Why Does St. Faustina Call Jesus, 'My Mother?'

A reader named Ashley wrote to me asking a very important question. It regards one of the "hot topics" in Catholic Theology today:

"Why does St. Faustina say to Jesus, 'You are my Mother' [Diary, entries 239, 242, 249, 264, 505 cf. entries 230 and 298]? Is God really our Mother in Heaven, and should we pray to Him (Her?) in that way? Or was St. Faustina merely using a metaphor, a poetic comparison which adds to or elaborates the image of Jesus we have in a beautiful way: comparing Him with a Mother who shows goodness and tenderness for her children?"

Well done, Ashley! You have not only asked a good question, but in part, answered it at the same time! Yes, I think you are right: St. Faustina was using the metaphor of motherhood to emphasize for us the feminine perfections of compassion and tenderness that we find in the Heart of Jesus. She was not giving us a new title of address for God!

As this is such a difficult theological matter, rather than discussing it entirely in my own words, I will lean heavily upon some reflections on this subject by two Catholic apologists: Peter Kreeft and Ron Tacelli, from their book Pocket Handbook of Christian Apologetics (InterVarsity Press, 2003).

In a nutshell, one can legitimately ascribe "feminine" attributes to God (attributes such as nurturing compassion and responsiveness) as well as "masculine" attributes (such as initiative and rational detachment), because God's nature manifests all perfections to an infinite degree. He is the source and exemplar of them all (see the Catechism, entry 370). Thus, Jesus may be said to be "like a mother" in certain respects. At one point in the gospels He even compares Himself to a mother hen, longing to gather His chicks, the people of Jerusalem, under His compassionate wings (Mt 24:37).

But this does not mean that we are to address Him in prayer as "O Compassionate Mother Hen!"

Kreeft and Tacelli tackle this issue in depth on p. 34-35 of their book:

One of the hottest controversies today about God concerns the traditional use of the masculine pronoun He. Nearly all Christians admit that (1) God is not literally a male, since He has no biological body, and (2) women are not inferior to men. Those are red herrings.

There are, however, two reasons for defending the exclusive use of the masculine pronouns and imagery for God. One issue is whether we have authority to change the names of God used by Christ, the Bible, and the Church. The traditional defense of masculine imagery for God rests on the premise that the Bible is divine revelation, not culturally relative, negotiable and changeable. As C.S. Lewis put it, "Christians believe that God himself has told us how to speak of him."

Kreeft equates Biblical authority with that of Jesus Christ here. Personally, I think the stronger argument would be that Jesus Himself, Emmanuel, God-with-us, taught us to call God "Abba," Father. Perhaps some things in the Bible are, in some ways, "culturally relative," but surely not the teachings of the Son of God incarnate!

Some feminist theologians have argued that because Jesus was fully human, the human mind of Jesus must have been subject to the distortions and half-truths of the patriarchal culture in which He lived, and so He was bound to speak in somewhat culturally relative, changeable ways about God. For example, addressing God in prayer as Father, but never as Mother.

We can see now that the underlying truth Jesus was trying to express was only that God is "personal," caring, not that God is "Father." This feminist view implies, of course, that we can strip away cultural half-truths from the teachings of Jesus Himself - since He must have been "infected" by them, and we are so much wiser than Him today! Needless to say, such a view clearly contradicts the doctrine of the Incarnation: that Jesus was the divine Son of God, dwelling among us as a human being - He is fully human, but not merely human.

The implications of this doctrine for our entire trust in the teachings of Jesus should not be underestimated. Once again, C.S. Lewis said it best: "If we once accept the doctrine of the Incarnation, we must surely be very cautious in suggesting that any circumstance in the culture of first-century Palestine was a hampering or distorting influence upon His teaching. Do we suppose that the scene of God's earthly life was selected at random? - that some other scene would have served better?" (That passage was taken from Lewis's essay, "The World's Last Night.")

Let's go back to Kreeft and Tacelli now...

The other reason for calling God "He" is historical. Except for Judaism, all other known ancient religions had goddesses as well as gods. The Jewish revelation was distinctive in its exclusively masculine pronoun because it was distinctive in its theology of divine transcendence. ... God creates the universe from without, and impregnates our souls with grace or supernatural life from without. ... The masculine pronoun safeguards (1) the transcendence of God against the illusion that nature is born from God as a mother rather than created, and (2) the grace of God against the illusion that we can somehow save ourselves - two illusions ubiquitous and inevitable in the history of religion.

Perhaps now we can see one reason why it was no accident that God chose to become incarnate, to come to earth as a fully human being, among the one race of people that safeguarded these important truths in the very way they addressed God in prayer and worship. (Those truths being God's transcendence and grace.)

Indeed, God became incarnate among His chosen people, the people of Israel, whose religious life and speech He Himself had been fashioning and preparing for many centuries. This preparation, of course, was for the coming of His divine Son in the flesh.

Jesus, the divine Son incarnate, did in fact challenge and critique some aspects of His ancient Jewish culture - especially their ethnic and Pharisaic pride. But with regard to the naming of God, while He deepened Jewish tradition (addressing God not merely as "Lord," but more intimately as "Abba, Father"), Jesus never contradicted the Jewish tradition of referring to God in prayer and worship as "He."

If we believe that He really is the divine Son of God, then we are duty bound to follow Him, and to understand that our religious and spiritual life will have a very different - and distorted - nature, if we fail to trust in Him on this matter.

Robert Stackpole, STD, is director of the John Paul II Institute of Divine Mercy. Got a question? E-mail him at questions@thedivinemercy.org.

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