The National Catholic Review
Julie Donovan Massey
Exploring an Alternative Image of Love

In his way out the door my husband, Shawn, looks at me with honest concern in his eyes. Are you going to be okay? Yes, I bravely try to assure him, choking back a few tears while holding our beautiful new baby girl on my lap. He is off to work and will drop our two older girls at their respective daycare centers, leaving me time to cuddle with Bridget and rest. That is the theory, at least. As my emotions swing, I try to reassure myself: You are lucky. This is your third ride on the post-partum roller coaster and you know you do not have it as bad as some. You have barely slept for the past eight days, and hormones are wildly raging through your system. It will pass. This too shall pass.

On this frazzled, edgy morning I am surprised as my thoughts begin to turn to God. Perhaps it is because I am at such a loss for control and rationality that this liminal moment opens up to greater things. As Bridget and I rock, I experience a fuzzy recollection. Is it from a Quote-a-Day calendar of Julian of Norwich or maybe one of many inspiring lectures by the feminist theologians who guided my divinity studies? Something has left a message ringing in my ears: Jesus our mother.

In this moment when I am so intensely motherfresh from childbirth and in the early days of breastfeedingI find myself closest to the presence of God as our Mother. Not Mary, with all due respect to that great servant and disciple, but God Herself. And I begin to ask myself, what do I know? What does my experience as mother teach me about the ways God loves us?

A mother gives life. My experience as a pregnant woman has shown me that the process of holding life within you changes you. For the pregnant woman the physical changes are numerous and humbling. The changes in the heart are greater. Love grows with each passing week. As does concern. A quiet fretting that harm will come to the beloved creation. A sense so early on that one does not harbor complete control. What could this mean for God? Is God changed in the process of giving us life? Having relinquished control, does God look on us with breathless concern for our well-being?

A mother sustains her young child’s life. Through touch and gaze and nourishment, a mother provides what is needed for her child to grow. And the child looks for nothing else. But the earthly mother has the clear advantage here: she can physically touch, physically sustain. How does the God who loves us as a mother reach out, touch us and offer us sustenance?

A mother weeps, experiencing profound sadness for the danger her child inevitably faces. I remember a quiet morning when our first child was about two weeks old. I looked down at her beautiful face and with tears in my eyes I thought: I meant to make the world a better place before I brought you into it. Is it too much to think that God may occasionally look down on her beloved creation with deep sadness? I meant it to be better for you. I have tried to show the world the way. You have left the garden and have not yet made it to the kingdom. You will be hurt and I am so sorry. It brings me pain to know this. Why not believe that God weeps for us? What does God lose to sadness?

A mother sacrifices. Her waistline, sleep, any sense of having it together...a mother is called to give up control. I remember one Saturday afternoon when our daughter Megan was four months old. My husband and I took her and her sister to church despite the fact that Megan was tired and fussy. When she became a disturbance to others I took her to the rear of church. I knew that if I were to move around she would quickly give in to the sleep she needed. So there I was, in the back of church, half-jogging with our young child in my arms. As I did this, the priest spoke the words of consecration: This is my body given up for you. And I thought, I know what that means! Through pregnancy, childbirth, breastfeeding, sleepless nights...I know what it means to give up your body so that someone else might live. We see on Good Friday how much Jesus had to sacrifice in attempting to share life with us. In what ways does God continue to give of herself that we might have life?

A mother yearns to be present. My own mother left this earth when I had just turned 30. Our oldest daughter, wise enough to piece things together at age four, occasionally asks me how long I am going to live. Forever, I wish I could tell her! Since I cannot promise forever, I tell her that I will try to live a very long time: I will try to live long enough for you to wish that I was gone. Shannon does not understand my sarcasm, or know that I mean that to be further away than her teenage years, but she hears the heart of the message. I do not want to leave you. Let me be there for your first day of kindergarten, your graduations, your wedding, the birth of your children, the stories of your grandchildren. Let me be there. Not only in spirit, as I am sure my mother remains, but in person so I can hold you, comfort you, laugh with you, cherish you. Does God’s heart yearn to be present to us? Often we imagine God as distant and untouched by the events of our lives. What if God searches daily for ways to make her presence known?

Finally, a mother’s heart delights in her child. The sense of wonder grows in each moment of the child’s development. The first coo is celebrated as wildly as the college graduation. The young child shares a toy or the grown child make a wise decision, and the mother beams. The people I work with are immensely patient and kind as they listen to my frequent reports of the adventures of our three growing girls! It is impossible to keep from bragging when you are a daily witness to the miracle of beauty and goodness growing in a child. The heart summersaults in its pride and happiness. Why not allow God’s heart this same potential for delight?

This image of God as our mother, offered to us in Scripture and probed by some of the mystics, is ancient. But it is not celebrated. Rarely spoken or sung or seen in our works of art, it is easily forgotten. We forget that Isaiah sings of God who longs to comfort us as a mother comforts her child (66:13) or that Luke’s Gospel offers a poetic image of God as a mother hen gathering her young (13:34).

We ignore the insight of great women in our tradition, women who embrace images of God that both surprise us and challenge us to overcome the limits we have drawn around the reality of God. Julian of Norwich takes comfort in the image of Jesus as a mother who nourishes us with himself. The 13th-century mystic Mechtilde of Magdeburg offers this powerful image: God is like a great mother, who bends and takes the child from the floor to her bosom. In our own day, theologians and poet-prophets alike challenge our complacent willingness to be satisfied with a single name for God. Elizabeth Johnson explores the idolatry of singular images in her book She Who Is, while Edwina Gateley describes the feminine and maternal face of God in a book whose very titleA Warm Moist Salty Godmoves us past pristine, formal images of God.

Created in God’s image, women who are mothers must speak out and share the wisdom of their motherhood. The reality of God defies the limits of language. We must not rely on images or titles that conveniently categorize God. When we praise our God incarnate we must be willing to search out her face in many cultures, traditions and experiences. God’s face may be seen where there is great love, tender mercy and gentle wisdom. At times this is the face of a mother.

Julie Donovan Massey has worked as a youth minister and pastoral associate. She currently works in campus ministry at St. Norbert College, De Pere, Wis.

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