History of Hymns: “Womb of Life, and Source of Being”
“Womb of Life, and Source of Being,”
by Ruth Duck;
The Faith We Sing, No. 2046
Womb of life, and source of being,
home of every restless heart,
in your arms the worlds awakened;
you have loved us from the start.
We, your children, gather ‘round you,
at the table you prepare.
Sharing stories, tears, and laughter,
we are nurtured by your care.*
* © 1992 GIA Publications, Inc. Used by permission. All rights reserved.
Ruth Duck (b. 1947) is a noted hymn writer, best known for her skilled use of inclusive language in both hymnody and worship. An emerita professor at Garrett-Evangelical Theological Seminary, Duck has authored several published resources that offer practical and theological strategies for the use of inclusive language. Discussions on the use of inclusive language may become heated. Perhaps the most contentious topic in regard to inclusive language concerns the Trinity. Duck is not silent on the matter, and her hymn writing reflects her written scholarship.
When it comes to handling sexist or exclusive language, Duck does not believe that the issue should be solved by eliminating all gender and placing a ban on gendered images. Instead, Duck advocates for the presence of both masculine and feminine imagery and language, creating a space for both traditional wording as well as new wording. She proves that the two perspectives can exist side by side. After all, the Scriptures are filled with metaphors that cover an array of images. Duck sees this as a call for Christians to thoughtfully develop and sing of new metaphors that fully and appropriately convey an encounter with the Divine, a call that Duck takes to heart in much of her hymn writing.
“Womb of Life, and Source of Being” takes on the matter of metaphor, exclusive language, and the Trinitarian formula. The traditional formula is often a subject of debate and theological question in terms of sexist language. Duck believes that because of the exclusive, male-centered language, the traditional formula – Father, Son, and Holy Spirit – does not fully celebrate the liberation of new life offered through Jesus, the Christ. The traditional formula also runs the risk of implying a gender-exclusive community, rather than allowing the Trinity to be a model of a loving and all-embracing community. In “Womb of Life, and Source of Being,” Duck makes an effort to broaden the images of the persons in the Trinity and to establish it as a model for a vibrant community.
The opening line of the first stanza imagines God as a “womb.” This may be a startling beginning to some, and it was indeed quite controversial when the hymn was first published in Duck’s collection, Dancing in the Universe: Hymns and Songs (GIA, 1992), and later in the Chalice Hymnal (1995) and The New Century Hymnal (1995); but this metaphor is rooted in the scriptural depiction of God’s mercy as a mother to her child, found in Isaiah 49:15, “Can a woman forget her nursing child, or show no compassion for the child of her womb? Even these may forget, yet I will not forget you” (NRSV) . The stanza continues by describing a scene that is not unlike a family gathered around the dinner table. In this case, the table in question is the Communion Table with the sacrament of Holy Eucharist. It also recalls the care found in Psalm 23:5, “You prepare a table before me, in the presence of my enemies; you anoint my head with oil; my cup overflows” (NRSV).
The second stanza, following the usual pattern of the Trinity, focuses on Jesus. It begins with the familiar image of John 1:14, where Jesus is the “Word became flesh.” Duck also borrows a line from Charles Wesley’s popular hymn, “Hark! The Herald Angels Sing,” as she states that “our brother Jesus” was “born to bring us second birth.” Portraying Jesus as a brother continues the familial relationship portrayed in the first stanza. Duck does this while fully affirming the hypostatic union of Jesus, the theology that Christ was both fully human and fully divine. Just as the case is with the opening stanza, the second provides imagery of a truly Divine God that desires to know us intimately in deep relationship.
The third stanza, dedicated to the Spirit, opens by describing the Spirit as “brooding.” Duck does not use the word to call to mind ominous or gloomy thoughts, but to describe the brooding of a mother hen, sitting on her eggs to keep them warm until they hatch. What an image that is! This brooding image also recalls Genesis 1:2, “…while a wind from God swept over the face of the waters” (NRSV). Some translations and commentators believe that this verse contains a metaphor for a bird-like deity “brooding over the dark vapors” (TLB). The metaphor and language of a brooding bird is reiterated further in Deuteronomy 32:11. The stanza concludes with a petition that the Spirit may “Labor with us, aid the birthing of the new world yet to be…” When taking the first three stanzas as a whole picture, birth is seen as a principle theme. From the womb of the Creator, to our rebirth in Jesus, and the ongoing labor of the Spirit, the Trinity is infused with new life.
The fourth stanza concludes the hymn by invoking the Trinity in two forms: one traditional and one less common. In this stanza, a prayer is directed to the “Mother, Brother, Holy Partner” as well as the “Father, Spirit, Only Son.” Both of these formulas are based in Scripture; the difference between the two is that the traditional form is recited more often in liturgy. This is a common theme in several of Dr. Duck’s hymns. No one single set of names or titles is sufficient for the Triune God. The plethora of metaphors that she employs makes that clear. The result is a hymn that celebrates both diversity and the familial community in the Trinity, and in doing so, provides an ethical understanding of how we are to live our lives as Christians.
For further reading:
Ruth Duck. Finding Words for Worship: A Guide for Leaders. Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 1995.
Ruth Duck and Patricia Wilson-Kastner. Praising God: The Trinity in Christian Worship. Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 1999.
Verses marked TLB are from The Living Bible copyright © 1971 by Tyndale House Foundation. Used by permission of Tyndale House Publishers Inc., Carol Stream, Illinois 60188. All rights reserved.
Simon Hill holds the Master of Sacred Music degree from Perkins School of Theology/SMU, where he studied hymnology with Dr. C. Michael Hawn.