Praying with our Mothering God
A homily for the 4th Sunday of Easter and Mother’s Day 2022
In our readings today, we are confronted with political, supernatural, and physical realities affecting Jesus’ first apostles. We are also challenged by a modern prophet to expand our understanding of God and Jesus’ commandment to Love.
Let’s start with historical context: The Roman governor of Judea who beheaded James and arrested Peter was commonly known as Agrippa I, but Acts sets the scene by referring to him as Herod. The author doesn’t want it to be lost on us that Agrippa was part of the Herodian dynasty, descendent of Herod the Great who tried to kill Jesus in his infancy, and relative of Herod Antipas who beheaded John the Baptist and heard part of Jesus’ trial. Unlike Jesus who was murdered after his arrest during Passover, Peter is arrested during Passover and saved by an angel.
By referring to Herod, the author makes it clear that Agrippa’s persecution of James and Peter is not just one man’s doing, but part of a greater Roman governance pattern that opposed Jesus and early Christians. It was political. But Christians were not alone in their oppression, nor did they end with the worst of it.
In the first and second centuries CE, Jews were heavily persecuted by the Roman Empire. When Jews revolted against Roman occupation in 66–70 CE, Rome destroyed Jerusalem and the Jewish temple. When Jews revolted in the second century, Rome crushed them again, this time renaming the part of Israel known as Judea “Palestine” to further disassociate the Jewish people from their land. The might of the Roman Empire cast Jews into an interminable physical and cultural exile.
Unlike observant Jews, early Christians were not bound to a specific temple in a specific place and by specific commandments. Those who followed Jesus were already defining a new path marked by miraculous works and supernatural hopes. In fact, part of what Acts does is mark a shift in focus from Jesus’ gospel identity as a Jewish man working for the good of his Jewish people to the apostles’ experience of the resurrected Christ whose saving power extended beyond Jews to gentiles, beyond this world to the next, with a power greater than any human ruler. While Rome’s acts were catastrophic for Jews with 2000 years of evolving history, Christianity was just being born.
Christian evangelization was so successful that by 380 CE, emperor Theodosius made Christianity the official religion of the Roman Empire. By that time, Jews well into the process of compiling the Talmud, a 63 volume document developed over the span of centuries, codifying Rabbinic Judaism as their way forward in diaspora. The Talmud and rabbinic Judaism are the fruit of Jewish resilience.
We, whose traditions and identities were born of shared trauma and turmoil in the first century, have yet to truly make peace as siblings. As Christians, the same tradition that has taught us to love our neighbor and was born out of Jesus’ Jewish roots has paradoxically played into (and flatly instigated) the persecution of Jews and other marginalized people for centuries. That is a difficult thing to face, but to do the healing work of Christ in our hurting world today, we need to grapple with historical us vs. them ideals that lead us to not treating one another as equals (and worse).
As Rev. Dr. Jacqui Lewis proclaims in our second reading, our beliefs and behaviors toward others are often rooted in our projections of God. Who is God, and what does She want of us?
I love her vision of God. In a nation where Black women are more likely to live in poverty, more likely to die in childbirth, more likely to experience violence, we need to hear about, relate to, and learn to love and be loved by God “who is a curvy black woman with dreadlocks and dark, cocoa-brown skin, who laughs from her belly and is unashamed to cry… Who can rock a whole world to sleep…and breathe life into humanity.” To me, she is like a stern mother calling in her children with a whisper voice that commands attention: “Do you love me? Then take care of each other.”
As a mom, I feel deep in my soul that Rev. Dr. Jacqui Lewis preaches words appropriate for mothers’ day when she reminds us that “the trouble starts when our god is too small, when we reduce our worst projections to fit in our pocket and keep this god on our team.” That’s how we get colonization, racism, homophobia, xenophobia, anti-semitism, and all the isms that say one group of people is fundamentally more holy and deserving of love, respect, dignity, and even land, property, employment, and food than another. God-who-is-Love is not a puny god; she calls us to See and Love bigger.
I believe one of our tasks as an inclusive Catholic Community is to do just that — to see God in ourselves, and to see God in others. As feminists who have been fighting for female images of God to rise to consciousness for decades, we know the value of representation! Not only do all people need to see our own faces reflected in and by God, but we need those who have oppressed us to see God in us, too. This is true of female images of God, Black images of God, Indigenous, Hispanic, and Asian images of God, LGBTQ+ images of God, and more. Recognizing and praying with diverse images of God can help us love our neighbors and ourselves as we are commanded to do.
God as Mother cries out for us to love all her children as fiercely as she does. God as Black Mother challenges us to get curious and discover so much more than the limited images of a white male regulatory God handed down by predominantly white cis-male priests and theologians for centuries. She asks us to be like the early apostles who had firsthand experiences of the resurrected Christ and the Holy Spirit guiding them into new ways. She is like the angel at the door of our own prisons, here to break our chains and send us out to do the healing work of Christ in the world.
She is the voice of Jesus asking Peter: Do you love me?
She is the voice that commands: Tend my sheep.
She doesn’t ask us to despair at the feeling that we can’t fix the brokenness of the world. She mothers us, teaches us, nurtures us to grow as a courageous community that sees and loves like She does.
Reflection questions: What speaks to you in these readings? What part of God’s expansive image are you being asked to explore? Who are God’s sheep that you are called to tend? Or, do you have other favorite images of God that expand the boundaries of our theological imagination?
In honor of Mothers’ Day, consider helping young families by donating to one of the following:
Catholic Charities Birthline (Indianapolis) — provides diapers, formula, and other critical supplies to parents in need.
Firefly Children & Family Alliance (Indianapolis)— provides crisis & resource support for families in need. I regularly donate to their CPCS program because I have seen them firsthand help families I work with. All their programs are important.
At Mass, we specifically talked about how we can help families affected by the formula shortage. Sadly, this is a situation that is difficult to directly help because the demand is much greater than supply.
What you can do:
* Please pray for infants and their families.
* Support your local food pantries.
* If you know young parents, encourage them to talk with their pediatricians and WIC for advice on how to safely feed their infant! Offer to drive around the city to help them find the formula they need.
* Never dilute formula!
* Follow these tips.