Jesus, Odin, and the Female Aspect of God

Scenes from the life of Christ

Second Sunday in Lent | Luke 13:31-35

A man walking purposefully toward his death, even though he has been warned, and God is a sitting hen with a brood of chicks—this is an odd bit of scripture.

Pharisees came to warn Jesus, Pharisees mind you, that Herod wanted to kill him. Jesus told them that it was impossible for a prophet to be killed outside Jerusalem. It wasn’t true, of course. Not literally. Plenty of people get killed all over the place, most of them nowhere near Jerusalem.

He wasn’t talking about the city. It was what she stood for, her role in the story. Jerusalem is, in the symbolism of Judaeo-Christian beliefs, the city of faith and the city of betrayal. Without faith and belief and love there can be no apostasy and no betrayal. Only the faithful, the people of faith, could put Jesus to death, and it was toward the faithful that he walked, knowing full well the price of his admission to Jerusalem.

Jelling runestone
Image of Christ on runestone, crucifixion on the branches of a tree, c. 970, Jelling, Denmark

Our story matters.The story of Christ’s death on a cross, his willing and intentional self sacrifice, his three day journey into darkness, his resurrection, was so powerful that it began to be told in every part of the world. By the time the story of the crucifixion reached northern Europe and the blood minded vikings, the people who heard it embraced it, wove it into their own mythology, trying to make sense of it. In their stories, Odin, the All-Father, the god who walked abroad in the form of a man, goes of his own will to be hanged on the world tree, a sacrifice of himself to himself in the search for wisdom, a boon to all humanity. He is hanged for nine days—three times three, to have one up on the Christian tale. Odin’s side is pierced with a spear, and in his death Odin gains in mystical power. Afterward Odin is wiser, transfigured, alive. It is a clear appropriation of the Christ story. Perhaps the incorporation of the Christ story into the Nordic myths explains why the northern peoples were notoriously averse to convert to Christianity—unknown even to themselves, they had already embraced something of the Gospel, though they had mapped Christ onto Odin. The Gospel story, even changed and adapted by Norsemen, had power.

The early Church did not rely on explanations. In the first and second century, one did not find lengthy theological explanations of what transpired on the cross, on the meaning of the resurrection, past being the signs of God. The explanations would come later. Instead, they relied upon the story and upon their comprehension that something mystical, miraculous, transfigurative had occurred in the purposeful life, teaching, willing death, and astonishing resurrection of Christ.

They held to the old, old story.

We moderns, on the other hand, want to hold to our newer explanations. We want to rely upon our systematic theological explanation of what it meant, how it worked. Good theology is central to faith, inseparable from a life of faith. Nevertheless, the best theology is not a substitute for faith. It is not the same thing, much as the study of biology, no matter how wonderful and powerful and useful, is not the same as being alive.

I am certainly not against theology—quite the opposite. Much of what I write is, at heart, theological. No, it is that I suspect many of us confuse our ideas about God with actual faith in God.

12 Scenes from the Life of Christ, Anonymous, c. 1450. Wallraf Richartz Museum.
12 Scenes from the Life of Christ, Anonymous, c. 1450. Wallraf Richartz Museum.

And what if our explanations are wrong? Or what if our systematic explanations of what happened on the cross are only partly right, partly true? What about the rest, the part we have missed, the parts we have overlooked, the ideas that we added, the parts we have wrong? The story is the thing that matters most. Without hearing the story—Christ’s journeying, Christ’s crucifixion, Christ’s resurrection—and without wondering at it, being amazed by it, even doubting it and looking askance at it, we have nothing but notions and rules. It becomes only an explanation, and every child who has ever seen a rabbit pulled from a hat knows that the magic is more than smoke and mirrors. We grownups explain and think we are so brilliant to have figured out how the thing was done and why, that we miss the magic of it being done at all.

It was impossible for a prophet to be killed outside Jerusalem, Jesus told them. A man may die somewhere else—a criminal, a rebel, an innocent person—but a prophet only dies a prophet within the context of the faith community. It would make no sense outside the context of the life of faith: everywhere else the prophet is merely another human being. The Romans, left to their own devices, may have refused to harm Jesus. Pilate does, in fact, try to set him free. It was the people of Jesus’ own faith group who made sure he died.

In three days, he tells them, his work would be complete. We do not need to comb the narrative, trying to tell how long Luke’s Gospel takes to get Jesus to Jerusalem. Three is a perfect number, a symbol, and three days measure the perfect fullness of time.

O Jerusalem, Jerusalem, you who kill the prophets and stone those sent to you, how often I have longed to gather your children together, as a hen gathers her chicks under her wings, but you were not willing!

Jesus the prophet, Jesus the human expression of God, stands and proclaims the love of God as Mother, female, nurturing. It is not the only expression of God in the feminine form to have survived.¹ Given that the scripture we have was recorded, edited and preserved by a male dominated culture of priests and holy men, we may regard the survival of such feminine descriptions as miraculous, there because God wished it so.

So, we have Jerusalem and prophets, Odin and Norse mythology, God as our Mother, and Jesus walking toward his own death. What are we to make of that?

In this season of Lent, perhaps we need to let go of our explanations and simply embrace the story. It worked for the earliest Christians. Surely, the old, old story can work for us.

If you’d like a way to hear it without reading an entire gospel, here is the Nicene Creed, from the Book of Common Prayer. Yes, there is meaning here, and deep theology, but my God, the story:

The Nicene Creed

We believe in one God,
the Father, the Almighty,
maker of heaven and earth,
of all that is, seen and unseen.
We believe in one Lord, Jesus Christ,
the only Son of God,
eternally begotten of the Father,
God from God, Light from Light,
true God from true God,
begotten, not made,
of one Being with the Father.
Through him all things were made.
For us and for our salvation
he came down from heaven:
by the power of the Holy Spirit
he became incarnate from the Virgin Mary,
and was made man.
For our sake he was crucified under Pontius Pilate;
he suffered death and was buried.
On the third day he rose again
in accordance with the Scriptures;
he ascended into heaven
and is seated at the right hand of the Father.
He will come again in glory to judge the living and the dead,
and his kingdom will have no end.
We believe in the Holy Spirit, the Lord, the giver of life,
who proceeds from the Father and the Son.
With the Father and the Son he is worshiped and glorified.
He has spoken through the Prophets.
We believe in one holy catholic and apostolic Church.
We acknowledge one baptism for the forgiveness of sins.
We look for the resurrection of the dead,
and the life of the world to come. Amen.

¹ Descriptions of God embracing female aspects may be found in Genesis 1:26-27; Deuteronomy 32:10-18; Psalm 123:2-3; Isaiah 42:14, 49:15, 66:13; Hosea 11:3-4; Matthew 23:37; Luke 13:34.

Off With His Head

Painting of Salome by Titian

Proper 10(15)  |  Mark 6:14-29

Lectionary Project—Part of an ongoing three year project of weekly posts related to the Sunday reading from the Revised Common Lectionary. A study in practical theology.

Off With His Head

I’ve never seen a single verse from this passage on a T-shirt or a refrigerator magnet.

It is such a strange story. For one thing, it’s a sandwich. That’s what brilliant theologians and expositors call a passage where Mark sticks one thing in the middle of something else.

Painting of Salome by Titian
“Salome” by Titian (Tiziano Vecellio), c. 1515. Held at the Doria Pamphilj Gallery in Rome.

In the middle of this story about some disciples going out and preaching on their own, we hear about the beheading of John the Baptist. It is ironic, since preaching is precisely what got John the Baptist in trouble—he had been opening his mouth and telling the people who would listen everything that he thought they ought to hear. Unfortunately for John, one of the things he preached was that people in positions of power ought not to behave like King Herod.

Speaking the truth to power is generally not welcomed by the ones with the power. It’s like that all the way up—parents, teachers, bosses, politicians and kings. Just because what you have to say may be true is no reason to expect that they will want to hear it.

It’s the job of faithful people to tell it anyway, even if the hearers want to chop off some heads, even if it lands us in a Birmingham jail.

Stories like this one stick with you. We’ve been telling them to each other ever since Og and his clan started watching firelight on cave walls. We still do it. That’s the real reason flat screen TVs are more popular than the old versions—a flat screen hanging on the living room wall matches our deep ancestral memories of listening to stories in the cave, painting the walls by firelight. Technology has just brought us back to where we started. And stories carry more truth than rules ever could.

The story of John the Baptist sounds like Southern gothic writing, like something from The Sound and the Fury or Deliverance. A lecherous half-drunk king, a beautiful half witted girl, a witch of a mother—how’d you like to have a mother like this one?—and a bearded wild man prophet with his head on a dinner plate. We’re inclined to believe every word of it, not because it’s in the Bible but because who would make up all that?

There’s much we can learn.

We need to be careful of our promises, for one thing. Jesus warned people not to swear to things without thinking. In Matthew’s Gospel we hear, “Let what you say be simply ‘Yes’ or ‘No’.”

Herod made an oath, in front of everyone, promising his daughter—her name may have been Herodias or it may have been Salome—anything she wanted. He did not foresee the consequences. Not that killing one more person gave Herod any qualms, but he liked listening to John, which is dead odd, since it was Herod listening to John that had gotten John imprisoned in the first place.

Painting of Salome by Caravaggio
“Salome” by Caravaggio, c. 1607, National Gallery in London

“Out of regard for his oaths and for the guests, he did not want to refuse her.” The slightly smaller fish in the pond were all gathered around watching, and Herod did not want to look like the sort of man who would go back on his word.

It is ironic, isn’t it? Everybody in the room had seen Herod do worse than refuse to kill an innocent man. Nevertheless, he kills John—though he had someone else swing the sword—to maintain appearances and for the sake of pride.

And it didn’t work, did it? Once they brought John’s head up from the prison, like a gruesome entree on a serving platter, nobody thought better of Herod for it.

Even that bunch of court sycophants knew Herod better than that. They weren’t blind.

Maybe I should make a little confession here. You see, I often do things (no head chopping) just for the sake of pride or to keep up what I think is an appearance. Monty Python said it right. I’m not fooling anybody.

Let’s think about the girl’s mother, Herod’s wife. Herodias. Now there’s a piece of work. She really does sound like the evil witch in a fairy tale, doesn’t she? The girl comes, breathless, to her mother, who is not at the party—perhaps it was a men only affair—saying, “What shall I ask for?”

The head of John the Baptist. On a platter. Hold the body.

She reaches down and asks for the worst thing that her self-absorbed, arrogant, revenge seeking mind can think of. We despise her.

Worse, we understand her.

Don’t we?

Let’s be honest with ourselves. If we have to pick the character in this little play that is most like ourselves, who is it? The pretty dancing girl? Maybe. We’ve all done stupid things and been proud of them at the time.

How about the king? Herod himself? Not many of us really want to identify with him. We know too much about the Herods to be sympathetic.

John the Baptist? That is a possibility. We’ve all lost our heads at one time or another, with the difference being that most of us put our own heads on plates and walked off without them. Some of us have been imprisoned, either physically or more likely in other more subtle ways. Some of us know what it is like to have other people begrudge our existence, sometimes for very wrong reasons. Some of us might identify with the prophet.

Most of us are not so honest as John the Baptist, not so brave. We’re not sure that we are speaking for God—that thought gives us pause. It should give any decent person pause.

How about the wicked, evil, horrible, no-good, witch of a queen? Well, if this were an actual play, that would be the fun part, wouldn’t it? To really let loose and be the dark hearted self-serving vengeful creature that this woman became? Now that would be entertainment.

We love the stories with evil witch queens, and we love them for a lot of reasons. One that we need to think about is this—we know that she is just doing what we’d love to do, what we might do, if we weren’t afraid or if we had the power. Oh, we might not go around killing folk, not at first, but imagine getting anything you want.

The reason we hold onto stories like this one, with John the Baptist losing his head, dying in a cause he could not have fully understood but for which he was willing to give his life, and other stories like it, real and imagined, is for the truth that is in them.

G K Chesterton said this about fairy tales:
“Fairy tales do not give the child his first idea of bogey. What fairy tales give the child is his first clear idea of the possible defeat of bogey. The baby has known the dragon intimately ever since he had an imagination. What the fairy tale provides for him is a St. George to kill the dragon.”

Neil Gaiman summarized the idea this way:
“Fairy tales are more than true – not because they tell us dragons exist, but because they tell us dragons can be beaten.” He went on to describe the power of great stories to “…furnish you with armor, with knowledge, with weapons, with tools you can take back into your life to help make it better.” (Here’s a link to a wonderful article on a website called — Neil Gaiman on How Stories Last.)

We hold onto the fairy tales with the wicked witches and evil kings and trolls and dragons not because they are factual, but because they are true. In much the same way, we do not tell the stories of the Garden of Eden and of the prophet Elijah and of John the Baptist because of factual content. Any facts in these sorts of stories are only for people who want to distract themselves from the truth. There is a difference.

John the Baptist was executed by Herod. That is the simple fact of the matter. We are still telling this story because John the Baptist dead had more to offer than Herod alive. That is the truth.

Now imagine that you are sitting wherever the evil queen was sitting, and the girl comes to you.

“I can get anything, anything at all,” she says, only now she sounds just the tiniest bit like a beautiful snake in a story about a garden.

“Anything,” she whispers. “And I won’t tell anyone that it was your idea. What shall I ask for?”

What do we tell her? More to the point, what do we want to tell her? It is the sort of test that helps us figure out who we are, uncovers what we hide from ourselves. What would we ask for? What do we want?

What would we see on our platter?

Know thyself, the Greeks said. The unexamined life is not worth living. More than 400 years after Socrates, Jesus gave us something of the same idea. “By their fruits you shall know them.”

By our answers, we shall know ourselves.

This is the real hero’s quest, to find the secrets we keep from ourselves. In stories, the girl or boy, our hero, goes off to find a treasure or to slay a dragon, but that is usually only in stories. The true heroes are you and I, which is why we love these tales. The real quest takes us inside our own hearts, to see whether there is any treasure after all, or to slay the dragon we find hiding there.

We get one life, one wish, one story. What happens next?

The Crush of Words

The Crush of Words  |  Matthew 21:33-46

They were not good for much, these old men, not any more, but you could not get them to believe it. They graced the temple with their leadership, in their minds, and they had the robes to prove it.

GrapesWhiteWideHere sat this nobody of a man, a carpenter who hailed from Nazareth by way of Capernaum. He had the gall to sit in the temple and teach. Worst of all, he was popular. The crowds ate it up, as though anyone needed another reason to despise the fellow.

Those old men might have let him get away with it, might have let him have his moment of glory and move on. There was always somebody the nitwitted public was ready to follow, somebody with a strong voice and smooth promises that these fools were ready to hear. It never lasted long, and when the latest song fell so far off the charts that the crowd couldn’t even remember how to hum it, the priests would still be there. Yes, they might have just waited him out, let him have his few minutes of fame, but he went and started telling stories.

It’s bad enough to be made the butt of a joke, but it’s even worse to be made the point of a story. People might laugh at the joke for a while, but eventually they would suspect it was a little mean hearted, maybe even an untrue exaggeration. A story, though? Long after people forget how to tell a joke, they still remember a story.

Jesus told the story of a man who left his winery under the care and management of a crack team of businessmen. They stole his profits, killed his auditors, and even murdered the heir to his fortune in a botched attempt at a violent corporate takeover. We don’t knowGrapevines whether this winery was in Sicily, but we’re familiar with the kind of criminals this bunch of businessmen turned out to be. While the story pointed out the self-serving nature of the temple leaders, the tale also points to a truth about our world. We are not all honest; some say none of us are. Some of us are even willing to use violence to satisfy our greed, and some of us disguise our violence as the unintended side effect of a free market.

Jesus used words to dismantle the establishment. Jesus used stories to question authority, to stick it to the man.

That’s one thing we can take from this passage—the power of words. Jesus was in a position to stand up and lead a revolution that even the Romans would have respected. Instead, he sat down and told stories to the crowd. The revolution he started was in their minds, and ideas can’t be stopped, not by Roman soldiers or riot police.

Isaiah offers a fresh version of the promise the Lord makes with the faithful, people whose minds are engaged in the story of God:

…my spirit that is upon you, and my words that I have put in your mouth, shall not depart out of your mouth, or out of the mouths of your children, or out of the mouths of your children’s children, says the Lord, from now on and forever.  —Isaiah 59:21, NRSV

Words. They separate us from the other animals. Words form our human inheritance, inform our civilization, serve to bring the presence of God into our lives. Words are powerful, as useful as cornerstones and as dangerous as a falling rock.


Photos by Granny™