“Do not wean me, good Jesus, from the breasts of thy consolation….”
Could Jesus be your Mother this Mother’s Day? Let’s talk about the history of the metaphor of mother for Jesus. It starts with Jesus Himself, and moves right on through the minds of church fathers and theologians, to the middle ages.
Caring for Children
Jesus began this tradition when he lamented about the unbelieving spirit he kept running into. In contrast, He said, He wanted to gather Jerusalem’s children together under His wings like a hen does her chicks, but they resisted violently (Matt. 23:37; Luke 13:34).
The apostle Peter went beyond Jesus’ metaphor of the protecting mother hen, to speaking of Christ as a lactating human mother. He attributed to Jesus the ability to give metaphorical breast milk to the church: “Like newborn babies, crave pure spiritual milk, so that by it you may grow up in your salvation, now that you have tasted that the Lord is good” (I Pet. 2:3).
And the apostle Paul compared himself to a mother, with the same freedom Peter had to use the metaphor for Jesus. Paul said to the church at Thessalonica, “Just as a nursing mother cares for her children, so we cared for you” (I Thess. 2:7b). To the Galatians, he wrote, “My little children, with whom I again suffer the pain of childbirth until Christ is formed in you….” (4:19).
The Early Church Got It
Paul and Peter’s freedom to use the Old Testament mother metaphors for both male pastors and for Jesus continued among many of the church fathers. For example, the second century bishop Irenaeus wrote in Against Heresies:
He, who was the perfect bread of the Father, offered Himself to us as milk, [because we were] as infants. He did this when He appeared as a man, that we, being nourished, as it were, from the breast of His flesh, and having, by such a course of milk-nourishment, become accustomed to eat and drink the Word of God, may be able also to contain in ourselves the Bread of immortality, which is the Spirit of the Father.
Also in the second century, church father Clement of Alexandria gave a whole chapter in his book, The Teacher, to the metaphor of mother for God and Jesus. In this example, Christ is milk coming from the Father’s breasts:
Thus to Christ the fulfilling of His Father’s will was food; and to us infants, who drink the milk of the word of the heavens, Christ Himself is food. Hence seeking is called sucking; for to those babes that seek the Word, the Father’s breasts of love supply milk.
In the fourth century, preacher John Chrysostom wrote in Homilies on the Gospel of Saint Matthew, “Just as a woman nurtures her offspring with her own blood and milk, so also Christ continuously nurtures with His own blood those whom He has begotten.”
Others who wrote of Jesus as mother during this period include St. Augustine, says scholar Tim Bulkeley in Not Only a Father. Augustine saw Jesus as wearying Himself for us as a mother, and nursing us.
The Revival of Mother in the Middle Ages
Julian of Norwich is known as the first woman to have written a book in the English language (1385). She writes often of God, Jesus, and the Spirit as mother, making her seem a marginal voice in today’s theological world.
However, the male religious leaders of Lady Julian’s time, such as Bernard of Clairvaux, had already written in a similar vein about Christ. Caroline Walker Bynum, author of Jesus as Mother: Studies in the Spirituality of the High Middle Ages, notes that Bernard uses “mother” extensively to “describe Jesus, Moses, Peter, Paul, prelates in general, and more frequently, himself as abbot.”
Others like him who wrote about Jesus as mother include Aelred of Rievaulx, Guerric of Igny, Isaac of Stella, Adam of Perseigne, Helinand of Froidmont, William of St. Thierry, the monk of Farne and Anselm.
Anselm, the saint and influential theologian of the Catholic church in the twelfth century, wrote a prayer to “Christ, mother, who gathers under your wings your little ones…” and prayed, “But you, Jesus, good lord, are you not also a mother?”
He turned to the mother metaphor to make God more approachable, before Mary took that role in the church, says scholar Tim Bulkeley. Interestingly, Bulkeley notes that the veneration of Mary began to flourish in the monasteries of Western Europe in the Middle Ages, and after that, mother language for Jesus and God disappeared from the church almost entirely.
Jesus Still Nurses the Church
This is just a sampling of the freedom that church fathers, mothers, and medieval theologians had with the metaphor of mother for Christ.
That liberty should never have been squelched. As Lauren Winner writes in Wearing God, “The metaphor of nursing captured how Jesus sustains the church with grace and love.” It still can.
So think of Jesus’ mother heart toward you this Mother’s Day, as part of your communion with the saints of history.