Sometime the Gospel of Saint John can leave us feeling a little left behind. The language this Gospel places on the lips of Christ as he explains His relationship with the Father surpasses our natural ability to understand. In our experience, and according to God’s design, the love of a mother and the love of a father are separated by gender. The full extent and bounty of love can most effectively be expressed by the two poles of human nature. God, the source and substance of love, could not have created beings who are able to love in ways unfamiliar or impossible to Himself. “Can He who made the ear not hear? Can He who formed the eye not see?”1 Can the one who created motherhood not love like a mother?
It can help us understand St. John’s Gospel if we stop reading the passages where Jesus talks about His relationship with the Father as though it were a logical treatise. Faithful intellectuals want to prove that those passages are rationally sound and produce coherent representations if we map them out. The rest of us daydream because Jesus’ voice starts to sound like our high-school math teacher. With faith, and the help of the Holy Spirit, we can listen to the maternal inflection present as Jesus describes His relationship with the Father. The Son is from the Father, but he is also equal to the Father – just as Eve, though from Adam, is his equal. The difference between persons doesn’t just define the empty space of independence and autonomy, it creates room for communion and self-gift. As Eve became the mother of all the living, even the mother of Adam her spouse, the Son is not inferior to the Father but loves, serves, and obeys His will as having freely chosen it with Him. In faith, we can hear Jesus’ words as full of spousal and maternal love for the Father.
The Blessed Virgin Mary is the perfect echo of Jesus’ motherhood. The Sacred Heart of Jesus and the Immaculate Heart of Mary should always be pictured together because they cannot be separate. The highest expression of Jesus’ love is revealed through a woman, His mother. Jesus’ love is maternal, and that’s why he can and does give us Mary to be our mother, “Behold your mother.”2 Mary’s love for Jesus is her motherhood, and Jesus’ motherhood for us is the love of the Blessed Virgin Mary. As we discover God’s maternal love for us, we are blown away by how the mystery of love in God unites what our human experience, at best, knows as the separate personal perfections of human nature. God’s love – His very being – is the unity and goodness of perfect fatherhood and perfect motherhood. “What God has united, let no man separate.”3 If the Old Testament makes God’s Paternal heart palpable, the New Testament makes His Maternal heart palpable. The unity of these is their fruit, the gift of love we can receive, the Holy Spirit.
“This providence and love of God therefore, which the Lord in unwearied goodness deigns to show us, he compares to the tender heart of a kind mother. He does so because he wishes to express that love by a figure of human affection, and he finds in his creatures no such feeling of love to which he could better compare it. And he uses this example, because nothing dearer can be found in human nature.”4
“From the deep and original bond—indeed the unity—that links a mother to her child there springs a particular relationship to the child, a particular love. Of this love one can say that it is completely gratuitous, not merited, and that in this aspect it constitutes an interior necessity: an exigency of the heart. It is, as it were, a ‘feminine’ variation of the masculine fidelity to self expressed by hesed. Against this psychological background, rahamim generates a whole range of feelings, including goodness and tenderness, patience and understanding, that is, readiness to forgive. […] This love, faithful and invincible thanks to the mysterious power of motherhood, is expressed in the Old Testament texts in various ways: as salvation from dangers, especially from enemies; also as forgiveness of sins —of individuals and also of the whole of Israel; and finally in readiness to fulfill the (eschatological) promise and hope, in spite of human infidelity”5
“Though God is affronted he is still Father, though provoked to anger he remains fond of his children. This alone he seeks—not to take vengeance when we affront him but to see you repent and call on him. Would that we were fervid in our affections as his love is kindled toward us. This fire seeks only a beginning, and if you allow it a tiny spark, you will kindle a roaring fire of goodness. It is not because he is affronted that his anger is kindled, but because you are the one who has affronted him and been alienated from him. For if we who are sinners, when our children affront us, are distressed, how much more is God, who cannot bear being affronted, filled with anger at your offense? If we love by nature, how much more intense is the love of the one whose tender affection is beyond nature. For even if a mother forget the children of her womb, yet I will not forget you (Is 49:15).”6
“How significant in God’s words is this reference to maternal love. God’s mercy is made known by the unequaled tenderness of motherhood, besides being made known to us by fatherhood. Again Isaiah says: “For the mountains may depart and the hills be removed, but my steadfast love shall not depart from you, and my covenant of peace shall not be removed, says the Lord who has compassion on you” (Is 54:10).”7
“J. “She said to him, ‘Lord of the age, since there is the possibility of forgetting before the throne of your glory, is it possible that you will forget what “I” did at Sinai?’
K. “He said to her, ‘Yet the “I” [referring to ‘I am the Lord your God’ of Ex. 20:1] will not forget you’ (Is. 49:15).”
L. This is in line with what R. Eleazar said R. Oshaia said, “What is the meaning of the verse of Scripture, ‘Yes, “these” will be forgotten’ (Is. 49:15)?
M. “This refers to the sin of the golden calf.
N. “ ‘But the “I” will not forget you’ (Is. 49:15)—”8
“Jerusalem’s prosperity, her “peace” (shalom), a generous gift of God, will assure her offspring a life surrounded by motherly tenderness: they will be carried upon her hip, and dandled upon her knees, and this motherly tenderness will be the tenderness of God himself: “As one whom his mother comforts, so I will comfort you” (Isaiah 66:13). Thus, the Lord uses a maternal metaphor to describe his love for his creatures.
We can also read an earlier passage in the Book of Isaiah, which gives God a maternal profile: “Can a woman forget her suckling child, that she should have no compassion on the son of her womb? Even though these may forget, yet I will not forget you” (Isaiah 49:15). In our Canticle the Lord’s words to Jerusalem end by taking up the theme of inner vitality, expressed with another image of fertility and energy: that of new grass, an image applied to bones to portray the vigor of the body and of life.
At this point, as we contemplate the city-mother, it is easy to broaden our gaze to take in the silhouette of the Church, virgin and fertile mother … What married woman has more children than holy Church? She is virgin through the holiness receives in the sacraments and she is mother of peoples.”9
““Compassion” is the divine grace that envelops and transfigures the faithful, while “love” is expressed in the original Hebrew with the use of a characteristic term that refers to the maternal “womb” of the Lord, even more merciful than that of a mother (cf. Is 49:15).”10
“You called yourself a mother when, speaking with Jerusalem, you said: “How many times I wanted to place your children under my wings, like the hen, and you did not want it” (Matt 23:37). To make us understand the personal love and tenderness of your heart, you compared yourself with the hen that especially loses her calm and is stricken by what touches her children. Not only are you like her, but you surpass her and all mothers, as you, Lord, said through Isaiah: “Can a mother by chance forget the child she bore in her womb? Well, if she should forget, I will not forget you, because I have you graven on my hands, and your walls are always before my eyes” (Isa 49:14–16). Who, Lord, however much he delves within your heart, will be able to search out the ineffable secrets of love and sorrow that are enclosed within it? You are not content, Lord, with having a strong love and suffering the afflictions of a father. But, so that no gift be lacking to us and no labor to you, you desire to be our mother in the tenderness of love that is wont to cause deep affection. And you desire to be more than our mother. Of no mother do we read that in order to remember her son always, she wrote a book in which hard nails are the pen and her own hands are the paper. Nor do we read that, when the nails were thrust into her hands and passed through them, blood came forth instead of ink, so that, with grievous pains, she might give testimony to her great interior love that does not permit her to forget what we carry in our hands. If you suffered this on the cross, with your hands and feet nailed, a thing that exceeds all the love of mothers, who will tell of the great love and pain with which you bore all men in the womb of your heart, groaning over their sins with the groans of childbirth? You did this not for an hour or a day but for the whole thirty-three years of your life until, like another Rachel, you died in childbirth on the cross so that Benjamin might be born alive (cf. Gen 35:18). The “serpents” you were carrying within you, Lord, were giving you such bites that they caused you to burst open on the cross. This was so that, at the cost of your pains, the “serpents” would be transformed into simple and meek sheep who, in exchange for your death, would attain a life of grace.”11
““As a mother comforts her child, so will I comfort you” (Isa. 66:13; see also 46:3; 49:15–16). Like a shepherd who cares for sheep (Ps. 23; 95:7; 100:3; Isa. 40:11), God’s love values the difference of what is other, remains faithful to it, and shows compassionate regard for its well-being. Recalling the discussion in the last chapter, God’s power is the primordial possibility of availability, with its aspects of respect, fidelity, and sympathetic attunement with and for the other. Hence, God’s love is an intrinsically relational power, one that risks suffering by becoming vulnerable. William Placher summarizes the point in claiming that God’s vulnerability “is a perfection of loving freedom.”109 God’s is a freedom that gives. It models availability, and indeed makes possible creation’s availability to God. Creation is the gift of divine free love which opens up reciprocity between God and world. God is open to the world, and the world opens up to God.”12
- Ps. 93(94):9.
- Jn. 19:27
- Mt. 19:6, Mk. 10:9.
- John Cassian, Conference 13.17.
- (Dives in misericordia, note 52; cf. Mulieris dignitatem, 8).
- John Chrysostom. Wilken, R. L., Christman, A. R., & Hollerich, M. J. (Eds.). (2007). Isaiah: Interpreted by Early Christian and Medieval Commentators. (R. L. Wilken, A. R. Christman, & M. J. Hollerich, Trans.) (p. 377). Grand Rapids, MI; Cambridge, UK: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company.
- John Paul II. (2014). Audiences of Pope John Paul II (English). Vatican City: Libreria Editrice Vaticana.
- Neusner, J. (2011). The Babylonian Talmud: A Translation and Commentary (Vol. 1, p. 218). Peabody, MA: Hendrickson Publishers.
- Blessed Pope John Paul II, General Audience, July 16, 2003. Kosanke, C. G., & Manhardt, L. W. (2011). Isaiah (pp. 208–209). Steubenville, OH: Emmaus Road Publishing.
- Benedict XVI. (2013). General Audiences of Benedict XVI (English). Vatican City: Libreria Editrice Vaticana.
- John of Avila. (2006). John of Avila: Audi, filia—Listen, O Daughter. (B. McGinn, Ed., J. F. Gormley, Trans.) (pp. 232–233). New York; Mahwah, NJ: Paulist Press.
- Reynolds, T. E. (2008). Vulnerable Communion: A Theology of Disability and Hospitality (p. 166). Grand Rapids, MI: Brazos Press.