Thursday, February 26, 2015

Mama Christ and God the Father

“Everyone knows that God’s beyond gender. Why does it matter what pronoun you use?”

I’ve always had a hard time with boy-god language. It was a huge thing for me in trying to come back to church after my adolescent time away, and I worked hard to uncondition myself from initial my gut-punch reaction to hearing God referred to as “he.”  I read all the feminist theology I could get my hands on in college and I wrote my master’s thesis on deconstruction, language, and religious experience.  A version of it was published in a journal 8 people read.

Bottom line: “Yes, it matters.”

Maybe it’s just me. Of course, it could just be me, uniquely tossed about on my own personal-is-political winds of fortune.  In many Episcopal churches it’s  general practice to use less masculine language when it’s convenient, like “It’s right to give our thanks and praise” instead of “It is right to give him thanks and praise” when we lift up our hearts at the prayers for Communion.  And certainly in many pockets of the church inclusive language is a priority.

But our defaults are still male.  Crushingly, my own children refer to God as “he” and I am powerless to stop it. Mean streets and what not.  My son (7) insists that this is just another thing that I, as his mother, Just. Do. Not. Get.

Again: “everyone knows” God’s not male, so who cares?

Scrupulous as I am about un-gendering my own language for God, I’ve had relatively little practice with differently-gendering my language for God.  In my commitment to God being beyond the male gender, I’ve insisted along the way also that God is also beyond the female gender and left it at that. Christian theology is scattered with images of Jesus feeding us with his bloody breast as mothers feed their babies (particularly in the medieval period, but long before then, too).  As someone who had a hard time with the stereotyped images of mothering (another piece of writing for another day) I instead have always talked generally about God as a parent, not a mother or father.   At some point a few years ago when I prayed the Jesus prayer (kind of a Christian mantra—you repeat it to yourself again and again, either in formal prayer or in the course of doing other things—sometimes “Jesus, Son of the Living God, have mercy on me, a sinner” and sometimes “have mercy on us”) I began saying “Amma, Christ, have mercy on us.” Amma is, more or less, the feminine parallel to the Aramaic Abba (which means “dad,” as Jesus referred to God).  In the habitrail of my mind, it was a nice shift. But it was just me.

Until this Lent.
I don’t know how it came about, but this year in assembling the prayers of the people for my parish for Lent, I put in the phrase I’ve prayed with under my breath for several years.  Amma, Christ, have mercy on us.   This is the part of the service where we name concerns for the church and the world, prisoners and captives, friends and members of the congregation who are ill, anniversaries and birthdays and conflict and violence and freedom. The usual response is “Lord have mercy,” but instead the reader ends each petition “Amma, Christ” and the congregation responds “Have mercy on us.”

And, have mercy. It knocked my socks off.   You might note that this is posted before the second Sunday of Lent so we’ve only done it once, but I was so surprised at how different the rest of the service felt because of it.  I am not totally thrilled with how the prayers are written—it’s really, really wordy and long—but hearing “Amma Christ” said by everyone else, not just the echo chamber in my head was, ten years into saying all kinds of masculine prayers, a revelation.

The thing that surprised me, though, wasn’t that it was nice to have my own theological preferences reflected in the worship.  Certainly that is very pleasant.

The real shift for me wasn’t in how it felt to say “Amma Christ” with my parish.

The real shift was what it felt like to say God the Father.

I am a good logicker—I can justify a lot in my head if I think about it for long enough. So often I just mentally “type over” male God language when I have to use it. I mean, yes, empirically, Jesus was male so I can’t not say “Son of God.”  The Trinity, too, is kind of a big deal, and yes, I do baptisms in the name of the “Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.” But in my mind, there’s always a little prickle of discomfort. Talking about Jesus as mother actually freed me to say God as Father without holding my breath.  And I had not expected that.   

It turns out that, yes, while “everyone knows” God is beyond gender, there is still something about how using the whole range of gender expression makes it easier to hear both the middle and the edges.  It doesn’t work just to mentally erase the male stuff (even while still saying it out loud) and not add in an alternative.   

I have a degree in gender studies. I know all of this is an accident of culture.  (though my son will be glad to explain to you how pink is empirically a girl color and the fact that it was his favorite color from ages 3-5 does not change that)

Apparently, though, however post post post whatever I want to be, I’m still stuck in the binary.  Apparently the words we use do matter.

Apparently it helps to use all of them.


Ken Johnson said...

I can make 2 comments, hope they help.
1st, when you announced the change a few weeks ago I didn't notice it was Amma instead of Abba. (I think I mentioned that at the Peace Sunday.
Now that I know what you're saying (in other words, that I'm listening to you rather than running in my habitrail like a logicker)I can describe it as being like new leather shoes.
It fits but it feels stiff. the sole doesn't flex yet. So lets walk a mile, sweat a bit, and see if there's an opinion then.
2nd - Christine tells a storey of when she went to Catholic school (real Big "C" too!), and they were going to an amusement park trip. She asked the nun "Since we're going on rides can we wear shorts instead of skirts?"
The nun told her (and Christine always makes this pompous matronly authoritarian voice when she tells it)
"You'll wear a Skirt as GOD Intended!"
I think those days are over, may they rest in peace.

Kristin Plausky said...

Perhaps, you should get I to do a history of the color pink. He would realize that pink historically was used for boys not so long ago. :)

Joseph Wood said...

Since my Israeli friend doesn't seem to be able to post a comment, I thought I would share her insight: "I'm 99% certain that 'mother' in Aramaic is pronounced 'eema,' not 'amma.' Amma (written עמא) means nation; Eema (written אמא) means mother."

sirwin said...

Joseph: Yes. A parishioner who studies Biblical languages whom I talked to in advance told me that "Eema" or "Ayma" was more accurate. Since reference "Ammas and Abbas" (as in early desert monasticism) has become common practice, though I just went with it.

afrenning said...

Dear Sara:

Having worked at a dictionary company and having attended Christian Science Sunday School for nearly 20 years (far more often than my dad's Anglican church) I am pleased to comment on your piece. First, my mom's faith (and her mother's before her) was founded by a radical American woman in the mid-19th century, and is still headquartered at the "Mother Church" in Boston. (Mary Baker Eddy might have skipped the Trinity, but whatever, she used the gender-neutral term "Divine Spirit" among several other synonyms for God.) Also, you might enjoy this video from Merriam-Webster on the "Awkward Case of His or Her" at Reading your piece in context of these two items, I'd like to say that hearing the words "Amma, Abba God" would sound very familiar to me in church. Or simply "Amma, Abba!"