I was asked to preach at an ecumenical service (Presbyterian and Catholic) this past Sunday. This post is a revision of my sermon. And it is deliberately posted on “May Day” – a day of worldwide celebration of solidarity with workers, especially among Socialists and Social Democrats; AND the first day of “Mary’s Month,” long celebrated by Catholics worldwide. Should you choose to read further, I suggest you might take time for the reflective pauses enjoyed by the congregation this past Sunday.
I begin today “In the name of the Mother and Father, of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit,” asking God to bless my words for our common good.
The focus of our service is the environment. My specific focus is the feminine and maternal dimensions, indeed foundations, of our world.
I choose this focus because of Amos’ words from our first reading: “Seek good, not evil, that you may live” (Amos 5: 14).
It is right to focus on the many evils involved in the environmental crisis. Fear and anger are justified, resistance and action are needed. Yet finally it is only the good that will sustain hope, nourish vision, and give courage. “Seek good that you may live.”
Following St. Francis and feminist theologians, I believe that one of the most fundamental ways to understand the great good of our world is to see its reality as feminine and maternal.
I hope by a series of brief evocations, each followed by a pause for reflection, that we might together find ourselves living in that good.
1) Let’s begin with the great image of “Mother Earth.”
Today, in early Spring, that image is especially easy to evoke as nature is reborn around us and we directly experience the reality of the earth as a mother. Yet experience of the earth as our mother has been made far more profound by our knowledge of the processes of evolution. Perhaps especially by the awareness that our own bodies and minds, with their genetic coding, have been birthed by this earth over hundreds of millions of years – and that the stages of our individual lives, from conception till death, are also “dust to dust” – coming from the clay of Mother Earth and returning to Her. It is not only the grass and flowers, but we ourselves who have been birthed by this Earth, sustained by her fields and rivers, and returned to her when we die.
So we pause to imagine and remember ways that earth is truly our Mother, ours together but also in ways unique to each of us.
2) The Hebrew Scriptures as well as contemporary theologians remind us that Holy Wisdom – Hagia Sophia – is at work and play in the creation and renewal of the world.
“For She is,” in the words of Solomon, “a breath of the power of God…. She is a reflection of eternal light, a spotless mirror of the working of God…. Although She is but one, She can do all things, and while remaining in Herself, She renews all things; in every generation She passes into holy souls and makes them friends of God, and prophets…. She reaches mightily from one end of the earth to the other, and She orders all things well.” (Wisdom 7: 22 – 8: 1)
My colleague at Regis, Professor Chris Pramuk, has written a magnificent study entitled Sophia: The Hidden Christ of Thomas Merton (Liturgical Press, 2009). He followed it with a shorter, more meditative version, At Play in Creation: Merton’s Awakening to the Feminine Divine (Liturgical Press, 2015). Both books revolve around Merton’s late prose-poem “Hagia Sophia” (1962).
Merton begins that poem with a memory of waking early in a hospital bed on “July the second, the Feast of Our Lady’s Visitation. A Feast of Wisdom” – awakened by the soft voice and gentle touch of a nurse whom he now knows had embodied Sophia. Thus he calls her “my Sister, sent to me from the depths of the divine fecundity.” “I am,” he continues, “like all mankind awakening from all the dreams that ever were dreamed in all the nights of the world….It is like the first morning of the world (when Adam at the sweet voice of Wisdom, awoke from nonentity and knew her), and like the Last Morning of the world when all the fragments of Adam will return from death at the voice of Hagia Sophia…. It is like being awakened by Eve. It is like being awakened by the Blessed Virgin. It is like coming forth from primordial nothingness and standing in clarity, in Paradise. In the cool hand of the nurse there is the touch of all life, the touch of Spirit. Thus Wisdom cries out to all who will hear…and she cries out particularly to the little, to the ignorant and the helpless.”
Merton’s entire poem (I’ve cited opening lines) does what I am attempting today – seeking to understand the ways that divinity and all existence are maternal and feminine. He does it beautifully with the detail and development of theological poetry.
As in his opening memory, I suspect that each of us as children, and then as adolescents and adults, has heard Sophia’s voice and felt her touch – from mothers and grandmothers, sisters and cousins and aunts, friends and lovers. While we probably didn’t think of their words and touches as expressions of God’s Holy Wisdom, it was She nonetheless who touched us through them, even as she now touches us – both in spring’s freshness and in the refreshing words and touches we continue to receive and to give.
I do not want to romanticize. Many of us have had difficult times with the women in our lives. Yet the goodness of Sophia’s touch remains fundamental, even amidst difficulty. So we pause to remember the women who have touched our lives, and to imagine how they have mediated Holy Wisdom’s strength and freshness to us.
I ask you now, in honor of those women and following their example, to rise and greet those around you with a word and a touch. (In the Catholic mass we call this “The Kiss of Peace,” though it occurs just before communion.)
3) Hagia Sophia is one immensely important expression or manifestation of what both feminist theology and many in personal faith recognize as SHE WHO IS. That name for God first came to me from Elizabeth Johnson’s already classic study She Who Is (Crossroad, 1992).
The Hebrew acronym YHWH, pronounced “Yahweh,” stands for the great “I AM” of God’s Pure Existence. That is to say, Yahweh means SHE WHO IS. SHE WHO IS the Source of everything else that is. SHE WHO IS pure grace and mercy, SHE WHO holds “the whole wide world in Her hands…. [like] a little bitty baby in Her hands…” (to paraphrase a wonderful African American spiritual).
She is the Great Mother imagined by ancient peoples.
SHE, as I pray adapting Jesus’ words, is “Our Mother in Heaven,” whose name is hallowed, whose kingdom comes on earth as it is in heaven. SHE gives us our daily bread and forgives as we forgive. For HERS is the kingdom and the power and the glory, now and forever.
So, even if it is not our usual form of belief and prayer, let us pause to evoke and try to imagine the reality of SHE WHO IS, on earth as in heaven.
4) Since this is an ecumenical service, and I am a Catholic long devoted to her – when sleep does not come, I often silently sing the monastic evening chant “Salve Regina” – I now evoke the memory and the reality of Mary of Nazareth, the Theotokos of “Mother of God” proclaimed by our ancient Creeds.
She is the strong young woman who opened herself to God’s coming as her human baby. Her visit led her cousin Elizabeth to call her “Blessed among women.” To which Mary gave the exultant response read today from Luke’s Gospel (1: 46-55) and widely known as the “Magnificat.”
Mary says it is God Who has done great things for her, and raises up all who are lowly, poor and vulnerable, including (as the Psalms remind us) all the vulnerable creatures of land and air and sea.
Mary then announces the prophetic word that God will scatter the proud, cast down the mighty, and send the rich away empty, even as SHE will exalt the lowly.
Later Mary held Jesus’ tortured and crucified body, just as today our Pieta holds all who are poor and suffer injustice, depredation, even crucifixion.
With the other disciples Mary experienced her son’s resurrection, and then, in an upper room at the first Pentecost, she too experienced the Spirit-breathed birth of God’s New Creation.
Today Mary remains, as the terrible fire at Notre Dame has reminded us, one of the most civilizing and humanizing ikons at work through the millennia of Western and much of Eastern civilization, and now too in Africa and Asia. She works today, both as a cultural force and as that great Saint, our heavenly Mother of Mercy, to heal our wounded world. Something celebrated by Catholics and others at pilgrimage cites like Lourdes in France.
So let us again pause to think, even if it is not the normal practice of your church, about this lowly and great woman, mother of our rabbi-Messiah and Queen of Heaven.
Finally, for all the ideas and images, the beliefs and hopes which may have arisen during these few minutes, let us conclude by together saying “Amen” … (“May it always be so”) … and in this season we together say “Alleluia” … (“Praise to Yahweh, to SHE WHO IS”)