“Stay with me, Mummy!”
In the church today, we celebrate Ascension Sunday – remembering the day that the Risen Jesus was taken up into heaven.
In the world today, we celebrate Mothers’ Day – giving thanks for the women who nurtured, loved, and protected us in our growing up, and perhaps still today.
The two celebrations are not related, but they happen to land on the same day this year, inviting us to make connections between our faith and our family life.
We may note that God is often described as being like a heavenly Father to us – providing for our needs, loving us unconditionally, guiding and directing us to become the faithful people he hopes we will be. But the Bible does not refer to God exclusively in masculine metaphors. There are, albeit few, feminine metaphors used to describe God in the Bible too.
One of the common images is God as a mother bird sheltering her children under her wings. We see this in Ruth 2:12 – “May you be richly rewarded by the Lord, the God of Israel, under whose wings you have come to take refuge.” The psalms also pick up this mother bird image, like in Psalm 57 where the psalmist prays, “I will take refuge in the shadow of your wings until the disaster has passed.”
And then Jesus uses the same metaphor when he laments over Jerusalem. He says, “Jerusalem, Jerusalem, you who kill the prophets and stone those sent to you, how often I have longed to gather your children together, as a hen gathers her chicks under her wings, and you were not willing.”
These images paint God as a protecting and sheltering God for his people. But a variation of this image paints a God who also pushes the children to be independent and to grow stronger. Mother eagles are known to teach their young ones to fly by deliberately pushing them out of the nest, but catching them before they plunge to their doom.
Listen to this passage from Deuteronomy 32: “God guarded Jacob as the apple of his eye, like an eagle that stirs up its nest and hovers over its young, that spreads its wings to catch them and carries them aloft.”
But before we claim that the Bible only reinforces stereotypes of motherly warmth and care with these images of God, check out Hosea 13:8: “Like a bear robbed of her cubs, I will attack them and rip them open,” says the Lord. Here, we see that the maternal instinct to protect the children can produce wrath as much as warmth. Beware the fury of a mother! No sentimental mother-image here.
Of all the prophets, Isaiah seems to be the fondest of painting God as an actual human mother, like in these passages:
“As a mother comforts her child, so will I comfort you,” says the Lord.
“For a long time I have kept silent, I have been quiet and held myself back. But now, like a woman in childbirth, I cry out, I gasp and pant.”
And “Can a mother forget the baby at her breast and have no compassion on the child she has borne? Though she may forget, I will not forget you!” says the Lord.
None of these mothering images of God are in our lectionary passages for Ascension Sunday today. And yet, when I began to reflect on the stories about the Ascension and the declarations about the power and authority of the Ascended Christ, the metaphor of Christ as our mother still seemed fitting.
Consider the few years that Jesus’ first disciples spent travelling with him, learning from him, and engaging with him in his earthly ministry. Although that time was packed full of memory-making experiences and learning and growth, I expect it felt like it was over in the blink of an eye.
Isn’t that like how so many parents describe their children’s growing up? Those childhood years go by so quickly, and before you know it they are moving out on their own! There were good times, and there were challenging times. There were times of sharing, and laughter, and great expectation for what your children would grow to be. And there were times of struggle too… of conflict, rebellion, disappointment, or worry.
But after all of that, there they go… launching out into the world on their own! You hope and pray that you’ve prepared them well enough, that they will be okay, that they will succeed, and be happy, and do something meaningful and good with their lives.
I remember my first week away from home as a young adult when I started university in a city six hours away from my parents. I was happy and excited about what I was doing, but I was also scared. The stress of it all caused me to break down in tears a few times that first week, especially when I spoke to my mother on the phone.
But even though I had left home, I wasn’t really alone. And that assurance gave me confidence. My parents were just a phone call away. And if I really got into trouble they could be relied upon to send money or come and pick me up if necessary! I was probably more often on their minds and in their prayers than when I was living under their roof.
When the Risen Christ ascended into heaven to be with God, he left his closest friends and followers standing there, gazing up towards the sky. A couple of angels had to tell them to get going, assuring them that Jesus would come again, but in the meantime they had stuff to do.
Although Jesus would no longer be physically present with them, he was not really leaving them either. I’m thinking of the language Jesus uses in John’s Gospel where he says, “I will not leave you orphaned,” and he didn’t. He asked God to send the Holy Spirit to be a continual reminder and assurance of Jesus’ love and power.
The Spirit would remind them of what he taught them. It would help them when they were discouraged. It would empower them when they were afraid. It would assure them that like a mother hen, God would shelter them under her wings. Like a mother bear, God would protect them from all harm. Like a human mother, God would never forget them.
I don’t know if any of you have been watching the new television series of “The Handmaid’s Tale.” I read Margaret Atwood’s book of the same title back in high school, so I wanted to check it out. The show presents a picture of the world gone terribly wrong, and it is difficult to watch because of the violence, racism, sexism, heterosexism, oppression, corruption of religion, and slavery that are depicted.
On a recent episode, there is a flash back to an earlier time when the troubles are just getting started. A young couple and their child are in their apartment and the news is on T.V.
The daughter has just been sent home from school because she is sick with a fever, and her mother has tucked her into bed to rest. On the news, it becomes clear that something awful is happening in the capital city. We’re not told what is unfolding, but the reaction of the couple reminds me of the day those planes flew into the twin towers in New York and the world watched in horror as they came crashing down.
But as they stand transfixed and watching their world falling apart, the little girl calls out to her mother from the other room: “Stay with me, Mummy! Stay with me!” The mum hesitates for a moment, wondering if she should keep watching what is happening on the news. But then she goes. She goes back to her little girl’s room, lies down on the bed, and cradles her in her arms while she goes to sleep.
Our world is not quite in the same trouble that we see in the Handmaid’s Tale, but we do have some serious issues. Collectively, we have some serious issues with conflict and war, with environmental crisis, with all kinds of “isms” and people who continue to live in poverty and need. Individually, you may have some serious issues too… with relationship problems, health issues, financial struggles, or questions about the future.
The assurance of the Scriptures today is that no matter what serious issues we may be facing, we are not alone. Our God is like a mother who comforts and secures us. And it is not just the pretense of security. But because of God’s power and love for us, we are truly secure.
This is the assurance of the Ascension of Christ that we hear expressed in Paul’s letter to the Ephesians: God showed his power in Christ “when he raised him from the dead and seated him at his right hand in the heavenly places, far above all rule and authority and power and dominion, and above every name that is named, not only in this age but also in the age to come.”
We’ve all had different experiences of human parents… some mothers or father who made us feel safe and loved and secure, and likely others who were not able to give us that gift.
Paul’s prayer for the early Christians, and my prayer for all of us today is that God will open the eyes of our hearts today, so that we will know the hope to which God has called us, the riches of his glorious inheritance, and the immeasurable greatness of his power for us who believe.
I pray that we will know and experience the assurance of knowing that we belong to God and are securely held in the loving arms of God, our Mother.
And like the first disciples, who had confidence through the power of the Holy Spirit, to go out and engage in God’s mission to the world, may we also go out in loving service, secure in the knowledge that we are not alone. Amen.