Sophia was the first Holy Women Icon with a folk feminist twist I ever painted. A church gallery was hosting a Lenten triptych exhibition with the theme of “The Many Faces of Jesus.” I knew immediately that the face of Jesus I wanted to portray was Sophia wisdom. Sophia is the Greek feminine word for wisdom in the New Testament. Her characteristics are similar to the Hebrew hokhma, but expand in early Christian theology as she is understood as a divine attribute, or part of the trinity. In these ways, sophia is portrayed as a hypostasis of God’s wisdom, or a part of God’s substance. Accordingly, early Trinitarian formulas reference God the father, Jesus the son, and Sophia the spirit. A female spirit was undeniably an early part of the trinity.
It is worth noting that such an early understanding of the trinity, and of an unequivocally feminine spirit, was once normative. The Spirit was understood as and spoken of as a “she.” April DeConick highlights the difficulty of such an understanding today: “[W]hat must be realized is that Judaism and Christianity are the products of centuries of religious developments. So what might have been considered ‘orthodox’ at an early time, a few centuries later might be considered ‘heretical’ because the tradition and practices had drastically changed by then (April DeConick, Holy Misogyny, 7).” What was once orthodox—a female sophia spirit—has slowly, yet intentionally been overshadowed by patriarchal understandings of the trinity and the spirit.
Feminist theologians, such as Elizabeth Johnson, claim that this Sophia Spirit emboldens the entire trinity—and even all of humanity—to work toward flourishing for all creation. The wisdom of Sophia desires for all people to dwell in places where they can flourish and thrive. Johnson re-imagines the traditional Trinitarian formula of “Father-Son-Spirit” as “She Who Is:” Mother-Sophia, Jesus-Sophia, Spirit-Sophia. This feminine spirit is found in feminist theology and also throughout scripture. The Gospel of the Hebrews, for example, records Jesus being taken by the Spirit up to Mount Tabor where Jesus says, “My mother the Holy Spirit took me by one of the hairs on my head and bore me off to the great mountain Tabor.” So, the Spirit, Sophia, is not simply a feminine Greek word, but Jesus’ Heavenly Mother. This early Christian understanding continued in the Gospel of Phillip, an early Syriac text. At one point, this early Christian document essentially accuses some early Christians of heresy because they believe that the Spirit is male and that Jesus only has a Heavenly Father when it states, “Some say, ‘Mary conceived by the Holy Spirit.’ They are wrong. They do not know what they are saying. When did a woman ever become pregnant by a woman?”
And all this was reflected in early church baptismal liturgies, where those being baptized believed that they were entering into the womb of God as they immersed themselves in the baptismal font. In fact, many fonts from the third, fourth, and fifth century are in the shape of a womb. Priests proclaimed prayers, saying, “Blessed are you, Lord God, through whose great and indescribable gift this water has been sanctified by the coming of the Holy Spirit so that it has become the womb of the Spirit that gives birth to the new human out of the old (Sebastian Brock, The Holy Spirit as Feminine in the Syrian Baptismal Tradition, 84).”
In fact, the majority of early Christians considered the Holy Spirit to be a feminine attribute of God. Of course Jesus had a heavenly mother and an earthly mother. In fact, Jesus had two moms. What is more, Jesus had two dads. This was normal. Understood. Accepted. Orthodox. For several centuries of Christendom these two moms and two dads comprised the holy family. It wasn’t until later when patriarchy crept in ever so smoothly that this orthodoxy became anathema, heresy, wrong.
And now we peel back its sordid history. Scholars translate ancient Syriac and Aramiac texts. Archaeologists uncover baptismal fonts in the shape of wombs. Authors write books that illuminate once-hidden truths. And we see the face of Jesus in the face of Sophia Wisdom.
With big, open hands reaching beyond the confines of her canvas and expanding onto either side of the triptych, the wild and flowing hair of Spirit Sophia waves in Dionysian abandon, and we look into her beating heart and see ourselves, our own spirits reflected back at us. And Sophia’s heart cries out to us:
Because she looked into the eyes of fragile humanity and saw the face of Jesus,
her heart shattered at the sight of oppression and injustice…
so she committed herself to a lifetime of picking up the broken pieces
by standing for peace and dancing for justice…
and now when she looks into the mirror,
she sees the face of Jesus once again…
The fragments in her heart are shards of mirrors. And when we look into Sophia’s heart we find a reflection of ourselves, divinely human, humanly divine. She was. And so are we.
Rev. Dr. Angela Yarber has a PhD in Art and Religion from the Graduate Theological Union at UC Berkeley and is author of Embodying the Feminine in the Dances of the World’s Religions, The Gendered Pulpit: Sex, Body, and Desire in Preaching and Worship, Dance in Scripture: How Biblical Dancers can Revolutionize Worship Today, Holy Women Icons, and Tearing Open the Heavens: Selected Sermons from Year B. She has been a clergywoman and professional dancer and artist since 1999. For more on her research, ministry, dance, or to purchase one of her icons, visit: www.angelayarber.com