In 1373, Julian of Norwich was extremely sick, and when she thought she was going to die, a priest brought an image of Christ on the cross close to her bedside. Looking at Christ dying on the cross, she had a vision in which she saw drops of blood flowing from his crown. These drops of blood reminded Julian that God’s love for us is as endless as the blood that flowed from Jesus’s body when he died. Even after Julian’s illness passed, this vision of Christ’s blood remained with her. Spending the rest of her life as an anchoress, a woman who chose to live apart from the world in a small room attached to a church building, she was devoted to a life of prayer. In her prayers, she continued to reflect on this vision and what it meant for the church. Julian documented the visions and her reflections in Revelations of Divine Love, the work for which she is best known today.
The physical reality of Christ’s death—his body breaking and blood being shed—is central to his work of saving us. Because of this, Julian’s writing connects Christ’s work of salvation to motherhood. Christ is our true mother, who bleeds and breaks for us, births us to new life, and continues to feed us through the celebration of communion. This imagery of Christ as our mother offers us new insight into the words we remember and repeat at the communion table, and through this, the inclusion of embodied female experiences becomes invaluable for understanding God’s love for us.
While she makes full use of the connection between Christ’s words about his own sacrificial body and the female experiences of birth and mothering, Julian never forgets the particularity of Christ; she exclusively refers to Christ using male pronouns even as she explores Christ as our mother. For Julian, it is precisely because of Christ’s particular experiences that the lens of motherhood is so instructive for us. Motherhood has something to teach us about Christ’s particular experience of suffering and dying to give us new life. Julian writes,
We know that our mothers bear us and bring us into this world to suffering and to death, and yet our true mother Jesus, he, all love, gives birth to us into joy and to endless life—blessed may he be! So he sustains us within himself in love and was in labour for the full time, he who wanted to suffer the sharpest pangs and the most grievous sufferings that ever were or ever shall be, and at the last he died. (60.130)
No other particular human experience gives us access to knowing this depth of love like motherhood does.
The embodied experiences of women bleeding, breaking, laboring, birthing, and feeding give us insight into what we are called to remember at the communion table: Christ’s body broken and blood shed for us. At the table with his disciples, Jesus instructed them saying, “This is my body given for you; do this in remembrance of me. . . . This cup is the new covenant in my blood, which is poured out for you” (Luke 22:19–20, NIV). The images and experiences of bodies breaking and blood being shed, so central to this practice of the church, are also central experiences of mothers giving birth.
The drops of blood flowing from Christ’s body on the cross symbolize, for Julian, the abundance of God’s love, a love that is plentiful and covers us all. It is blood that has lifegiving power, that leads to new life. This blood is both horrifying and beautiful because it reveals both the depth of the pain and the depth of the love in the act. Like the suffering and death of Christ on the cross, pregnancy and birth are marked by blood, both in the monthly rhythm of bleeding that prepares a womb for a child and the bleeding that finally ushers the child into the world.
This blood also revealed to Julian the extent to which Christ’s death seemed to defeat him. In her vision, she saw the blood flowing from Christ’s crown, but then she saw the blood beginning to dry up; this endless flow of salvation seemed to have run out. However, Christ’s death, a seeming failure, is necessary for our salvation and the new life Christ ushers us into. Mothers know this experience too. Laboring mothers often feel defeated, like their strength has completely run out; this moment comes just before the moment of new life. Mothers labor, break, and bleed to the point of defeat, and sometimes even death, in an ultimate act of love so that their children might have life; in blood shed and bodies broken, they birth us into the world. In the same way, a body that struggled, bled, broke, and died is the body that brought us salvation and new life. This is Christ’s body broken for us; this is Christ’s blood shed for us.
This is not the end of the metaphor for Julian because there is relief from the suffering, and there is resurrection. Now Christ, having birthed us to new life through his suffering and death, continues to feed us with his own body and blood. This is what we remember, what we participate in, at the communion table: Christ like a nursing mother, feeding us. Julian writes, “The mother can lay the child tenderly to her breast, but our tender mother Jesus, he can lead us intimately into his blessed breast through his sweet open side” (60.130). Through the celebration of communion, all of God’s children are fed and united to each other, the whole body of Christ.
In this unifying meal, we become linked to each other. As we share in the broken body of Christ, we are invited to share in one another’s brokenness and new life. Our understanding of the celebration of communion is transformed as the experiences of others shape what it means for us to partake in Christ’s body and be the body of Christ together. We need each other’s experiences of brokenness and new life to help us see a fuller picture of the body of Christ.
Julian’s entire framework for thinking about our salvation is the love of God revealed in Christ’s death on the cross. Her connection between this work of Christ and motherhood instructs our need for hearing about and understanding the experiences of women. Julian rightly sees something significant in the loving act of a mother giving birth that can help us to better grasp how deep and wide God’s love is for all of God’s children. If we want to understand how a body broken and blood shed is such an act of love, it is mothers who can teach us best.
Julian of Norwich, Revelations of Divine Love, trans. Barry Windeatt, Oxford World’s Classics (Oxford University Press, 2015). All in-text citations correspond to this translation and are cited by chapter and page.