Writing on Mothers’ Day, I should have include two practices that I left out yesterday: Confession and forgiveness and the use of gendered language for the divine and for the ecclesia or church.
Confession is the practice of admitting sin and seeking forgiveness. Forgiveness is offering reprieve from wrath to those who have trespassed/sinned against us or hurt/damaged/bruised us. Both forgiveness and repentance are practices deeply rooted in the life of the Christian faith and perhaps key to understanding both a difficulty with Mothers’ day and a practice to counter the said difficulty.
Confession admits imperfection or flaw or mistake or broken intent, and mothers like the rest of us fall and fail. Confusion and hurt finds origin in the places we would most like to ignore. It can come from mothers or come from children or come from the brokenness of the world and relationships. This is almost impossible for us to admit, but I think any true celebration of motherhood is rooted in honesty and fights back against a rank idealization of motherhood.
Idealizing a particular idea of motherhood continues the same problem that is represented in studies on race. Young girls with a non-white skin color polled over the last few decades have consistently chosen white dolls and white actresses as the beautiful ones. With the commercialization of motherhood into an icon of perfection those who do not meet the standard are shamed, and those whose mothers did not live into the standard feel shammed.
The church by perpetuating the idealization of motherhood by picking certain scriptural precepts participates in this shaming and shamming. You may say, that there are biblical precepts of motherhood and ideal woman hood, and you are correct. Conversing on how to follow Christ as a mother, father, child, eunuch, single person, spouse, and any other mode of being requires us to be more nuanced in how we apply said scriptures. The Eshet Chayil is a song based on a passage out of Proverbs 31 that offers a picture of idealized womanhood. This offers a liturgical base from which to precede.
The song is used to honor women regardless of where they are. They are women of valor, they have worth and value as they are. They are loved as they are. This is different from shaming them to live into a life different from what they feel called. The church is called to express and out do the world in showing honor and by offering up templates and support for ways of living in singleness, married life, voluntary and involuntary infertility, and parenthood.
Confession for women then is not about admitting to failing to live up to an external expectation but an expectation set in participation with the ecclesia, her own community of faith. The assumption here is that everyone will fail to live up to an ordering of life that is appropriately challenging. Grace then surrounds them where they are at, the Spirit and the ecclesia are the support structure for them to help live into that rule for living.
Confession of one is then a confession for the whole of the community, and the Spirit we are told groans with words too deep for understanding for our sake.
This is helpful in two ways. First, it does not hold mothers to a false ideal but a true ideal. They are able to confess where they have failed. Second, the community is held to the standard of the life together and is able to confess where we have failed. The confession is two fold in source and now it is directed in three directions as well. It is a confession to God of failure and a confession to our children and partners in community and a confession to the mothers who have not received the support.
In this practice of confession mothers seek forgiveness for their failures, and we, as a the ecclesia, seek forgiveness from the mothers and the children for failing to support mothers in their calling. Children confess here, as part of the ecclesia, for harsh judgments on their mothers.
This practice opens for me the possibility of mothers’ day as a day of healing and truth speaking in the midst of painful situations where the ideal of motherhood grates and tears and hurts. It is a possibility of humility that may be a source of healing of future wrongs and an opportunity for the church to joyfully take up its role to support those with particular calls within the body of Christ. Forgiving and seeking forgiveness offer a picture of community capable of withstanding the temptations of commercialism and nationalism by binding us together in worship of the one who nurtures us in grace.
Christ stood outside of Jerusalem at one point and spoke of himself like a mother hen. It is far from the only example of motherhood used to describe the relationship between God and Jerusalem let alone between God and his people Israel. Jerusalem is described as a mother and a woman, the church as a bride. These images should offer us another way of affirming women – single, married, widowed, mothers, or non-mothers.
Many churches shy away from using feminine language to describe God, Jesus, and the Spirit let alone the Church. They do this either in favor of masculine images which are also appropriate and much used in scripture or in another type of church they use gender neutral language for God. Both have places in scripture, but I find that both tend to be exclusive and that to be odd. The latter do it out of a spirit of gentleness to those who have been harmed by the masculine. Practicing gentleness this way ignores any chance of redemption of the masculine within the persons of the Trinity. Why not broaden our ways of engaging with God instead of flattening the Church’s worship by affirming only one mode of being?
English is not particularly suited to gendered language for description – I think it was only a quirk of biology that helped us get gendered pronouns. Gendered language is so rare in English that for this very reason we should use the variety available to us that is already found in scripture to speak of God and the church for two reasons: affirmation of human beings that were created with gender, and second to recognize that God redeems what he assumes in affirmation of his full assumption humanity.
By using this language we recognize that Christ redeems not only Fatherhood and sonship for participation in the ecclesia but Motherhood and womanhood. To leave it out we vacate our worship of the participation of women in the life of Christ has offered all.