AFFN member and author Dr. Lisa Deam is offering an exclusive to Contributing Members of the Network: A book excerpt series from her latest publication, A World Transformed: Exploring the Spirituality of Medieval Maps (Cascade Books, 2015).
Jesus as Mother: Part 3
In this series, we’re looking at the Ebstorf Map in conjunction with the medieval and biblical tradition of “Jesus as mother.” You may want to take a moment to review the last post on the biblical imagery of Jesus giving birth on the cross. In this excerpt from my new book, I explore what the Ebstorf Map means in my— and maybe your— walk of faith.
I cannot look at the Ebstorf Map without remembering the birth of my own children. I remember the agony. The blood and sweat. The frazzled nerves. One labor was thirty-three hours in length— one hour for every year of Jesus’ earthly life, I like to say. The second lasted little more than sixty minutes. Both were excruciating. Although the pain no longer wracks my body, I doubt that I will ever completely forget the physical sensation of bringing life into the world.
I know that I will never forget the sensation that followed—joy. As I held my newborn babies, my suffering fell away, and I knew only the awe of becoming a mother. There was nothing I would not do for the new life in my arms. I cherish my birth stories and their mix of suffering and joy, anguish and new beginnings.
The Ebstorf Map gives me a new birth story to cherish; in this one, I become the infant so long awaited. I remember holding my babies, but the Ebstorf Map asks me to imagine being the child—the world—that Jesus holds in his nail-pierced hands. I am the one for whom he suffered. The one he loves. The one he will raise up. This birth story is written on my heart because I know that Jesus my mother will never let me go.
And not only me. Thanks to our new name for Jesus, every Christian has a birth story to tell. We may not all be mothers, but we are all children. We share a connection with our savior as intimate as the one between a mother and her newborn baby.
I suspect that in this new name, however, many of us find a challenging image of our Lord. The mothering Jesus is not the Jesus we encounter in mainstream expressions of the Christian faith. To some, this Jesus may seem more outlandish than the most fanciful fairy tale. In 2003, Dan Brown shocked the world with one such tale in which, he claimed, Jesus had married and fathered a child. The Da Vinci Code spawned an industry of books that refuted this fictional story point by point. The tradition of Jesus as mother is, arguably, far more unsettling than Brown’s novel. Even The Da Vinci Code did not go so far as to suggest that Jesus himself gave birth!
Yet this tradition, so cherished by medieval Christians, is also biblical, and it takes us to the heart of our faith. Jesus himself said that to see heaven, we must be born again. And in Acts, Peter describes that birth as Jesus’ labor on the cross. To accept salvation, we must also accept Jesus as the mother who brought us forth. Savior and mother become synonymous terms.
This acceptance does not mean that we need to change all the pronouns describing Jesus to “she.” It doesn’t mean that we deny Christ’s maleness. Medieval Christians didn’t, and we shouldn’t, either. If we believe in the incarnation, we must hold that Jesus was born a man. His motherhood means, instead, that we take Jesus out of the box we like to keep him in. Jesus is our everything. He cannot be limited to the roles of friend, father, or brother. As our “all in all,” he has to be our mother, too.
In accepting Jesus as mother, we also acknowledge something about ourselves. We are encouraged to see our faith for the birth— the painful, messy, and glorious birth—that it is. We gain a language to describe the struggle of claiming and living our life in Christ. A good example can be found in Augustine’s account of his conversion in the Confessions. In the dramatic moments leading up to his acceptance of Jesus Christ, Augustine experienced a “fiery struggle:” he made involuntary motions with his body, flung himself to the ground, and wept bitter tears. The experience sounds very physical, and it is— he is describing the birth of his faith. Afterward, Augustine says to God that he “prattled like a child to thee” (Confessions 9.1.1). He was reborn and stood, childlike, before his Lord.
Each one of us goes through this birth, whether our conversion is a long process or a short and dramatic experience. Even the simple act of clinging to belief, day after day, might feel to us like a birth. Jesus saved us once and for all, but we go through the harrowing passage from doubt to faith again and again. Our faith must be reborn each day, each time we are tested, each time we lose heart.
Sometimes, our struggle is such that we ourselves seem to be giving birth, as Paul intimates in his letter to the Romans: “We know that the whole creation has been groaning as in the pains of childbirth right up to the present time. Not only so, but we ourselves, who have the firstfruits of the Spirit, groan inwardly as we wait eagerly for our adoption to sonship, the redemption of our bodies” (Rom 8:22–23). In this passage, Paul defines the life of faith as a prolonged experience of childbirth. We imitate the creation in groaning with the painful expectation of what we are becoming. I find Paul’s words to be an apt description of the suffering we endure as our redemptive selves are slowly and agonizingly born. Yet however much we ourselves suffer, we must acknowledge that Jesus is the author—the mother—of our spiritual life. He is the one who gives birth to the faith that we struggle to maintain each day.
Through all our days, Jesus never stops mothering. During each stage of our spiritual life, from our birth through our growing pains and growing maturity, he will be there. Having labored to give us life, he will complete the good work he began in us.
We can see the Ebstorf Map as an image of our spiritual life in Christ. It is a little like looking at a family album. Our life begins with gestation, as we receive nourishment through the navel of Jerusalem. The expectant savior planned for our arrival for a very long time! Next comes our birth, when Jesus gave us new life on the cross. Our life continues with our present experience, as we grow in faith and strive to walk faithfully in the world—the very world pictured as Christ’s body on the map.
Through it all, Jesus never lets us go. He holds us firmly in his hands, from birth through maturation to our eventual end—which is yet another new beginning. He will see us through all our passages and tenderly guide us every step of the way. When our earthly life is over, we will meet him face to face. Our birth pains and growing pains will be no more. On that day, we will rejoice, for we will be reunited with Jesus our mother. We can confidently say that in him, we will be delivered!