From the Publisher: The Christmas God Was Mother

Christmas is the special day every year in which the Catholic Church celebrates the mystery that symbolically excludes women from the priesthood. Saints and doctors of the Church women have been and are. They have proven often to be the most faithful of all Christians, the dearest to God as Mary is first among all. But priests in the Roman Catholic rite, no.

I do not mean by this that the discipline and tradition of only male priests might never change but, rather, that if such a change were to occur, it would echo most dissonantly against the theological, ontological, and, yes, biological significance of Christmas. No one can say that sex is irrelevant to Christmas. Christmas is all about sex: about the separate roles of male and female in conception, in childbirth, and in the sexual identity of conception’s offspring. The feast of Christmas is simply unimaginable without two prior sex-based choices by the Creator.

God, being almighty, might have decided to play two quite different sexual roles in the Christmas story than the current story reveals. First, God might have decided to play the role of mother of the Messiah. Second, God might have decided that the Messiah should appear among humankind as a daughter.

In that case, the symbolic resonance of the Christian creed would be quite different from what it now is. When Christians say “Our father,” they would be thinking of “Holy Joseph, father of God, pray for us sinners now and at the hour of our death.” And the prayer the Messiah taught them to pray would be to “Our mother, who art in heaven….”

Furthermore, on the lips of a female Messiah, the eight beatitudes would not have seemed so shocking. They would have sounded like a woman’s classic plea to a warrior: that he cease being so macho, aggressive, and warlike. A female Messiah would more clearly have symbolized the sensitive side of Christianity. What Nietzsche called the feminization of the warrior in the Christian message—the ideal of the gentleman—might never have occurred.

If Christmas had had as its central players God the Mother and God the Daughter, the symbolic structure of the Christmas story would have been even more mysterious than at present. God the Mother might have somehow accepted the seed of Joseph. Yet for a God-Mother, nine months of pregnancy would have been both unnecessary and symbolically dissonant. The Messiah-Daughter might simply have appeared, like Venus from the sea. The story of the birth in the cave would also have been unnecessary, since the presence of an earthly mother would have seemed redundant and quite misleading. A Messiah-Daughter might just as well have appeared as an adult, since if this Messiah did not undergo nine months of pregnancy in the womb of an earthly mother, and if being suckled at the breast of an earthly woman would interfere with the truth of God as Mother, what would be the point of a prolonged infancy and childhood?

If God had chosen to play the role of Mother in the Christmas story, in brief, the true and deeply felt humanity of the Messiah would have been compromised. No pregnancy, no kicking in the womb, no childbirth in the stable, no suckling at the mother’s breast, no “hidden” and prolonged years of childhood at the mother’s knee. The Christmas story would have been far different.

Moreover, a naked female Messiah on the cross, who at the Last Supper had asked her apostles to “Eat my body” and to “Drink my blood,” would have given rise to a wholly different sort of Christian culture than the one we have.

Sex is not a mere “accident” of human reality. Sex is a constitutive characteristic of the “substance” of, each human person. Biologically, neurologically, hormonally, emotionally, intellectually, psychologically, artistically, and ontologically, “female” cannot simply be substituted for “male” without a massive alteration of reality. To deny the substantial differences between God’s being embodied in the Christmas story as female, on the one hand, or as male, on the other, may be regarded as the essence of the gnostic temptation. Gnosticism consists in the exaltation of pure spirit (gnosis) and the devaluation of carnal embodiment (darkness, imprisonment).

Christmas is a scandal to the gnostics. From the first lines of Genesis onwards: “Male and female He made them,” being male and being female lies at the heart of Jewish and Christian identity.

Almighty God might have chosen to be represented in the Christmas story as “God the Mother” and “God the Daughter.” But in the actual Christmas story, Almighty God made the opposite sexual choices. It is as though the Creator foresaw from the very first moments of creation that every living thing would exhibit a sexual constitution, and image thereby the inner life of God. And that it would be easier for humans, created as we are, to understand the inner life of God from the Christmas story as it is, rather than from an alternative plot in which God is represented as Mother and Daughter.

If in the Christmas story, Almighty God had not taken the laws of sexual imagination seriously, then God would not have taken flesh seriously. In that case, the incarnation would have been a fraud. If God had played Mother, the true humanity of the Christ would always have been suspect. If God had played Daughter, a female Christ would have brought no “transvaluation of values,” neither for the macho culture of males nor for the self-consciously more vulnerable culture of females. Christ as God the Daughter would have confirmed as built into the nature of things the pre-Christian understanding of masculinity and femininity. Christ as God the Son contradicted and enlarged later understandings of both.

The Christmas story is a work of genius. To conform the male priesthood to that story’s sense of sexual and ontological reality is to play it symbolically just as it is. The sexual roles chosen by God in that story would make female priests seem dissonant in that artistic whole.

Perhaps, gentle reader, you will regard these reflections as far too playful. “God,” Albert Einstein said, “does not throw dice.” There must be sexual meaning in the Christmas story as it is.

As Mary may have said to Joseph, “It’s a boy!”

Michael Novak

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Michael Novak held for many years the George Frederick Jewett Chair in Religion and Public Policy at the American Enterprise Institute and is now a trustee and visiting professor at Ave Maria University. He is a philosopher, theologian, and author, as well as the 1994 recipient of the Templeton Prize for Progress in Religion. He has been an emissary to the United Nations Human Rights Commission and to the Conference on Security and Cooperation in Europe. He has written over twenty-seven books on the philosophy and theology of culture, especially the essential elements of a free society. He also founded Crisis Magazine with Ralph McInerny in 1982.

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