What Happens When God Can be Mother Too?

Category Archives:Theology

Lady Julian’s Day

May 8 and May 13 are the feast days of Lady Julian of Norwich (1342-1416). She was the first woman to write a surviving book in the English language: Revelations of Divine Love

Julian was an anchorite, an early form of the Christian monastic. She lived in a simple room attached to the local church, receiving meals and participating in church services through different windows. Julian spent most of her time connecting mystically to God. Eventually, she also wrote and gave spiritual guidance to those who came to her.

When she was 30, God healed Julian of a serious illness. At that time she had a series of visions of Jesus on the cross. One writer said that Julian had what we might now describe as a Near-Death Experience, which I thought was an interesting idea. Her visions radically changed her and she spent the rest of her life writing down the things she learned from them.

Julian’s Vision of the Motherhood of God

I spent some time last night reading the most popular articles about Julian on the Internet. They seem to avoid mentioning her use of the metaphor of mother for God. However, this is an important aspect of Julian’s theology. She emphasizes the unconditional love and mercy of God. And she explicitly calls God, Jesus and the Spirit “Mother” as well as “Father.”

She wasn’t the first to do so in her time. Bernard of Clairvaux, the Cistercian reformer and abbot who lived a century before Julian, often used the metaphor of mothering for God and for himself in the tradition of St. Paul. Several of his followers did the same, as did the church fathers before them. (See my recent post on “Jesus as Mother: A Brief History“).

Here are some highlights from Lady Julian’s writings:

“As truly as God is our Father, so truly is God our Mother.”

“The mother can give her child to suck of her milk, but our precious Mother Jesus can feed us with himself, and does, most courteously and tenderly, with the blessed sacrament, which is the precious food of true life….The mother can lay her child tenderly to her breast, but our tender Mother Jesus can lead us easily into his blessed breast through his sweet open side.”

“So he wants us to act as a meek child, saying: My kind Mother, my gracious Mother, my beloved Mother, have mercy on me. I have made myself filthy and unlike you, and I may not and cannot make it right except with your help and grace.”

“So we see that Jesus is the true Mother of our nature, for he made us. He is our mother, too, by grace, because he took our created nature upon himself. All the lovely deeds and tender services that beloved motherhood implies are appropriate to the Second Person.”

Still Grappling with the Mother Metaphor

Lynn Japinga, author of Feminism and Christianity, writes, “Julian’s work was preserved, but the church has only recently begun to grapple with the implications of her theological insights.” I’m not so sure they’ve even begun. Julian is one of the few women of church history recognized as having written theology, but the church still overlooks her use of the mother metaphor for the members of the Trinity.

Let’s use her feast days (May 8 in the Anglican and Lutheran churches; May 13 in the Catholic) to remember both Julian’s work and the permission we have to call God Mother.

 

 

What the Mother Metaphor Reveals about God

Why call God Mother?

Mother God bugs people. She rocks the church-boat. She downright infuriates some. So, how can calling God Mother help us?

The loving, safe associations we often have with Mother change our inner image of God, or feelings and attitude toward God, sometimes dramatically. The mother metaphor helps us form a truer picture of God than using only the father metaphor. I’d like to explore three ways it does this.

With You Always

The first is immanence, which refers to the nearness of God, as opposed to God’s transcendence, or greatness in comparison with creation. Jesus showed us that He is Emmanuel, God with us (Matt. 1:23). He said He would always be with us, even to the end of the age (Matt. 28:20). In the Old Testament, God first named Herself as I AM, conveying presence with the Israelites and Moses (Exodus 3:14). Jesus identified Himself with the Present God when He said, “Very truly I tell you, before Abraham was born, I am.” (John 8:58).

But most of us have a Jesus/Father God split, at least to some extent. Jesus is the good guy, interceding for us, and Father God is the distant, enthroned one. He is the final authority with the power to punish.

Jesus came to undo that thinking, because He and God are one (John 10:30), but it persists for most of us. Calling God Mother allows us to finally understand that Jesus really did come to show us who God is, that God is near, God is present, God is tender and loving toward us. (Of course, God is “other” too. God is still transcendent, but most of us have that deeply embedded in our psyche already and it trips us up as we try to relate to God.)

Embodied

The second reason has to do with the first. God is near, and God came to meet us in human flesh. Calling God “Mother” reminds us that God came in a body. Being a Mother can never be ethereal; it is always an enfleshed experience.

And it’s crucial we see God through the lens of the Incarnation, that God came to feel and experience many of the things we do, and that God came to relieve our physical pain. Jesus healed, Jesus delivered from spiritual oppression.

Jesus didn’t just show up and say I’m God, worship me. He lovingly cared for our bodies, like a mother.

The Image of Woman

Thirdly, calling God Mother reminds us that God made women in Her image (Gen. 1:27). This means that within the Trinity, there is the image of woman. Birth, nurture, love-poured-out, and whatever else is commonly thought of as feminine, is within God. The Bible depicts this, though we tend not to see its importance due to our belittlement of women within the church and in society.

The word pictures usually depict the motherliness of God, because that was the common reference point for women at that time, but the image of God is in all women and girls, not only mothers. Even the Bible includes comparisons between God and non-mothers. God as midwife and God as “mistress” (see verses below) depict a woman who was usually unmarried. The writer of Proverbs describes Wisdom as being birthed by God, putting Wisdom in the role of divine daughter.

The Biblical images below powerfully claim that God made women, too, in Her image. And so does calling God Mother.

The God Who Gave You Birth

“You were unmindful of the Rock that bore you; you forgot the God who gave you birth.” Deuteronomy 32:18

“Or who shut in the sea with doors when it burst out from the womb?– when I made the clouds its garment and thick darkness its swaddling band. Has the rain a father, or who has begotten the drops of dew? From whose womb did the ice come forth, and who has given birth to the hoarfrost of heaven?” Job 38:8-9, 28-29

“Yet it was you who took me from the womb; you kept me safe on my mother’s breast.” [God as midwife]. Psalm 22:9

“As the eyes of servants look to the hand of their master, as the eyes of a maid to the hand of her mistress, so our eyes look to the Lord our God.” [God as mistress]. Psalm 123:2

“I [Wisdom] was formed long ages ago, at the very beginning, when the world came to be. When there were no oceans, I was given birth [by God], when there were no springs abounding with water; before the mountains were settled in place, before the hills, I was given birth.” Proverbs 8:23-25

“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, I will bear; I will carry and will save.” Isaiah 46:3-4

“For a long time I have held my peace, I have kept still and restrained myself; now I will cry out like a woman in labor, I will gasp and pant.” Isaiah 42:14

“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.” Isaiah 49:15

“For thus says the Lord:…As a mother comforts her child, so I will comfort you.” Isaiah 66:12-13

May we all come to know God, who is our Mother as well as our Father, more closely.

See these and more feminine Biblical images here:

Feminine Images of God in the Bible