by Elaine Julian Ramshaw
As truly as God is our Father, so truly is God our Mother. We were created by the motherhood of love, a mother’s love which never leaves us.—Julian of Norwich, Showings, Classics of Western Spirituality, translated by Edmund Colledge and James Walsh (Paulist Press, 1978), pp. 296-297.
THESE WORDS WERE WRITTEN six and a half centuries ago by Julian of Norwich, an English woman, visionary and theologian. Was she ever a mother? We don’t know. When we come to know her, from her own writings and a few mentions by others, she is an anchorite, a sort of hermit in the city, living her whole life in a room or suite of rooms attached to a church, where she prays, studies and counsels people who come to her visitors’ window. Perhaps she was unmarried when she entered the anchorage, though she was already in her 30s. Perhaps she had previously married and had one or more children; possibly she had lost her family to death.
Times were hard in 14th-century England, during Julian’s lifetime. Yet her book—the first book written in English by a woman— is one of the most powerful accounts in Christian literature of the astonishing love of God, a love she experiences as tender, intimate, wise and powerful.
LIKE A MOTHER
The Old Testament offers images of God’s constant and tender care for us being like a mother’s love. Even before Julian’s time, a number of male theologians had written of Christ as our mother. But Julian expands greatly on this metaphor of the motherhood of Jesus or of God.
Here’s one: Christ is our mother because he birthed us into endless life. Julian compares his suffering on the cross to the suffering of a mother in childbirth, a suffering that Jesus undertakes willingly in order to bring us to life. She writes this at a time when the risk of dying in childbirth was much greater than it is today.
Here’s another: Jesus’ feeding us in the sacrament of communion is like a mother nursing her baby. Julian writes: “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 most tenderly, with the blessed sacrament, which is the precious food of true life” (Showings, 298).
It’s also reminiscent of 1 Thessalonians 2:7-8, where the apostle Paul compares himself to a nurse—not a medical professional, but a wetnurse, a woman who breastfeeds other women’s babies: “We were gentle among you, like a nurse tenderly caring for her own children. So deeply do we care for you that we are determined to share with you not only the gospel of God but also our own selves, because you have become very dear to us.”
Another way Julian speaks of the motherhood of God is to say that the love of a kind human mother, like every other goodness in this world, is itself God’s own love at work. Sometimes we say this on Mother’s Day in a way that idealizes motherhood. This Mother’s Day, then, let’s acknowledge the huge variety of experiences of motherhood in our lives. Some of us are mothers ourselves—whether by giving birth, by adoption or by marrying a parent—who in our better moments and deepest intentions live out this tender, godly care, carefully attuned to who our child is and what our child needs today. Some of us, like me, are people who are not mothers, although we may mother in other ways as godparents, as caregivers or by caring for clients, students or patients. Some of us are men who, in the 21st century, have the opportunity to care intimately for our own children in the way that only mothers did for much of recorded history.
Mother’s Day can be a painful day if we had mothers who failed us, if we mourn a daughter or son who has died, or if we grieve our inability to bear a child. We can appreciate that Julian, despite her understanding of the godliness of motherly love, did not romanticize human motherhood. She recognizes that a mother may have to suffer the death of her child, unable to prevent it by her love. And for those of us whose mothers failed us, Julian doesn’t say that God is present in every mother’s action, but in the action of every kind and loving mother.
Whether your mother showed you the loving face of God or not, God’s mothering love is there for you. If you hear Julian’s vignette of the desperate child calling to its mother and you remember only the shame and distress and not a mother who heard and helped, then especially you should know: God always welcomes your need and delights in your asking.
Julian wrote to help us understand that love is God’s meaning. So all can come to the table, knowing that our kind mother God sets it for us, the guests of honor, the dearly loved children. Christ is determined to share with you not only the food and the word of salvation, but also himself, because you are so dear to him. God will rejoice in your hunger and thank you for coming.
This is an excerpt from a longer piece by Ramshaw that appeared in the May 2021 issue of Gather magazine.
Mother’s Day Challenge Grant in support of Katie’s Fund!
The Leadership Team of the Katie’s Fund Endowment Campaign is pleased to announce a $25,000 Mother’s Day Challenge given by Barbara Thistle. The goal of this challenge is to raise an additional $25,000 for Katie’s Fund by Wednesday, May 31. All NEW gifts and pledges given between April 13 – May 31 will be matched, up to $25,000. Barbara served on the churchwide executive board and in several capacities on the Metro New York Synodical Women’s Organization, remaining active today.
What is Katie’s Fund?
Katharina von Bora Luther was a practical and bold woman of faith. Through Katie’s Fund, Women of the ELCA honors her life by supporting global connections, leadership development and living theology. 2122: Growing Katie’s Fund for the next 100 years is a one-million-dollar campaign for Katie’s Fund that is designed to support the organization into the next 100 years of mission and ministry.
Make a gift before May 31
- Donations can be made on-line. Please remember to choose “Katie’s Fund” in the drop-down options.
- Complete a Gift Intention/Pledge Form, available here.
- Send a check: Make the check out to: Women of the ELCA. Write Katie’s Fund Matching Gift on the memo line.
Women of the ELCA
ELCA GIFT PROCESSING CENTER
P.O. Box 1809
Merrifield, VA 22116-8009
- Or call 800-638-3522 to make a donation with a credit card. Operators are ready to assist you Monday through Friday, 8:00 a.m.-5:00 p.m. Central Daylight Time.
Questions? Call Linda Post Bushkofsky at 773-380-2740 or email her at [email protected].