I gave this talk in my ward today.
As a man tasked with speaking on Mother’s Day, I feel that my job is to “look not at what can be seen but at what cannot be seen,” in the sense that I have to testify of things that I have grown up not knowing how to see, but which I believe are true. So, I begin in gratitude for the women in my life who have taught me to see, although for my part it is still through a glass, darkly.
In the first creation account in Genesis we read: “So God created humankind in his image, / in the image of God he created them; / male and female he created them.” One question that this passage immediately raises is what it means for women to be created in the image of an apparently male God. On Mother’s Day, this question seems worth pondering. Can we think Lorenzo Snow’s couplet—“As man now is, God once was; / As God now is, man may become”—beyond the ostensibly universally-human “man” and toward something specifically feminine? In Mormon terms, if we cannot imagine exalted womanhood, I do not think that we can imagine women fully human. I have friends—faithful churchgoers 51 weeks out of the year—who stay home on Mother’s Day because they see the version of motherhood presented in our discourse as too cramped and narrow for their experience. Perhaps there are women in our own ward who make a similar choice (if you know one, go knock on her door and give her a hug, or a fist bump, or whatever seems right). Our talk of “angel mothers” seems exalted, but is it really “image of God” material? My friends’ experience suggests not.
Why does this matter? When asked about the greatest commandment in the law, Jesus answered: “‘You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind.’ This is the greatest and first commandment. And a second is like it: ‘You shall love your neighbour as yourself.’” If we collectively do not know what it means for women to be created in the image of God, can any of us—female or male—truly see the image of God in ourselves, enough to love ourselves as we ought? Are we then loving our neighbors in impoverished ways? Is our love of God, however ample it may be, only half of what it could be?
Whatever the answers to those questions, God surely loves us fully, and the scriptures convey a crucial part of that fullness by describing God in feminine terms. Isaiah—whose words Jesus counseled us to search diligently—gives us images of God as a nursing mother and as a laboring woman. These remarkable scriptures can guide us toward an understanding of the image of God that includes femininity—and that therefore also opens our hearts to a more capacious love of ourselves, our neighbors, and God.
The image of the nursing mother is familiar from the Book of Mormon, where Nephi quotes Isaiah 49 in 1 Nephi 21. In a modern translation, the biblical version reads: “But Zion said, ‘The Lord has forsaken me, / my Lord has forgotten me.’ / Can a woman forget her nursing-child, / or show no compassion for the child of her womb? / Even these may forget, / yet I will not forget you.” This section of Isaiah addresses Israel in exile. In the ancient Near East, people understood their wars with other tribes as wars between their respective gods, and the losers would often turn to worshiping the victors’ gods rather than continue worshiping the gods that had so obviously failed them. When Babylon destroyed Jerusalem and hauled its inhabitants into captivity, then, abandoning Yahweh for Marduk might have seemed like a perfectly sensible thing to do. Isaiah, though, writes prophetically to urge Israel’s continued faithfulness to a God he suggests has not abandoned them at all.
The image of nursing mother is appropriate to this purpose, for several reasons. First, it serves as a fitting counter to the hyper-masculine image of a warrior god. In contrast to other cultures in the region (and arguably also to its own past), Israelite monotheism insists that the masculine and the feminine must be part of the same god. If the male warrior seems not to have fared too well, the nursing mother still remains. God, in other words, is claiming the role of a person whom war tends to leave very vulnerable. War may bring glory to men, but it often brings intense suffering to women. (Yes, men at war suffer, too, and yet talking about that suffering seems unmanly. There’s a place for soldiers to see their own image in God the nursing mother, too.)
Second, God as the nursing mother invites us to understand our relationship with God in terms of the deep intimacy between a mother and her nursling child. A friend now expecting her second babe (as she likes to say) recently shared an article by Angela Garbes that explores this intimacy. “To produce breast milk,” Garbes begins, “mothers melt their own body fat.” As a professor at my alma mater of Arizona State, Katie Hinde, explains, this self-giving has remarkable effects: because body fat stores nutrients collected over the mother’s lifetime, “You have information about your whole life span that could be in your milk. Milk is telling the baby about the world its mother has lived in.” Nursing, then, is God’s way of communicating to us about the divine world, not with words, but by sharing God’s own substance with us. The great English mystic Julian of Norwich quite fittingly applies the image of a nursing God to the sacrament: “The mother may give her child [to] suck her milk, but our precious Mother Jesus, he may feed us with him self and doth full courteously and full tenderly with the blessed sacrament that is precious foode of very life.” When we take the sacrament, then, as we just did, we are nursing at Jesus’ breast, receiving spiritual food created at the literal expense of his body and blood, and in that food Jesus communicates to us the nature of the heavenly life.
This sacramental connection to nursing opens up powerful spiritual possibilities. According to Garbes, “Within [the] vacuum [created when a baby nurses], the infant saliva is sucked back into the mother’s nipple, where receptors in her mammary gland read its signals.” This means, she continues, that “breast milk is a private conversation between mother and child. While my daughter lacks words, breast-feeding makes it possible for her to tell me exactly what she needs. The messages we are sending each other are literally made of ourselves, and they tell us about what is going on in our lives at that very moment.” When we take the sacrament, eating of Jesus’ body and drinking his blood, we are promised that the Spirit will be with us, and this Spirit is the milk that flows from Jesus’ breast to our infant mouths. Nursing, in other words, is not only nutriment, but also prayer. As Sarah Coakley puts it, “[T]he dialogue of prayer is strictly speaking not a simple communication between an individual and a divine monad, but rather a movement of divine reflexivity, a sort of answering of God to God in and through the one who prays.” We cannot receive the milk of the Spirit without giving back in ways that tell Jesus exactly what we need.
Prayer brings me to the second image, from Isaiah 42: “For a long time I have held my peace, / I have kept still and restrained myself; / now I will cry out like a woman in labour, / I will gasp and pant.” This image invites us to picture God squatting and sweaty, breathing as only laboring women do, while giving vent to the earthiest of human vocalizations, the cthonic song of life. Lauren Winner draws on a friend’s observation that nearly every birth story includes a moment when the laboring woman says, “I cannot do this anymore,” to connect this moment of labor to Jesus: “We don’t have to brood uncertainly about whether God ever feels this way: we know that, in the Garden of Gethsemane, before the labor of the cross, Jesus prays, ‘Please, Lord, take this cup from me.’ For a moment—before Jesus faithfully intones, ‘But not my will but thy will be done’—Jesus is the mother in labor saying, ‘I cannot do this anymore.’ Jesus knew that new life would be born out of His suffering on the cross, yet he still asked God to take away the cup.”
Jesus, Winner suggests, became a laboring woman when he prayed—or, rather, when he came up against what he felt was the limit of his ability to pray. Do we not all experience the same? I love the way that Paul puts it in Romans: “Likewise the Spirit helps us in our weakness; for we do not know how to pray as we ought, but that very Spirit intercedes with sighs too deep for words.” Jesus labored as we labor, pregnant with thought and intent to speak our very souls to God, and he like us felt unable to give birth to that deepest heart-prayer. Is it not, then, a comfort, that the Spirit comes and intercedes, groaning to God as we only wish we could? The Psalms depict God as a midwife, delivering us into life: “Upon you I have leaned from my birth; / it was you who took me from my mother’s womb. /My praise is continually of you.” In a similar way, the Spirit serves as the midwife of our prayers, bringing our deepest longings forth from the womb of our self-unknowing and presenting them to the Father of our souls. Jesus, too, labored to bring our deepest longings to life, and, to me, he was never more human, and never more divine, than when he groaned for us like a laboring woman.
We realize, then, the divine image in ourselves through a process of laboring as Jesus labored. Again, this laboring is not the work of a warrior god, mowing down sin and death with a submachine gun or beating them into submission with a club—or even just destroying them on the basketball court. There is too much suffering in the world to quite believe in such a god. But when God labors like a mother to deliver us, we learn about a new kind of strength, one closely bound up with vulnerability. In Lauren Winner’s words: “The image of God as a laboring woman puts together strength and vulnerability in a way that tells us something about God and how God works. The point is not just that God is vulnerable, although that itself is startling. The point is that in the struggles of labor, we can learn what strength is. If our picture of strength is a laboring woman, then strength is not about refusing to cry or denying pain. Strength is not about being in charge, or being independent, or being dignified. If our picture of strength is a laboring woman, strength entails entrusting yourself (to medicine, or to the wisdom of your own body, or to the guidance of someone who is there in the room with you). Strength even entails giving yourself over to the possibility of death.” Laboring as God labors, that is, can show us the path from “Let this cup pass from me” to “Not my will, but yours be done,” by showing us that we do in fact have the strength to deliver our wills to God.
As Paul writes in Romans 8, a chapter at the very heart of his writings, we await our discovery of this strength with all creation, as we groan together like laboring women:
[T]he creation waits with eager longing for the revealing of the children of God; for the creation was subjected to futility, not of its own will but by the will of the one who subjected it, in hope that the creation itself will be set free from its bondage to decay and will obtain the freedom of the glory of the children of God. We know that the whole creation has been groaning in labour pains until now; and not only the creation, but we ourselves, who have the first fruits of the Spirit, groan inwardly while we wait for adoption, the redemption of our bodies.
We, too, are subjected to futility, unable to vanquish our challenges like conquering heroes, and we groan for the time when we will be set free. The thing that will deliver us is love—love of ourselves, love of our neighbor, and love of God—but we strain to bring it forth, and our attempts to love are all in bondage to decay. In Gethsemane and through the scandal of the cross, Jesus labored to bring forth the children of God. Two thousand years later, we are still in utero, and yet, though Jesus remains an expectant mother, his love for us who in some sense have yet to be born led him on through the darkest hour of his labor, when he didn’t want to go on. Because his love led him on to the moment when he could say “It is finished,” and then to the moment when he birthed us all into immortality by emerging from the tomb, he can be the perfect midwife of the loves we labor to bring forth.
The vehicle for these loves is the church, which Paul calls the body of Christ. The Spirit, as Paul writes in Romans, works so that we may be “conformed to the image of [God’s] Son.” The Son’s image, as the passages from Isaiah have shown us, contains the female as well as the male. Paul writes elsewhere that “in Christ Jesus”—which is to say, in the church—“there is no longer male and female.” This is not to say that masculinity and femininity disappear in the church, but that in prayer women and men alike must sometimes knock like the Bridegroom on the chamber door, at other times must wait like a bride for Christ the Bridegroom, and at other times still must groan like laboring mothers. “It is as if,” Sarah Coakley says, “prayer in the Spirit both takes up and transforms the usual societal implications of gender, and renders them both labile [that is to say, subject to change] and cosmic.” In this way, prayer is what makes it possible for us to love our neighbors as ourselves, because in its essence prayer involves opening ourselves up to experience someone else—experiences that take different gendered forms at different times. The body of Christ must be female as well as male, and we cannot afford to say “I have no need of you” to any of its members; instead, we must receive all of them in charity, just as we hope for Jesus to receive us to his breast when his labor pangs are over. Prayer in the Spirit is how we learn to do that.
So far I’ve looked at the question of what it means for women to be created in the image of God by exploring several scriptures that invite us to think about God as a mother, but these images alone are not enough. The Doctrine and Covenants tells us that Jesus descended below all things. ALL things. Can we imagine him as an infertile woman, wanting children but unable to have them? Can we imagine him as a single woman in a Church that tends to define her by marital status, trying to forge a meaningful life for herself? Can we imagine him as a rape victim? What about a divorcée, broken free from a bad relationship? Or a single mom, juggling work, childcare, and school? A refugee woman, widowed by war? Women’s experiences are incredibly diverse: there is no one narrative that fits every woman’s life. Only when we can see the face of God in each of those stories will we begin to know what it means to love our neighbor—because only then will we also be able to see God in our own stories. Only then will we begin to know what it means to love God. The children of God have not yet been revealed: all of creation groans, and God groans with it. That we may heed their call is my prayer, in the name of Jesus Christ, our perfect Mother, Amen.
 2 Cor. 4:18 (NRSV).
 Gen. 1:27 (NRSV).
 Matt. 22:37-39 (NRSV).
 3 Nephi 23:1.
 Isaiah 49:14-15 (NRSV).
 Angela Garbes, “The More I Learn about Breast Milk, The More Amazed I Am,” The Stranger, 26 August 2015. http://www.thestranger.com/features/feature/2015/08/26/22755273/the-more-i-learn-about-breast-milk-the-more-amazed-i-am
 Denise N. Baker, ed., The Showings of Julian of Norwich (New York: Norton, 2005), 94. I have modernized spelling.
 Sarah Coakley, God, Sexuality, and the Self: An Essay ‘On the Trinity’ (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2013), 113.
 Isaiah 42:14 (NRSV).
 Lauren Winner, Wearing God: Clothing, Laughter, Fire, and Other Overlooked Ways of Meeting God (New York: HarperOne, 2015), 147-48.
 Romans 8:26 (NRSV).
 Psalm 71:6 (NRSV).
 Winner, 151-52.
 Romans 8:18-23 (NRSV).
 Romans 8:29 (NRSV).
 Coakley, 115.
 1 Corinthians 12:21 (NRSV).
 D&C 122:8.