By Canon Chris Palmer
‘Jesus Christ who sets good against evil is our real Mother. We owe our being to him – and this is the essence of motherhood!… What does Jesus, our true Mother, do? Why, he, all-love, bears us to joy and eternal life!… Thus he carries us within himself in love. And he is in labour until the time has fully come for him to suffer the sharpest pangs and most appalling pain possible – and in the end he dies…’
It is easy to assume that these words are a piece of contemporary, progressive theology, pushing the bounds of gender and how we talk about Jesus in novel ways. In fact these words were written in the late 14th century, by the English mystic, Julian of Norwich. Her visions, received at a time of great suffering in her life, drew her and those who have read her over the centuries into a passionate appreciation of God’s grace and care for his people.
And her words are surprising and exciting – even to the point that she likens Jesus’s death on the cross to a woman dying in childbirth as she gives life to a new child. By his death, Jesus brings us to new birth. And there is more on this theme in her writings than I have quoted, but not enough space to reproduce it here.
There are so many aspects to Mothering Sunday, from its secular reinvention as ‘Mothers’ Day’, through the invitation to look to ‘Mother Church’, to this opportunity to engage with what is maternal in God. And the temptation (at least for me) is to rationalise and intellectualise this, as an exercise in cerebral thought.
But this couldn’t be further from Julian’s purpose. The secular Mothers’ Day is not an invitation to write essays about the meaning of motherhood, but rather to say thank you to and for our mothers, to enjoy their company, and to acknowledge the pain of separation that family life can bring. And in the same way, Mothering Sunday is not an invitation to think worthy thoughts about God, but an invitation to say thank you to God, to find joy in God’s love and care, to acknowledge the pain that God embraced and that we sometimes feel in relationship with God.
I said that there was little space for more from Julian. But let me give what space remains to her:
‘This fine and lovely word Mother is so sweet and so much its own that it cannot properly to used of any but him, and of her that is his own true Mother – and ours. In essence motherhood means love and kindness, wisdom, knowledge, goodness… And this blessed love Christ produces in us. This was shown in all the revelations, and especially in the splendid words that he uttered, ‘It is I whom you love.’
Quotations from Revelations of Divine Love by Julian of Norwich, chs 59 & 60, Penguin edition, translated by Clifton Wolters.