Women in Church History Part 4: Julian of Norwich and Christ our Mother


I wanted to post about Julian of Norwich after a suggestion on a comment thread. She has always stood out to me because in my introductory Church History course I learned how she “lived in a small cell built into the wall” of the church (Ruth A. Tucker and Walter A. Liefeld, Daughters of the Church, Zondervan, 1987, 152). Her willingness to live like that struck me the first time I was taught about this period. Going to a Protestant seminary, you often heard many people decrying the monastics for their “removal from every day life.” Frequently someone would ask, “How is it living the Gospel if you remove yourself from society?” That is a different conversation for another time.

Back to Julian. She had 16 visions after an illness and wrote them down in a document later known as Revelations of Divine Love (Tucker, 152). Reading through this text one is struck by some of the more poignant metaphors and descriptions of God, Christ, and the Trinity. For example she writes, “He [Christ] is our Mother, brother, and savior” (Revelations, ch. 58). Calling Christ our mother in the fourteenth century seems to be pretty progressive. She describes that Christ “is our Mother of mercy” (ch. 58).

Julian’s description of Christ as our mother provides readers, especially today, with an expanded understanding of the Trinity. If we have elements of both Father and Mother in our trinitarian thought, then we might be able to see past much of the patriarchal traditions of the church. God is father of creation, God is mother of mercy and love. Putting aside a discussion of parental gender roles, many people see mothers as nurturing and loving. If we parlay these characteristics to God and Christ, we therefore might be able to live out a desirable faith, one that loves and nurtures others instead of one that simply preaches doctrine. The church today needs more of a nurturing and loving character. While some people might immediately dismiss her teaching of Christ as our mother simply because “she can’t say that about Christ,” they might miss the richness and applicability of such thinking.

I want to close by noting a small example of how Julian’s teaching can be applied today. I have been a part of several different church bodies over the last 15 years. I have seen churches royally botch how they treat individuals. One such instance was in a past church in which women were relegated to only being able to teach/ instruct children until they were 13. After that, the only teaching that these kids could receive had to come from men. Unfortunately, some women really struggled with their roles in this church simply because they didn’t feel they were called to ministering to kids (usually one of the only ministry roles afforded them other than singing in the choir). Similarly, every Sunday the sermons would use non-inclusive language (as did many of the songs). I heard a few people speak about how the very language of the sermons and songs made them feel less included as well (Can I apply this to me? Am I allowed? Is he using “men” for all people, or really just for men?). Imagine how the women in that congregation would have felt if one Sunday (OTHER THAN MOTHER’S DAY) the pastor said, “Today I want to talk about how Christ can serve as our mother.” If nothing else, Julian of Norwich teaches us today that language matters. Pastors and teachers need to expand their metaphors, remembering that our language can and does ostracize others.

Do ascetics that wall themselves up live out the gospel and have as big of an impact on the world versus those who don’t? Well, I think it’s pretty clear that Julian of Norwich did and does.

A Very Augustinian Christmas

Since my quarter has wrapped up (and with it all my assignments), I wanted to blog about Augustine. He is a figure whom I will be studying extensively over the coming months in preparation for my comprehensive exams. As a result, I wanted to find a passage in the Augustinian corpus which discusses the incarnation/ Christmas narrative. My gift to you comes from Augustine’s Enchiridion on Faith, Hope, and Charity (the version I have is a translation by Bruce Harbert of New City Press from 1999 titled The Augustine Catechism). The following quotes come from Chapter 38 of the Enchiridion (pp. 71-72 in my version). I have listed 3 separate quotes from this chapter which discuss how the Holy Spirit is not Christ’s father.

“But are we to say that the Holy Spirit is the father of Christ the man in such a way that, while God the Father begot the Word, the Holy Spirit begot the man, and that the one Christ is from the these two substances, both Son of God the Father according to his nature as Word and Son of the Holy Spirit according to his humanity, since the Holy Spirit begot him of the virgin mother like a father? Who will dare to say this?”

“Our question concerns how it is that we say that he was born of the Holy Spirit when he is in no way the son of the Holy Spirit. Similarly, the fact that God made this world does not justify our calling it God’s Son, or saying that it was born of God, but we can rightly speak of it as made or created or established or instituted by him, or other similar and suitable expressions.”

“While we acknowledge that he was born of the Holy Spirit and of the virgin Mary, it is hard to explain how he is not the son of the Holy Spirit and is the son of the virgin Mary; without doubt the Holy Spirit’s relationship to him is not that of a father, while the virgin’s relationship to him is that of a mother.” (emphasis present)

Augustine shows us here that the relationship between Christ and the Holy Spirit becomes complicated in view of the incarnation. As Christ is born into this world to a virgin through the Holy Spirit, Augustine sees the potential problem of someone ascribing a Father/ Son relationship to the Holy Spirit. Christ is begotten of the “almighty Father, from whom the Holy Spirit proceeds.” (Ench. 38; p.71)

For Augustine, the Holy Spirit takes a part in creating or establishing the Son on earth as a man, but this does not make the Holy Spirit the Father of the Son. In the same way, the earth is not “born of God” just because it is made by God (see first quote above). So what does this mean for us this Christmas season?

Many people like the Christmas story and often a pastor will recount the narratives found in Matthew or Luke during Advent. As we seek to understand the incarnation and what it means for our lives, Augustine illustrates the complexity of the relationships within the Trinity. As one who studies many different theological controversies of the early church (Augustine appears to grab hold of several theological issues at once in the quotes above), I find solace in the fact that God came to earth to save humanity. Such reasoning sounds more appropriate to Easter, but I love thinking about the implications of the Word putting on flesh to save humanity. The salvific implications of Good Friday/ Easter cannot have taken place without the incarnation. Christ came to earth to save humanity.

Merry Christmas