I am finding fatherhood to be a singularly remarkable experience.
Like many new parents, I’ve experienced the wonder at new life, the thankfulness for the blessings of God and the intense love for a child of my own making.
But one of the most remarkable parts of all of it is in witnessing the relationship of mother and baby. Never was this impressed upon me more than when I saw Alice and Emily together in the days and weeks after Alice’s birth.
From conception to birth, and from birth to the present day, Alice has relied on her mom for everything she needs. In the broad sense, all life is a gift from God. But in the narrower and even biological sense, life is a gift that a mother gives her child.
To be present at each stage along the way is to bear witness to this astounding reality. Human babies are among the most helpless of all God’s creatures, both at birth and for a long time afterward. Without the enormous investment of the mother’s love, they simply couldn’t survive.
I’m not trying to diminish my own role in Alice’s life, or any father’s role in the life of his child. But I am saying that the order of creation puts mothers in a unique place with respect to the welfare of their children. For life and for the sustenance that life requires, the mother’s role is indispensable.
Necessary to faith
This recognition can give us a key insight into our connection to the church. We too often tend to see the church in functional terms: as a voluntary association, helpful to the Christian life in a variety of practical and spiritual ways but not absolutely necessary to our faith.
But the functional view of the church is a deep error, best seen when we look at how the church is understood as our mother in Scripture and tradition. In fact, the motherhood of the church is one of the most needed Christian teachings we should seek to better understand in the present.
The New Testament sees the church as the “New Jerusalem” that God is establishing to serve as the home for all his people. The Apostle Paul speaks of the church in this way when he says that, whereas those still under the law are in chains, “the Jerusalem above is free, and she is our mother” (Galatians 4:26).
The church’s motherhood is established first because the church is the bride of Jesus Christ. So in Revelation, John of Patmos tells us, “I saw the holy city, new Jerusalem, coming down out of heaven from God, prepared as a bride adorned for her husband” (Revelation 21:2).
We experience the church’s motherhood in our own lives first through baptism. Our confession about baptism is that it is a sign of new birth, which comes through water and the Holy Spirit. Baptism is a birth that comes through a sacrament of the church, so that the church is the mother of all Christian men and women.
Feeding her children
The early church fathers recognized the significance of the church as mother in a way we often do not. St. Augustine, for instance, writes that “those born of [the] flesh are not Christians, but become such afterwards through the motherhood of the Church.”
But the motherhood of the church extends beyond the sacrament of baptism as well. Just as a mother feeds her newborn baby by her own body, the church feeds her children through Scripture, prayer and especially through Holy Communion.
Life is given to us through our baptism, and the sustenance that life requires thereafter is given through the ministry of the church throughout our earthly sojourn.
If we reflect on the church as the mother who gives us birth and nurtures us as we travel the journey of our lives, we can begin to reverse the long and unfortunate trend to see the church as an optional part of our faith. It is the church that gives us the food of salvation.
That conviction seems especially appropriate now, and indeed at all times for Christians who await the coming of Jesus Christ, who is himself the bridegroom and who shows us the way to the New Jerusalem.
[Originally appeared in the United Methodist Reporter on November 24, 2010. The current form has been slightly altered from the original. Used by permission.]