The Faith We Sing Hymn Interpretation “Womb of Life,” Number 2046
Words: Ruth Duck
Music: Skinner Chávez-Melo
The title of this hymn is sometimes the only portion of the text quoted by its critics, as if there is something shocking and disturbing about using the word "womb" in a hymn or the phrase "womb of life" in referring to God. In reality, this hymn strives to understand, define, and help us experience the fullness of God in human relationships, especially those within the family. The image of "womb of life" becomes only one of a number of images and names to enable us to identify those relationships among humans and between humans and God.
Stanza one speaks of God as the "womb of life" and "source of being." This is God, the creator of all that exists: "in whose arms the worlds awakened . . . [who has] loved us from the start." This stanza provides us with an image of God not unlike the second stanza of "How Great Thou Art." It recalls the language of Isaiah 44:2 (NRSV), "Thus says the Lord who made you, who formed you in the womb . . ." It also recalls Isaiah 46:3-4 (NRSV):
"Listen to me, O house of Jacob, all the remnant of the house of Israel, who have been borne by me from your birth, carried from the womb; even to your old age I am he, even when you turn gray I will carry you. I have made, and I will bear; I will carry and will save."In Isaiah 49:15-16 (NRSV), God uses the images of a nursing mother and an expectant mother to declare that even if a mother might forget her child, God will not:
"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."
The New Testament offers the familiar passage in John 3:4-7 in which Jesus uses the imagery of being "born again" from above as the equivalent of the first birth from the womb.
"Nicodemus said to him, 'How can anyone be born after having grown old? Can one enter a second time into the mother's womb and be born?' Jesus answered, 'Very truly, I tell you, no one can enter the kingdom of God without being born of water and Spirit. What is born of the flesh is flesh, and what is born of the Spirit is spirit. Do not be astonished that I said to you, You must be born from above.'"
Within these biblical passages, we see God directly and intimately involved in the human birthing process, both physical and spiritual. We also see Scripture offering the human womb and birthing process as metaphors for both creation and salvation.
Stanza one of "Womb of Life" also uses images of earthly, human family bonds and relationships to describe our relationship with God in the sacrament of Holy Communion. We are seen as God's children, gathered around the table, sharing stories and being nurtured by God. The image of God as one who nurtures and cares for us is an entirely logical and deeply meaningful extension of God as the one who first gives us life and then sustains and nurtures that life within us — much as our earthly parents do within a family context.
Stanza two of "Womb of Life" speaks of Jesus as "brother." This is God incarnate in human form, "word in flesh." Using a phrase from Charles Wesley's "Hark! the Herald Angels Sing," this is Jesus "born to bring us second birth" or salvation. This is Jesus, our brother; this is Jesus, our priest, who shares our struggles as humans. This Jesus is fully human and fully divine. This is the Jesus, who before ascending, breathed upon us the Holy Spirit.
Stanza three describes the Holy Spirit as our partner and friend in our human activities. It concludes with a prayer for the Spirit to help us bring in the new world where all are one with God in Christ, where there are no slaves or servants, and where all are free.
The first three stanzas individually speak of the names and work of the Trinity, making use of a great variety of images of God: creator, parent, brother, priest, partner, and friend. In their fullness, these three opening stanzas reveal God as a caring and nurturing God, the logical extension of the God who first gave us life ("Womb of Life").
It is stanza four's recalling of Mother, Brother, Holy Partner, Father, Spirit, Only Son, One-in-three, and Three-in-one that summarizes all the images of the preceding stanzas. In the last line of the hymn, the author holds up the Trinity as a final image and model for human relationships and our relationship with God: one with all, and one with God. Seen as the conclusion to this hymn, these images are thoroughly biblical and orthodox.