Recently in a Bible study I attend, we had some time to express what we are thankful for, in the spirit of Thanksgiving. As I thought about the beautiful ways God has worked in my life this semester, I kept coming back to one theme: the experience of being a woman. It sounds cheesy to say that I am thankful for sisterhood, or something like that, but really I am. This semester has been one in which I have been blessed in incredible ways by the many strong, intelligent, thoughtful, and caring women in my life. Being in all-women spaces has at times reminded me of the struggles we still face in the world, but more than that it has reminded me of the gift it is to be a woman and to know God in that unique context.
This month, I had the opportunity to be in The Good Body, a play by Eve Ensler about women’s journeys with their bodies, as a part of the BC Women’s Center Love Your Body Week. I’m not an actress by any means, but I decided to audition for the play in order to push myself out of my comfort zone and publicly affirm the value of positive body image. At Boston College, I’ve joined the hordes of women who fall prey to the harmful ideas that our bodies need to look a certain way in order to be worthy of love. As part of The Good Body cast, I had the opportunity to proclaim that women’s bodies are amazing because they “do our work,” and that they are beautiful just as they are. Though The Good Body doesn’t have an explicitly spiritual message, the play affirms one of my favorite lines from the Psalms: “For it was you who formed my inward parts; you knit me together in my mother’s womb. I praise you, for I am fearfully and wonderfully made” (Psalm 139:13-14).
Not only does this line from the Psalmist contribute to a positive theology of embodiment, but it also portrays God as working through a woman’s body. This imagery fits within a larger, often neglected, biblical tradition of female symbols for God. This semester in a seminar with Sr. Mary Ann Hinsdale, I.H.M., we have studied the work of feminist theologian Elizabeth Johnson, C.S.J. Johnson’s work often refers to Sophia from the Wisdom literature, who is Herself a symbol for God. Furthermore, Johnson highlights maternal imagery used to describe God as carrying, delivering, and nursing children (John 3:5, Isaiah 42:14, Isaiah 49:15). Johnson also makes the connection between various feminine symbols for God, and the traits they point to: compassion, desire for justice, loving care, and solidarity with the suffering. In recovering female symbols for God and their meaning, Johnson offers fresh inspiration to Christian women today. These images empower us to see our bodies as uniquely capable of imaging a maternal God, and to connect our lives to the broader work of God’s love that does justice.
Perhaps the greatest feminine symbol for God, though, can be seen in the lives of all of the women who are critical to the makeup of the symbolic Body of Christ. Amongst those mentioned in the Bible are Tamar, Rahab, Ruth and Bathsheba, the brave ancestors of Christ; prophets such as Hannah, Deborah, and Elizabeth; friends of Christ such as Mary Magdalene, and Mary of Bethany; and of course Mary the Theotokos, who brought Christ into the world. In the centuries of Church history after Jesus’ death, countless more women have imaged God to the world as part of the communion of saints.
In Friends of God and Prophets, Johnson talks about the practice of memory as a way of connecting to those in the “great cloud of witnesses” (Heb. 12:1), especially those who have been largely forgotten. I too, am guilty of forgetting about the presence of women throughout history who have loved, created, and formed our world, because men have for so long dominated the Church, the academy, and government. However, we do not have to continue to let women be forgotten. We can lift up women who have gone before us, and those who live among us as “friends of God and prophets” (Wisdom 7:27). We can affirm the Holy Spirit working through our sisters, and acknowledge that they are truly created in the image of God.
In my own life, I’ve seen my grandmother as a saint in how she serves her community and always chooses to see the best in those around her. I’ve seen my mother as a saint in her work as an administrator at a hospice. I’ve seen my female theology professors as saints in their work to expose unjust structures of oppression, and give voice to marginalized female, black, and LGBTQ Christians. I’ve seen my friends as saints in the ways they love one another selflessly and wrestle with how to bring justice to our world after graduation.
This Thanksgiving season, I hope that in giving thanks for the women in my life who have pointed me toward God, I can also cement their memories in my heart. I am incredibly grateful for the ways in which God has shaped me through the compassionate, fierce, wise, warm, and caring love of these women. In witnessing their lives, I have caught a glimpse of the Holy Spirit.