St. Ephrem the Syrian writes:
[The Holy Spirit] warmed the waters with a kind of vital warmth, even bringing them to a boil through intense heat in order to make them fertile. The action of a hen is similar. It sits on its eggs, making them fertile through the warmth of incubation. Here then, the Holy Spirit foreshadows the sacrament of holy baptism, prefiguring its arrival, so that the waters made fertile by the hovering of that same divine Spirit might give birth to the children of God.1
Roberta C. Bondi, Professor of Church History, comments:
…Syriac writers gave a place to feminine imagery that was unique in the early church.
The Odes of Solomon speak freely about the milk of the breasts of the Father, and, although this language with respect to the Father was not retained, until the fourth century (including in the writings of Ephrem) the Holy Spirit was regarded as feminine. Further, Mary was always a central figure within this tradition. Murray hints that Mary’s especially important place in the later period within the complex typology tying together sacred history, the incarnation, the church, and the sacraments may have arisen as a necessary response by Syrian Christians to the threatened loss of the feminine in Christian imagery after the Holy Spirit came to be regarded as masculine. Some of Ephrem’s Hymns of the Nativity, as they meditate on Mary, reveal the depth and insight of one thoroughly attuned to the use of the feminine imagery in the spiritual life.2
Language about God embraces both feminine and masculine imagery because divinity transcends gender:
In no way is God in man’s image. He is neither man nor woman. God is pure spirit in which there is no place for the difference between the sexes. But the respective “perfections” of man and woman reflect something of the infinite perfection of God: those of a mother and those of a father and husband.3
1 St. Ephrem the Syrian, Commentary on Genesis 1. From Ancient Christian Commentary on Scripture, Genesis 1-11, Andrew Louth and Marco Conti, editors, and Thomas C. Oden, general editor (Downers Grove: InterVarsity Press, 2000), 6.
2 Roberta C. Bondi, “The Spirituality of Syriac-speaking Christians,” in Christian Spirituality: Origins to the Twelfth Century, ed. Bernard McGinn and John Meyendorff (New York: Crossroad, 1985), 158-9.
3 Catechism of the Catholic Church 370.