The Mother of All the Living

by the Rev. Lee Woofenden
Mother's Day
Bridgewater, Massachusetts. May 10, 1998

Readings

Genesis 1:26-28; 2:18-23; 3:20 Eve the mother of all the living

Then God said, "Let us make humankind in our image, according to our likeness; and let them have dominion over the fish of the sea, and over the birds of the air, and over the cattle, and over all the wild animals of the earth, and over every creeping thing that creeps upon the earth.

So God created humankind in his image. In the image of God he created him; male and female he created them. God blessed them and said to them, "Be fruitful and multiply, and fill the earth and subdue it; and have dominion over the fish of the sea and over the birds of the air and over every living thing that moves upon the earth. . . .

Then the Lord God said, "It is not good that the man should be alone; I will make him a helper as his partner." So out of the ground the Lord God formed every animal of the field and every bird of the air, and brought them to the man to see what he would call them; and whatever the man called every living creature, that was its name. the man gave names to all cattle, and to the birds of the air, and to every animal of the field; but for the man there was not found a helper as his partner. So the Lord God caused a deep sleep to fall upon the man, and he slept; then he took one of his ribs and closed up its place with flesh. And the rib that the Lord God had taken from the man he made into a woman, and brought her to the man.

Then the man said, "This at last is bone of my bones and flesh of my flesh; she shall be called "woman," for she was taken out of man. . . .

The man named his wife Eve, because she was the mother of all the living.

John 1:1-13 Born of God

In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. He was in the beginning with God. All things were made through him, and without him not one thing was made. In him was life, and the life was the light of all people. The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness has not overcome it.

There was a man sent from God, whose name was John. He came as a witness to testify to the light, so that all might believe through him. He himself was not the light, but he came to testify to the light. The true light, which enlightens everyone, was coming into the world.

He was in the world, and the world came into being through him; yet the world did not know him. He came to what was his own, and his own people did not accept him. But to all who received him, who believed in his name, he gave power to become children of God, who were born, not of blood or of the will of the flesh or of the will of man, but of God.

Doctrine of the Sacred Scripture #67 Father and mother

"Honor your father and your mother." People think of "father and mother" as their father and mother on earth, and all who serve as parent figures; they understand honoring father and mother to mean respecting and obeying them.

But spiritual angels think of the Lord as their father and the church as their mother, and they understand honoring them to mean loving them.

And heavenly angels think of the Lord's divine love as their father, and the Lord's divine wisdom as their mother, and they understand honoring them to mean doing good things from the Lord.


Sermon

The man named his wife Eve, because she was the mother of all the living. (Genesis 3:20)

I am struck by that phrase, "The mother of all the living." Here in the church on Mother's Day we do have mothers with two, three, and more children; we have grandmothers who can see further generations coming along. But "the mother of all the living!" If we take this Bible story literally (which, of course, we don't), there can only be one mother of all living. She is the first woman created by God, and as the story goes, she and her husband are the only people created directly by God. All the rest are created through the reproductive ability with which God created those first two. So Eve then becomes the mother of all the people on earth, in all their succeeding generations, right up to the billions who are on earth today.

Of course, scientists would never accept such a proposition. Or would they? Not long ago, a scientific theory was floated, quite seriously, that we all could be traced genetically back to one woman who lived in ancient prehistoric times, and who, of course, was immediately nicknamed "Eve." Of course, the theory does not postulate this "Eve" as having been a special creation of God. Neither does it consider her to be the only early human who existed at that time. Rather, as I understand it, it states that the progeny of this particular woman were more biologically successful than other early humans, and eventually grew stronger than the others so that the species was continued through her children. Children of other mothers, of course, would have married into this growing clan, so that there were other foremothers as well. But this particular woman would be the ancestor of all. A fascinating theory, and one that gives the possibility that there is a literal "mother of all the living," even if it did not happen literally the way the Bible describes it. Religion and science sometimes do make strange bedfellows.

However, as fascinating as that theory may be, it only scratches the literal surface of the story of this "mother of all the living." I am fully convinced that the Lord has no need to give us a textbook of biology or cosmology; we can figure those things out for ourselves. From a Swedenborgian perspective, arguments about whether the world was literally created in six days, and whether there were two literal figures named Adam and Eve, are not worth the paper they are written on, or the energy it takes to put these arguments together. For there is something much more precious in these stories, and that is the story of our spiritual development--the story of our relationship with God.

Even the Bible story itself hints that the story of Adam and Eve is not about two individual human beings. The word usually translated "Adam" means "humankind," and it is often referred to as plural: as people, not a single person. The text itself begs us to think of this narrative as the symbolic story of an early race of human beings, and their relationship with God, who created them. That relationship is stated very compactly in Genesis 1:26, 27:

Then God said, "Let us make humankind in our image, according to our likeness. . . . So God created humankind in his image. In the image of God he created him; male and female he created them.

First, of course, this passage is saying that humankind was created by God. We have a relationship with God as created beings with our creator.

But we are not simply separate and unrelated creations. We are created in the image and likeness of God. In a superficial sense, we are created to look like God. But the image and likeness of God goes much deeper than our physical form. Being created in the image and likeness of God means that we are created with a mind and a heart--with the ability to understand and love, and to act from our understanding and love. This is precisely how God created the universe; out of love, and through wisdom, God acted to create the universe. The love in God was a love for other beings that God created. The wisdom, at the most practical level, was the "know-how," to use a colloquial term; it was the knowledge of how to go about creating a universe with humans in it. And when these two got together, they resulted in the ultimate act of creation.

There is one more message about the relationship between us and God in these two brief verses. We are not simply created all the same in the image of God. We are created male and female in the image of God. For those who have trouble with the idea that God is both male and female, there is no need to look further than this passage in the very first chapter of the Bible to find that, indeed, God has both male and female aspects. For we could not be created male and female in the image of God if both were not in God in the first place.

This does not necessarily mean that those of us who grew up with male images of God have to toss those images out the window and put a picture of a female and male God before our mind's eye when we pray. Personally, my primary image and inner experience of God from childhood has been of a male being; so far the female aspect of God has not come alive for me in a visual way. But it does mean that it is a good idea for us to be open to the possibility that our own limited and human view of God may leave vast areas and aspects of God uncharted and not experienced by us personally. It requires that we keep our minds open about just who God is, and not to reject others' conception of God if theirs may be primarily female, or encompass both male and female, both father and mother.

And we need not make a sudden jump to a father-mother God, for both the Bible and Swedenborg give us an intermediate step in our conception of father and mother. This is stated most clearly in the passage we read from Doctrine of the Sacred Scripture #67. As Swedenborg explains it, our first conception of father and mother is, simply, of our earthly father or mother--or whoever it was who raised us, if it was not our biological father and mother. Our father and mother give us a pattern or role model that we hold at a very deep level of our being, and that shapes all our later conceptions of the higher levels of father and mother. This is one of the awesome tasks that both mothers and fathers face: that of being the primary people that will shape the deepest attitudes of our children toward the world in general, and toward God and the church in particular.

For the next level of mother and father--the one that is most commonly mentioned in Swedenborgian circles--is that of the Lord as our father and the church as our mother. In our reading from Doctrine of the Sacred Scripture, Swedenborg explains that this is the conception of father and mother that spiritual, or thinking- and intellect- centered angels, hold to. This, of course, also comes from the Bible, where the church is often symbolized as a woman, and as the bride and wife of God. In Catholicism, this relationship is brought to a very literal level: priests, monks, and nuns are considered to be married to Christ, and therefore, the belief goes, it would be improper, even adulterous, for them to take a human spouse in addition to their divine Spouse. Other Christians do not take this quite so literally. The main point here is that the idea of the Lord as father and the church as mother is not unique to Swedenborgians, but is shared by many Christians due to its source in the Bible.

What has been nowhere near as common in Christianity is the view of mother and father that Swedenborg says is held by the heavenly, or heart-centered angels. For these angels, both mother and father are in the Lord alone. And in a reversal of the usual assignment of love to women and understanding to men, they think of the divine love as their father, and the divine wisdom as their mother. For these angels, the words of John in the opening chapter of his Gospel make perfect sense: we are not born of blood, or of the will of flesh, or of the will of man, but of God, whose love is our spiritual father and whose wisdom is our spiritual mother.

Let's connect this all back to our theme, "the mother of all the living." At the literal level, we may or may not have some common biological mother whose genes we all carry. That is a fascinating, but spiritually a largely irrelevant, issue. However, moving to the next level--the spiritual--we begin to see deeper meaning in the idea of Eve as the mother of all the living. For if, in these early mythological, symbolic stories, the Bible is really talking about our spiritual development as a race, then Adam and Eve represent the development of our first spiritual orientation; they represent our very earliest religious era. In Arcana Coelestia #287, Swedenborg explains the meaning of our text:

In this passage, "the man" means a man of the very earliest religious era, or a heavenly person. "Wife" and "the mother of all the living" mean our religion; it is called "mother" because it was the very first religion, and "living" because of its faith in the Lord, who is life itself.

This brings us to a deeper level of meaning for "the mother of all the living." Spiritually, those who are "living" are those who have faith in the Lord. Without faith in the Lord, any spiritual life we may think we have is dead, because we are cut off from the source of all life and all faith. Our faith in God is what makes us come alive spiritually.

And where do we find that faith? We find it in our religion--in our church. Religion and churches are the mother of all who are spiritually living, because it is from the church and from our religion that we learn what it means to have faith in God, and it is the church that nurtures that faith in our minds and hearts into a living, moving force. It is a force that, if we open ourselves to it and respond to it, gradually transforms our entire lives so that we can truly be in the image and likeness of God. We are in the image and likeness of God when, like God, we love each other even more than we love ourselves, and from that love we continually do our best to understand each others feelings, thoughts, and needs, and then, from our love for them and through our understanding of them, we serve their needs in a way that gives them happiness.

So in a spiritual sense, religion of all kind is the mother of all the living, since it is from our religion that we are conceived as spiritual beings, and it is our religion and our church that raise us to spiritual maturity.

And yet, there can be only one final source of all that is in the universe and all that is in us. There can be only one true father and one true mother of all the living. That father and that mother are one and the same: they are God. All of our other conceptions of mother and father melt into our single divine Parent when, like the highest, or heavenly, angels, our lives become focused directly on God. These heavenly angels do continue to attend Sabbath services and have what we might call a church or religion; yet they are only a means to keep them pointed toward the real Source and Creator of all.

So as we think of mothers and of Mother's Day, we can continually move upwards in our conception of just who our mother is. Those of us who had good and loving earthly mothers can always hold that mother with affection in our hearts. And as we move into adulthood, there is another mother that we can turn to for the spiritual nurturing and support we need to continue growing--growing to emotional and spiritual maturity. The church can continue where our physical mother left off.

And finally as we approach spiritual maturity, we will find that, just as a good mother will lead us to the church as the source of deeper care and nourishment in our lives, the church exists to lead us to a still higher mother and father. For we all share a common divine Parent, encompassing both the qualities of father and the qualities of mother. God is the mother and father of all the living, because only from God can we truly live to the fullest of our human potential for mutual love, understanding, and service. Amen.


Music: On A Distant Shore
1999 Bruce DeBoer