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On God’s Mother – Lucy Peppiatt

Lucy Peppiatt - On God's Mother

*This is an updated re-post from December 2015*

When one of my boys was little he announced, ‘I know why God was mean in the Old Testament and nice in the New Testament.’ ‘Why’s that?’ I asked. ‘Because in the Old Testament, he didn’t have a mummy.’ Interesting thought…

Putting aside the fact that he was highlighting the problematic OT/NT distinctions, and the fact that it sounds funny to put it like that, I liked his expression—God had a mummy. I’m sad that I come from a Christian tradition where Mary mostly gets sidelined. The way that it’s always framed is in relation to a fear of compromising a strictly christological focus. I’m not entirely convinced it’s just that. 

I do know that I’m grateful to have studied theology to find wider and richer traditions, I’m grateful that my mother, who was brought up by a Catholic stepmother, talked a lot about Mary, and I know that every Christmas I think of Mary in a particular way. 

I think of her as a woman who went through the process of childbirth; a process that is raw, powerful, emotional, potentially frightening, and awe-inspiring. It’s exhausting and elating at the same time – and it is kind of icky – but in a way that nobody cares, because there are much bigger things to think about. There are no squeamish women at a birth, only practical ones, and the mother’s body is the centre of everyone’s attention. 

The reality that a messy, bloody, female-centred, bodily birth is at the heart of our salvation story never ceases to amaze me. It doesn’t really surprise me either that it’s always been a problem for some people.

Maybe we don’t like to dwell on the reality of God in a womb, but maybe we should. Maybe it would change the way we see God if we did. It might even change the way we see women. And doesn’t it make you wonder whether that might have been part of the plan all along—to change the way we see God and the way we see women?

Tertullian on Mary

Tertullian, a second century African bishop writes about the Mary giving birth in his treatise, On the Flesh of Christ, and it’s so interesting to me that he isn’t at all squeamish about Mary’s body here. Admittedly, his main aim is to form an argument for the very human flesh of Christ against Marcion and others, but on his way, he makes some extraordinary claims about Mary. 

First he addresses the heretics’ charges of the uncleanness and filth of the womb (which they claim is obviously an unfitting home for God). Secondly, he addresses the perceived shame of childbirth. His view, instead, is that childbirth should be ‘honoured in consideration of that peril’, and ‘held sacred in respect of (the mystery of) nature.’ This is just the beginning.  

For Tertullian, as he elucidates, the real human existence of Jesus Christ hangs entirely on his physical, fleshly connection with Mary’s body. 

Pray, tell me, why the Spirit of God descended into a woman’s womb at all, if He did not do so for the purpose of partaking of flesh from the womb. For He could have become spiritual flesh without such a process—much more simply, indeed, without the womb than in it. He had no reason for enclosing Himself within one, if He was to bear forth nothing from it. Not without reason, however, did He descend into a womb. Therefore He received (flesh) therefrom; else, if He received nothing therefrom, His descent into it would have been without a reason, especially if He meant to become flesh of that sort which was not derived from a womb, that is to say, a spiritual one. (Chapter 19) 

Jesus is made ‘of her’, not just ‘in her’. He is made from her and not just through her. She is not only a receptacle of the Divine, she contributes from her own body. It is her blood that forms him, her food that nourishes him, her breasts that feed him. Tertullian even has a fairly lengthy explanation of the link between the physical process of pregnancy and childbirth to the production of milk. 

But if the Word was made flesh of Himself without any communication with a womb, no mother’s womb operating upon Him with its usual function and support, how could the lacteal fountain have been conveyed (from the womb) to the breasts, since (the womb) can only effect the change by actual possession of the proper substance? But it could not possibly have had blood for transformation into milk, unless it possessed the causes of blood also, that is to say, the severance (by birth) of its own flesh from the mother’s womb. (Chapter 20) 

Not squeamish at all. 

He carries on proving his point making the connection of Jesus’ birth to OT prophecies. How else would he be connected to the line of David through Mary, unless the baby was truly hers, albeit born of the Spirit? 

This physical connection to Mary is the basis of the story of salvation, the proof that our own flesh, our souls and bodies, can be redeemed, and cleansed, and resurrected—and this through a woman. The fact that she is a woman is important. Eve’s first catastrophic sin is reversed. 

Into a virgin’s soul, in like manner, must be introduced that Word of God which was to raise the fabric of life; so that what had been reduced to ruin by this sex, might by the selfsame sex be recovered to salvation. As Eve had believed the serpent, so Mary believed the angel. The delinquency which the one occasioned by believing, the other by believing effaced. (Chapter 17)

The blame-game is finished. It’s over. 

New Creation

There are three creation stories of the creation of humanity in the Bible. The first one is that male and female together are made in the image and likeness of God. The second is that a human is formed from the dust of the earth and woman is taken from man. She is flesh of his flesh. The third is that humanity is reborn through a Saviour, who is born of a woman, and He is flesh of her flesh.

When God chose to come to earth, he chose the hiddenness of a woman’s womb. When God chose to take on flesh, he chose to unite himself to a woman’s flesh.

When God chose to appear, he chose to come as a baby, entrusting himself to a woman’s body to be born. 

Mary cleaned him, changed him, cuddled him, fed him, sang to him, and whispered the story of his birth to him. This Advent we look forward to the coming of our Saviour into the darkness of the world. Let’s remember his condescension began in the hidden darkness of a womb, surrounded by Mary’s blood, preparing him for life among us.

Lucy Peppiatt WTC PrincipalDr. Lucy Peppiatt has been Principal at WTC since 2013. She teaches courses in Christian doctrine and in spiritual formation. She holds bachelor’s degrees in both English and Theology. She completed her MA in Systematic Theology at King’s College, London, and her PhD through the University of Otago, Dunedin, New Zealand. Lucy’s research interests are Christ and the Spirit, Charismatic theology, theological anthropology, discipleship, 1 Corinthians, and women in the Bible. Lucy is part of Crossnet Anglican Church in Bristol, which is led by her husband, Nick Crawley. They have four sons and four daughters-in-law.

Get her latest book here.

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Advent and the Incarnational God

Advent and the Incarnational God

The incarnation forms the climactic turning point of sacred history. The high point in the grand biblical drama of redemption involved the self-emptying descent of God in Jesus.

For many, the incarnation may seem like a 33-year anomaly in the life of God. The God who is otherwise transcendent or at least invisible became visible, imminent and incarnate for a short while. He completed the job and promptly re-ascended to the father. Phew! Otherwise, it was an unusual—though necessary—phase. We all have phases, and so did God. Now he’s over it.

But this way of conceptualising God is problematic for at least two reasons. First, the church has always maintained that once incarnate, Jesus remained forever 100% human and 100% God. He is eternally divine and human. His resurrection body was the first and only of its kind. It was a physical non-corruptible body and he’s still got it. The incarnation is a present and ongoing reality.

Second, if the incarnation is, at its heart, about God becoming human, then we can see strong lines of continuity between how God was always oriented and what God became in Christ. God had an incarnational ‘impulse’ from the beginning.

Look at the following few samples from early in the story:

Genesis 1:2 – The Spirit of God is already present in some form swooping down over the pre-creation waters.

Genesis 1:26-28 – God makes humankind in his image. Humans are manifestations of God in creation. They aren’t God, as such, but they are what God would be like if he were to enter creation. Put differently, humanity is positioned well for the incarnation to happen.

Genesis 2:1-3 – God takes part in the time continuum of history by engaging in a rhythm of work and rest.

Genesis 3:8 – God ‘walks about’ in the garden.

When we look back through these texts, we see that God always had a kind of ‘fascination’ with embodiment, with presence, and with creation. And continuing …

Genesis 18 – God appears in the form of a human, to promise a son to Sarah.

Genesis 32 – God wrestles with Jacob as a man and is overcome.

And not all precursors to the incarnation are about human embodiment. Some simply demonstrate God’s desire to be physically present in creation with humanity.

Exodus 13-14, 32-34 – God comes as a fiery pillar & glorious presence and takes up residence in Israel’s midst. He’s chosen to self-identify with a slave people.

Leviticus 26:12 – God ‘walks about’ his people in the Tabernacle, using the same phrase as God’s ‘walking about’ in the Garden in Genesis 3:8.

If we were to fill out the idea of an ‘incarnational impulse’ in God, we might say that God’s move toward creation—and even toward embodiment—is primary, and not secondary, to his creational purposes. God sought physical presence from the beginning, most significantly through the creation of humans in his image.

This is critical for capturing the full significance of the incarnation. God’s becoming human was not just salvific and redemptive—at least if we see those acts as purely fixing a problem. It was also the realisation of God’s preferred move toward creation.

While the incarnation in Christ was unique, it was also the culmination of a continual process of God drawing near to creation—and not just in response to sin! To put it more boldly, it is a logical (though not necessarily inevitable) extension of what God was doing in the Old Testament. It’s almost as if God so loved creation that he moved toward it, and not that God was so frustrated with creation that he came to fix it (and get out).

The Old Testament paves the way for the New. This paving is not simplistic, and often only seen in retrospect. While the texts communicating God’s incarnational impulse are in many cases only gestures toward THE Incarnation, they have a compounding effect as one reads the Old Testament through the lens of the incarnation. These texts build a picture that challenges any attempt to distance God from his deep and embodied involvement in creation. And they bring into clear confluence the yearning of advent (for God-with-us) and the yearning of God himself (to be God-with-us).