By Father Michael Holleran
One of the most popular ways of referring to our planet is “Mother Earth”. There is certainly nothing wrong with this from a Christian standpoint, since it is obviously true. We all come from her womb, receive constant nourishment from her, and return our elements to her at death as a living matrix of recycling energy. Pope Francis does not hesitate to evoke “Mother Nature” in his recent encyclical (#92).
There are other evocative images, however, of a feminine stamp that are associated with the natural world in the Christian tradition. To begin with, theology reminds us that the Creator, while aptly invoked as Father, is, in fact, beyond gender, and is likewise a Mother (Cf. Sr. Elizabeth Johnson, “She Who Is”). In more traditional, biblical language, we have the cosmic figure of Wisdom, feminine in Hebrew (Chokhmah), Greek (Sophia) and Latin, famously presented in Proverbs (8: 22-31). She is God’s companion at Creation, the “first of his works”, “playing” with abandon upon the earth, and “delighting to be with the children of men”. Christian tradition identified this Wisdom with Mary, the Mother of Jesus, since it was feminine, and seemed, at first glance, to be created. Mary thus rightly achieved a cosmic status, identified with the Eternal Feminine, even and precisely while remaining human. Nonetheless, Christ Himself is the Wisdom of God (1 Cor. 1:24), “the firstborn of all Creation” (Col. 1:15), through whom all things were made (Jn. 1:3). As the second Adam, he contains the eternal feminine in himself, the Church born from his side on the Cross. In turn, Mary is the Mother and Image of the Church, the Bride and Body of Christ, which “fills the universe in all its parts” (Eph.1:22). These dizzying correspondences open an abyss of untold mystical depth. In a real organic sense, the whole Universe is the Body of Christ, and, since we are members of that Body, the Universe is our body, too! In fact, like a mother, all creation is groaning in labor pains, awaiting the full redemption of the children of God (Rom. 8:22). Thus, to wound the earth is to wound, not only our mother, but the Body and Bride of Christ! It is to wound our own bodies!
Even the presentation of this Mother Earth as a Goddess, Gaia or otherwise, has vivid and beautiful resonances in our mainstream Western traditions. Our world is a vibrant, breathing organism, as even Plato recognized: a whole net of relationships, as modern physics affirms, and ecology recognizes. Furthermore, in early Christian tradition, the planets have angels associated with them, as do even the elemental forces on earth, such as those in charge of winds or fire in the Book of Revelation (7:1; 17:18). In addition, the alchemical tradition, very well-known in its time, assigned minor spirits to the elements of earth, air, water and fire. All of this subterranean tradition underscores the numinous and sacred quality of the natural world.
Still, Scripture scholars have long pointed out that one of the goals of the often ill-used first chapters of Genesis was to knock the stars and animals off their divine pedestal, to proclaim the unique Creator God. In this perspective, Mother Earth is, above all, a fellow creature, our Sister. Here, the elements likewise follow their linguistic gender (thus, feminine for the earth). Accordingly, St. Francis himself, in his famous Canticle of the Creatures, the inspiration for the recent encyclical of Pope Francis, refers to “Our Sister, Mother Earth”! Even Mary, as the same Sr. Elizabeth Johnson reminds us, in another of her book titles, is not only our mother, but “Always Our Sister”!
I suggest that these are a wonderful ways to incite our planetary affection and responsibility. They penetrate to the mystical Heart of our religious traditions. For Christians, who would not wish to respect the Body of Christ, in the mountains and rivers, as well as in the Eucharist? And who, in whatever culture, would not wish to protect, defend, care for and love, their sister, their mother, their own bodies? And if we truly esteem them and treat them as such, how can the planet fail to flourish?