A Mother’s Love

There’s a particular irony within much of contemporary Christianity in that, despite our rightful assertions that God has no gender, and despite the fact that the Scriptures contain many references to God mothering, Christians tend to be very uncomfortable with feminine imagery for God. But Julian of Norwich is one wonderful counter-example to this rule. Not only does she happily apply feminine language to God, but she does so specifically to God the Son, the only person of the Trinity have ever actually experienced gender, in his incarnation in the man Jesus. She calls Christ our “Mother”, and this is no passing whim but, after hinting at it in chapters 52 and 54, she makes it a primary theme and metaphor in chapters 57-63. Today I’d like to explore this theme of Christ’s Motherhood in Julian’s writing.

Perhaps smartly, considering so many Christians’ reticence about feminine imagery for God, Julian first introduces it within the larger context of God’s roles: “ And so I saw that God rejoices that he is our Father, and God rejoices that he is our Mother, and God rejoices that he is our true spouse… And Christ rejoices that he is our brother, and Jesus rejoices that he is our saviour” (Ch 52).* Similarly, the second reference is in a proclamation of the Trinity: “For the almighty truth of the Trinity is our Father, for he made us and keeps us in him. And the deep wisdom of the Trinity is our Mother, in whom we are enclosed. And the high goodness of the Trinity is our Lord, and in him we are enclosed and he in us” (Ch 54, cf. Ch 58). Here we have the first hint that she’s associating Motherhood with the Second Person of the Trinity, the Son or Word of God, both from its second position in the list but also by associating it with Divine Wisdom, which is traditionally associated with God the Word. This becomes clear in chapter 57, where she imagines Christ not only as our Mother but as a kind of eternal mother, with our spiritual safety seen as being perpetually enclosed within his womb: “…our saviour is our true Mother, in whom we are endlessly born and out of whom we shall never come.” And, in a move that is reminiscent of ancient patristic reflection on our language for God, she then insists that all motherhood actually takes its content and meaning from God: “Jesus Christ … is our true Mother. We have our being from him, where the foundation of motherhood begins, with all the sweet protection of love which endlessly follows” (Ch 59). And, “All the lovely works and all the sweet loving offices of beloved motherhood are appropriated to the second person …” (Ch 59).

How then, does Julian understand that the Second Person of the Trinity, the Word and Wisdom of God who became incarnate in the man Jesus of Nazareth, is our archetypal Mother? She writes:

I understand three ways of contemplating motherhood in God. The first is the foundation of our nature’s creation; the second is his taking of our nature, where the motherhood of grace begins; the third is the motherhood at work. And in that, by the same grace, everything is penetrated, in length and in breadth, in height and in depth without end; and it is all one love. (Ch 59)

In case you missed it in Julian’s language, which even in this modernized translation often seems unnatural to our ears, let’s unpack this. First, she sees that we have our origins and ‘foundations’ in Christ; this hearkens back to the idea of the Word of God, or Divine Logos as a kind of blueprint for the created order and humanity specifically. According to this line of thought, Christ, as the incarnate Word of God, is our Mother because we have our nature and origins from him. Second, she sees that the incarnation itself is a manifestation of a mothering instinct in God: God came down to our level to nurture and show grace to us, just as a good mother humbly tends to the needs of her children. And third, there is all the loving service on our behalf, representative of the endless, self-offering love of the perfect, archetypal mother. She expands on this idea in a particularly beautiful passage:

The mother’s service is nearest, readiest, and surest: nearest because it is most natural, readiest because it is most loving, and surest because it is truest. No one ever might or could perform this office fully, except only him. We know that all our mothers bear us for pain and for death.… But our true Mother Jesus, he alone bears us for joy and for endless life, blessed may he be. So he carries us within him in love and travail, until the full time when he wanted to suffer the sharpest thorns and cruel pains that ever were or will be, and at least he died. And when he had finished, and had borne us so for bliss, still all this could not satisfy his wonderful love. And he revealed this in these great surpassing words of love: If I could suffer more, I would suffer more. (Ch 60, the last words quoting Ch 22)

She also notes how, just as a mother’s love requires her relationship to her children to change as they grow older (“And always as the child grows in age and in stature, she acts differently, but she does not change her love”), from holding them and feeding them at her breasts to, eventually, allowing them to stumble and fall so they can eventually become independent, to disciplining them to help them grow up well, so too does Christ’s relationship with us change as we grow in faith (Ch 60). But even if a mother will “sometimes suffer the child to fall and to be distressed in various ways, for its own benefit,” she will “never suffer any kind of peril to come to her child, because of her love” (Ch 61). And if this is true of human mothers, how much more true is this of Christ, whose motherly love for us was so great that he loved us to death on the cross, and that, risen from the dead, he raises us up with himself, where we are eternally “his greatest longing” and “bliss” (Ch 22).

So what can we say about Julian’s use of mothering imagery for God, especially God as revealed in the work of Christ? Motherhood is the quintessential image of love — not love as a light and fluffy feeling, but love as a powerful, protective, and self-offering instinct, a love that demands action. And such, it is the perfect symbol for the God Jesus reveals to us: the God who humbly comes down to our level not to be served but to serve, the God who stops at nothing to find the lost sheep, the God who puts everything on the line because love demands it. What a beautiful, powerful image. And I’m grateful that, unlike so many others throughout Christian history, Julian did not shy away from it, but was willing to explore it in all the depth that she did.


* Unless noted, all quotes are taken from the long text of Julian or Norwich’s Revelations of Divine Love as translated and set in Julian of Norwich, Showings, translated by Edmund Colledge and James Walsh. The Classics of Western Spirituality. Mahwah, NJ: Paulist Press, 1978.

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