Learning of Jesus’ motherhood from Dame Julian

Thus our Lady is our Mother in whom we are all enclosed and of her born, in Christ: (for she that is Mother of our Saviour is Mother of all that shall be saved in our Saviour;) and our Saviour is our Very Mother in whom we be endlessly borne, and never shall come out of Him. Plenteously and fully and sweetly was this shewed … — Showings, LVII

For in these three is all our life: Nature, Mercy, Grace: whereof we have meekness and mildness; patience and pity; and hating of sin and of wickedness,—for it belongs properly to virtue to hate sin and wickedness. And thus is Jesus our Very Mother in Nature [by virtue] of our first making; and He is our Very Mother in Grace, by taking our nature made. All the fair working, and all the sweet natural office of precious Motherhood is impropriated to the Second Person: for in Him we have this Godly Will whole and safe without end, both in Nature and in Grace, of His own proper Goodness. I understood three manners of beholding of Motherhood in God: the first is grounded in our Nature’s making; the second is taking of our nature — and there begins the Motherhood of Grace; the third is Motherhood of working,—and therein is a spreading forth by the same Grace, of length and breadth and height and of deepness without end. And all is one Love. — Showings, LIX

It strikes me as noteworthy that Jesus chose an earthly mother, but his father was given by virtue of inheritance and position. I mean that Jesus was well and truly human only by virtue of his mother. That is the classic position which evangelicals, along with many others, have held, and it is the understanding we take from a careful reading of Scripture. Mary was a virgin when she became pregnant by the Holy Spirit. Jesus chose this girl to be his mother. Joseph came along for the ride (without meaning to denigrate the importance of a caring father!) Lately I’ve been pondering the implications, and Dame Julian has helped.

It was in 1373, when Julian was just over 30 years old and living with her mother, that she received her visions. In her book she tells that she had desired 3 graces from God, including three divine wounds; true contrition, loving compassion and a longing for God. In her 30th year she became sick to the point of death. The priest came and gave her the last rites. A few days later, on the Third Sunday after Easter, May 8th, having again been visited by her priest, the pain suddenly left her and a series of wonderful ‘Revelations’ or ‘Showings’ began. It was this experience that convinced her that she had to devote her life totally to God.

Whatever you make of these special visitations, many believers over the centuries have testified that Dame Julian’s writings have enriched and illuminated their own walk with the Lord. And I have found that Julian of Norwich, who I will call an early feminist, helps in my reflections.

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As noted above, unlike Joseph, Mary was the physical progenitor of Jesus, and the only one. She was most truly his mother. She bore him in her flesh, and gave birth in pain and hope like all mothers do, and then watched over him as a child, a young man, and then as an itinerant prophet and preacher. And finally, she watched over his death. But uniquely, as the only human who could make such a claim, she was chosen for this task.

Few of us choose our parents. None choose who gives them birth. Except Jesus. It’s reason enough to think that this must have been an unusual girl indeed.

Julian reminds us that she who is “Mother of our Saviour is Mother of all that shall be saved.” It’s a valid point, and worth considering. We share a mother in Mary, by virtue of our being included in Christ. We are grafted into him who is both human and divine, and human by virtue of Mary alone. We share a mother in Mary; our father is God.

Julian moves from noting that Mary is mother of all we who are saved, to noting that Jesus is our mother in an analogical sense. The line of motherhood, in Julian’s mind, moves from Mary the mother, to Jesus the mother. In what sense does Julian apply motherhood to Jesus?

First, by virtue of our making. The Word is our creator. Jesus is truly our mother in being our creator. He thought of us, carried us in all his hopes and dreams, and then spoke our lives into being.

Second, by virtue of grace. Jesus is our true mother in grace. He brings the kingdom by the gift of his incarnation, and then by the exchange of his life for ours. In his great compassion he takes our nature on himself, and then he redeems it. Thus by both nature and grace Jesus becomes our mother.

It’s a twist on the way we usually see our relationship to Christ. Effectively, as Douglas John Hall has pointed out, many of us are monists. We worship Jesus, and Jesus is God. The Trinity and the relations of the Three is a distant and strange reality. So we have Jesus, who was male and who we identify as a man, and the Father. We become gender-locked worshippers. But Julian, in her teaching, pushes us to a richer view of the godhead. Suddenly we have both a mother (analogically, which is all we ever have anyway!) in Jesus, and a Father in God. I like this, both because it says something important experientially, in the way we live out the phenomenon, and theologically, because it moves us beyond the “just Jesus” kind of monism, while also giving us an analogical anchor on the female side of the gender debate.

So Julian notes three manners of beholding motherhood in God. The first two were Nature and Grace: the third is working. She writes,

.. the third is Motherhood of working,—and therein is a spreading forth by the same Grace, of length and breadth and height and of deepness without end. And all is one Love.

At the beginning of chapter LIX Julian writes, “Jesus Christ that does Good against evil is our Very Mother: we have our Being of Him where the Ground of Motherhood begins —with all the sweet Keeping by Love, that endlessly follows.” She goes on to say in explanation:

Our high Father, God Almighty, which is Being, He knew and loved us from before time: of which knowing, in His marvellous deep charity and the foreseeing counsel of all the blessed Trinity, He willed that the Second Person should become our Mother. Our Father [willeth], our Mother worketh, our good Lord the Holy Ghost confirmeth: and therefore it belongs to us to love our God in whom we have our being: reverently thanking and praising Him for our making, mightily praying to our Mother for mercy and pity, and to our Lord the Holy Ghost for help and grace. —Showings, LIX

While the analogy is unfamiliar at first glance, the motherhood of God is present by analogy in both the Psalms and the prophets, in pictures like God sheltering us under his wings (echoed by Jesus in Luke 13:34. Or see Maria-Joses’s post where she notes the un-conflicted analogies of “warrior” and “mother” in Isa.42). Julian understands that her language is analogical. She isn’t attempting to attribute physical gender to Jesus, which would be nonsensical anyway. Instead she resorts almost to paradox as seen above: “And thus is Jesus our Very Mother in Nature [by virtue] of our first making; and He [sic] is our Very Mother in Grace…”

By “the Motherhood of working” Julian intends the daily care and oversight that comes from Jesus by grace. Jesus does ‘the service and the office of Motherhood in all things.” She continues,

The Mother’s service is nearest, readiest, and surest: [nearest, for it is most of nature; readiest, for it is most of love; and surest] for it is most of truth. This office none might, nor could, nor ever should do to the full, but He alone. We know that all our mothers’ bearing is [bearing of] us to pain and to dying: and what is this but that our Very Mother, Jesus, He—All-Love—bears us to joy and to endless living? Thus He sustains us within Himself in love; and travailed, unto the full time that He would suffer the sharpest throes and the most grievous pains that ever were or ever shall be; and died at the last. – Showings, LX

The whole tender analogy grows out of Jesus suffering not only to redeem us, but to bring to birth a new humanity in the world. His suffering is therefore travail, except that it surpasses the travail of any earthly mother in both purpose and intent. Where a human mother brings only physical birth, and that without any guarantee of life beyond life, Jesus suffering brings spiritual life, and is unto continuing life: life after life after death.

Julian then continues the analogy of Jesus working as our mother by his ongoing nurture. She writes,

He would not stint of working: wherefore then it behooves Him to feed us… The mother may give her child suck of her milk, but our precious Mother, Jesus, He may feed us with Himself, and does it, full courteously and full tenderly, with the Blessed Sacrament that is precious food of my life; and with all the sweet Sacraments He sustains us full mercifully and graciously. – Showings, LX

While western believers maintain a wide perspective on the nature and meaning of the sacraments, Julian isn’t entering the debate around mechanics. She simply aims to tell us that “[his] flesh is real food, and [his] blood is real drink” (John 6:55).

However we conceive it, God feeds us, day by day and moment by moment, as we trust in our Lord’s mothering and fathering care.

Resource: The Revelations of Divine Love.

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