Julian, Jesus, and Motherhood

It was Mother’s Day in most countries other than the UK on Sunday (including the US, where I grew up), and I’ve been reading a lot of Julian of Norwich lately. So it seemed only natural to write about one of Julian’s most famous and unique theological concepts: Jesus as our divine mother.

We’re used to talking about God as Father. The Lord’s Prayer starts ‘Our Father’ after all. But there are plenty of places scattered throughout the Bible where God is referred to as a mother. And it has not been unusual, throughout history, for the Holy Spirit to be given feminine pronouns.

But Jesus? Surely Jesus is the one part of the Trinity who has been regarded as unimpeachably male throughout church history? Not for Julian.

To be fair, she isn’t talking about the gender of Jesus as a human being. Our modern ideas of sex and gender did not exist for Julian, and she always uses male pronouns for him. However, she unquestionably views Jesus as the most ‘motherly’ part of the Trinity. Her visions of God led her to intense contemplation of God’s love, sin, and the resurrection. Through this, she developed a deeply visceral metaphor of Jesus’s death and resurrection as a type of spiritual childbirth.

Julian views Jesus as a mother both in nature and in action, through three main mechanisms. A lot of Julian’s writing here relies on her understanding of the Trinity, and as you might imagine when discussing three people who are also one person, this can get a little confusing.  The first mechanism is creation. Jesus is God, and therefore a part of our creation. Jesus created us to be the way we are. The second mechanism is the incarnation; Jesus becoming human. This is where, as Julian writes ‘the motherhood of grace begins’. And finally, the third is the motherhood at work, which is Julian’s blanket term for the divine at work in the world.

As she explains it ‘Our true Mother Jesus… 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 the last he died. And when he had finished, and borne us so for bliss, still all this could not satisfy his wonderful love. And he revealed this… ‘if I could suffer more, I would suffer more’. He could not die any more, but he did not want to cease working; therefore he must needs nourish us, for the precious love of motherhood has made him our debtor.’ (Showings, the Long Text, the 60th chapter). For Julian, Jesus carries us, he goes through immense pain and suffering to ‘bear’ us, and then he nurtures us, providing comfort and support, like a human mother. He allows us to fail so that we learn, and most importantly, ‘and always as the child grows in age and in stature, she acts differently, but she does not change her love.’

This is the overriding theme through all of Julian’s writing. Jesus, God, the Trinity, they are unstinting in their love for us. Other Christian writers may have viewed things in terms of punishment, but even when writing about sin, Julian is insistent. We are loved beyond all measure, solely for the fact of our existence. To her, this is the kind of love only a mother could have for the child they have birthed.

Even when discussing her visions of the crucifixion, which are vividly bloody in their detail, she doesn’t present it from the common ‘you were so terrible God had to kill his son for you to get rid of all your horrible sins’ perspective. Julian views this wholly as an act of love. ‘He who created man for love, by the same love wanted to restore man to the same blessedness and even more.’ (10th chapter). She is unstinting in her depictions of Christ’s suffering, but insists that this suffering was undertaken willingly and out of love. She describes Jesus saying to her again and again ‘If I could suffer more, I would suffer more.’ In her interpretation of her visions of the crucifixion, she says ‘His meaning was this: How could it be that I should not do for love of you all that I was able? To do this does not grieve me’ (22nd chapter).

To Julian, Jesus’s death seems a lot less like a sacrifice and a lot more like a heroic act of affection that we would now usually associate with romantic love, or perhaps the love of a mother for her child.

This was my first encounter with her theology, and I may have jumped in the deep end by reading almost the entirety of her writings. In case this wasn’t clear already, I’m a little obsessed. She is almost alarmingly ‘modern’ in some of her perspectives, and while I am very thankful that her writing has survived to today, it does make me wonder how different the landscape of Christianity would be now if she hadn’t been pushed to the fringes throughout most of history. I’m still on my little journey through female saints and theological writers, but every stop I make reinforces my sense of having found a mother, a sister, an aunt, a friend. This whole time, there has been a crowd of brilliant women hidden in the endless ranks of male theologians, and I’m so happy to be finding them now.

And I am especially happy to have had the opportunity to dig into Julian’s theology. Often the ‘God is love and loves you’ messages shy away from any discussion of sin or suffering. Julian is certainly not afraid of suffering. But she manages to interweave the very real existence of pain in the world with the definite and unshakeable assertion that none of it will ever distance God from you and none of it means that you are not loved.