father, mother, and the tao of Jesus

(fr Cyprian, Wed. of the 4th Week of Lent)

I know it may sound strange, but something about the combination of these two readings reminded me of the Tao te Ching, that great ancient book of Chinese philosophy, chapter 52. Here’s one translation of it: “The origin and mother of everything in the world is Tao…” Please keep in mind that I have heard some very convincing arguments that the Chinese concept of the Tao and the Greek concept of the Word or logos are pretty much identical, to the extent that the prologue of the Gospel of John is translated, In the beginning was the Tao…

The origin and mother of everything in the world is Tao. Know the mother and you can know the children. Having known the children, return to their source and hold on to her. Abiding by the mother, you are free from danger, even when your body dies.

It is not unusual, of course, for us to hear gospel stories in which Jesus speaks about his relationship with the Father, his abba, and today’s long passage from John 5 is a particularly concise statement about that.

The Son cannot do anything on his own but only what he sees the Father doing…

As the Father raises the dead and gives them life so the Son gives life to those whom he wills…

… as the Father has life in himself so also he gave the Son the possession of life in himself…

And especially: I do not seek my own will but the will of the one who sent me.

What is also interesting in today’s readings, though, is to have the maternal image at the end of the passage from the prophet Isaiah (Is 49:15) placed side by side with this gospel reading, and such a memorable phrase: ‘Can a mother forget the nursing infant, be without tenderness for the child of her womb? Yet even if she forget, I will never forget you.’ God is not necessarily imaged here as a mother, but instead God’s tenderness and symbiosis, you might say, are said to be even stronger, deeper, than the bond between a mother and the child in the womb. Even stronger! That’s pretty strong! Because in some way the child within the womb of the mother and the mother are not two creatures! Whatever Mommy eats, baby eats. And if mother were to die, there is little chance that baby will survive without the kind of radical intervention possible only in modern medicine. And the bond between us and the Divine is even stronger. Even now we dwell in God as if we were infants in the womb of God. I’m reminded that one of the words for “mercy” in Hebrew is rahamin, which literally means a womb. It’s a good image for Lent: we are held in the womb of God’s mercy, which is more than forgiveness; it’s intimate, infinite compassion and unity in communion. Even now we dwell in the womb of God’s mercy. Even now.

In child development we hear that one of the biggest differences in the relationship with the mother as opposed to the relationship with the father is that the infant still carries very visceral muscle memory of being inside this other creature, and there is still a unification experience even while nursing at the breast, little or no sense of differentiation between I and Thou. The father on the other hand may be the first person who is truly Other. Some will want to apply that to God, and our images of God. God as Father is Other; whereas God as Mother conveys this sense of utmost perfect intimacy union in communion. I don’t think we need to choose between the two. As I heard the late great Jesuit theologian Avery Dulles say once, “’Father’ may only be a metaphor, but it’s an inspired metaphor.” So we don’t want to lose that. But I think we can safely add on to that this image from Isaiah, that our relationship with God is even more intimate and unitive than the relationship of a fetus in the womb, totally symbiotic, two and yet not-two at the same time. And from what I read about Jesus’ relationship with God, his abba, it was something more like that, no matter what metaphor he used––‘The Father and I are one.’ Two and yet not-two. How does Paul say it? In him we live and move and have our being. We speak so much about God-within-us; I’m not sure we speak often enough about us within God.

A side note: When I teach about Abhishiktananda and Bede, this is one of the differences I point out. Whereas Abhishiktananda was really taken by the idea of union with God by identity with God (union-by-identity), a la advaita­—non-duality of Hindu Vedanta, and he points to this phrase: ‘The Father and I are one.’ Whereas Bede uses the same phrase to point out instead union-by-communion, “You see: he never says, ‘I am the Father’” Therein lies the great mystery, two and yet not-two.

Let me recapitulate the Tao te Ching in this light. The Tao says, “Know the mother and you can know the children.” Jesus says, ‘If you’ve seen me you’ve seen the Father.’ The Tao says, “Having known the children, return to their source and hold on to her.” Jesus says, ‘I have come not to do my own will but the will of the one who sent me.’ So having known Jesus, we return to his God and our God, as he says in the garden. The Tao says, “Abiding by the mother, you are free from danger, even when your body dies.” And Jesus gives us his Easter message: ‘…whoever hears my word and believes in the one who sent me… has passed from death to life.’

Even now.

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