilize the earth. “Father Sky” would impregnate “Mother Earth” by sending down rain, thus bringing us life. These natural phenomena were personified as deities and worshipped as part of their religions.
Ancient Israel neighbored Middle Eastern countries where these fertility cults were practiced. To avoid confusing the God of Israel with these foreign deities, the Israelite prophets drew a firm line between the two. The God of Israel had created nature, and was not part of it. God was transcendent and above nature.
On the other hand, the fertility gods were actually natural phenomena — the earth, the sky, the sun, wind and rain — masquerading in human form.
To emphasize the difference, the Israelite prophets hesitated ascribing any human characteristics to the God of Israel, even on an obviously metaphorical level. God was spirit, without any body, much less anything resembling a human body.
That is why Sunday’s first reading, Is 62:1-5, is so shocking. It departs from the usual practice, to compare the God of Israel to a bridegroom: “As a bridegroom rejoices in his bride so shall your God rejoice in you.”
Since the people of Israel are so strongly associated with the land of Israel, the two are not separated in the reading. God will marry both, because the two are actually one and the same: “For the Lord delights in you and makes your land his spouse.”
This prophecy dates back to the period immediately after the return from Exile. At this relatively late point in the development of their religion, the Israelites had solidified their understanding of God’s nature. They understood that God was not confined to a human body, nor did God have sexuality as such. Using metaphors with human characteristics to describe God no longer posed a danger of being taken literally. They no longer ran the risk of falling into the traps of the fertility cults. Rather, the metaphors could enrich our understanding of God’s relationship to us.
Love between husband and wife provides us with one of the strongest experiences of human love. That love helps us to imagine what God’s love for us is like. This comparison of God to a bridegroom paves the way for the New Testament, where Christ appears as the bridegroom, and the church is the bride.