Good Friday: Jesus’ Death on the Cross as Birthing?

In the Christian tradition, there is an intriguing strand that images Jesus’ death on the cross as birthing, that is to say, the Crucified is seen as a woman in the travail of childbirth. This image of Jesus’ death as maternal labor is present especially among some medieval mystics, for example, in the meditations of the Carthusian writer, Marguerite d’Oingt (d. 1310). She ponders the crucifixion thus:

“Are you not my mother and more than mother? … Oh, Sweet Lord Jesus Christ, who ever saw any mother suffer such a birth! But when the hour of the birth came you were placed on the hard bed of the cross where you could not move or turn around or stretch your limbs as someone who suffers such great pain should be able to do; … And surely it was no wonder that your veins were broken when you gave birth to the world all in one day.”

The thought of Jesus’ death as a form of birthing is not that far-fetched, I think. Jesus himself evoked the image of a woman in childbirth on the night before he died: “When a woman is in labor, she has pain, because her hour has come. But when her child is born, she no longer remembers the anguish…” (John 16:21). More poignantly, Jesus dies with that psalm on his lips that images God as a mid-wife, Psalm 22. This psalm, which begins with the haunting “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?,” sharpens the tone of despair and betrayal by reminding God of the midwifery God practiced at the psalmist’s birth:

“Yet it was you who took me from the womb;
You kept me safe on my mother’s breast.
On you I was cast from my birth,
And since my mother bore me you have been my God.” (Ps 22:9f)

Jesus’ dying psalm thus links death and birth in intriguing. Some of the medieval devotional writers emphasized that link in imaging Jesus’ dying as maternal labor. Among the many ways through which we today can prayerfully approach the mystery of our redemption wrought on the cross, imaging Jesus’ travail, the tearing of his body, the water, and the blood as the travail of a mother in childbirth may not be the least.

17 comments

    1. I was quoting from the following English edition: The Writings of Margaret of Oingt, Medieval Prioress and Mystic, transl. with an introduction, essay and notes by Renate Blumenfeld-Kosinski, The Focus Library of Medieval Women (Newbury Port, MA: Focus Information Group, 1990), 31. For the original Latin text, see Les Oeuvres de Marguerite d’Oingt, ed. and trans. Antonin Duraffour et al., Publications de l’Institut de Linguistique Romane de Lyon (Paris: Belles Lettres, 1965), 77-79.
      More on feminine images for jesus in, inter alia, my book Fragments of Real Presence, pp. 129-133.

  1. I’d very much like to write appreciatively about this article’s speaking to all, but especially to women and girls in ways that help us identify with a suffering Christ. However, I’m reminded of the words of (or scripted for) the USCCB’s “Statement on Quest for the Living God . . . by Sister Elizabeth A. Johnson”: “Indeed, . . . for Sr. Johnson, metaphors for God are to be evaluated not on the basis of their accuracy with regard to the nature of God, but primarily in terms of how they function in human society” (10). Her social understanding of metaphor is grounds for heavy criticism by the bishops. Since they reject Sr. Johnson’s images of the “suffering God,” they would warn us away, surely, from thinking in Teresa Berger’s terms of a suffering Christ bringing freedom to birth on the cross (See “Statement” 10-11 ).

    On page 13, the bishops take Sr. Johnson to task for the absence of “any sense of the essential centrality of divine revelation as the basis of Christian theology. The names of God found in the Scriptures are not mere human creations that can be replaced by others that we may find more suitable according to our human judgment” (13). In support of this criticism, they quote from page 109 of her Quest: “. . . . Reorienting the imagination at a basic level, these female images open up insight into the maternal passion, fierce protectiveness, zeal for justice, healing power, inclusive hospitality, liberating will, and non-hierarchical, all-pervading relationality that characterize divine love. In the process, they carry back to women the stamp of the divine likeness.” The bishops conclude their discussion of Quest‘s treatment of panentheism with the judgment that she has reduced “all theological language and concepts to mere metaphors” (14).

    And the metaphor they find scariest of all seems to be that of the pregnant female body, the very image that Teresa presents in her article! So if I could adopt the spirit of the Bishops’ “Statement,” I would ask, does Teresa’s article “accord with authentic Catholic teaching on essential points”? (21). But I’d rather just thank her for it.

    1. There is nothing in the bishops’ letter that indicates that they would have any difficulty with the imagery Teresa proposes. The criticism is with the claim that all language about God is metaphorical, and that language about God is to be evaluated primarily in terms of its liberative potential. Whether or not they are correct that this is what Johnson’s book says is another matter, but at least get the criticism correct.

      1. On page 16 of the “Statement,” the bishops write, “‘Mutual abiding’ is not an adequate description of the Biblical conception of Creator and creation, according to which God as Creator exists in a different ontological order than that which he creates.” Both directly and indirectly, the bishops express difficulty with the imagery that Sr. Johnson proposes, and like Teresa, Sr. Johnson also cites scripture and writings of mystics. Calling Christ “mother” is surely in conflict with the bishops’ writing on the “Names of God” (page 6 ff.). The name “mother” would not have “accuracy with regard to the nature of God” (10). Metaphor stands in for the inadequacy of straightforward “description.” If the bishops want “adequate description,” no metaphor will meet with their approval and both Sr. Johnson and Teresa Berger–not to mention the Psalmist and many others–are on shaky theological ground.

        Not to draw the line too sharply, I’d say that the language of theology as well as liturgy is necessarily–at least at many points–the language of poetry.

      2. Deacon Fritz (aka Dean) – there were many points in Wuerl’s statement.

        Agree that they criticized that “all language about God is metaphorical” and agree that this is probably a misreading of Sr. Johnson.

        But would also agree with Mary’s comment and her later comment next.

        Following the correct criticism (as you have now restated), I would also suggest that Wuerl would find difficulty with this imagery (guess we just agree to disagree on this one).

        Let me pose a related question – do you really think that Wuerl or Wenandy is even familiar with some of the sources that you teach advanced students e.g. Julian of Norwich; female imagery; Song of Songs; some psalms, etc.

      3. I have only met Bp. Wuerl once, so I wouldn’t venture to say. But I have had several occasions to be with Fr. Weinandy and I feel pretty sure he is familiar with Julian et al.

        I should add that Julian and Marguerite d’Oingt speak if Christ as “mother” in reference to his humanity. Applying the principle of the communication idiomatum this can also be predicated of his divinity, but it is predicated primarily of his humanity.

  2. Mary – excellent point…thought of the same idea but you have expressed it well.

    The imagery expressed in these writings cited by Teresa open up a whole other history, tradition, and window especially for women, girls – think how helpful this would be if you were teaching theology in 11/12th grade.

    Would also like to read more.

    1. Thanks, Bill. I admit that I found the argument of the USCCB’s “Statement” difficult to follow. Often when I expected a substantive reason for rejecting some aspect of Sr. Johnson’s work, I read a claim about the “inaccuracy” or “inadequacy” of her metaphors instead. We have recourse to metaphors as surrogates in speech and writing at points where description fails us somehow, so it seemed to me that the authors of the “Statement” were writing in ignorance of its uses and functions. As a consequence, they (probably mistakenly) thought that Sr. Johnson’s images had the effect of misrepresenting or undermining doctrine. They both missed the value of her images and adopted a naive notion of poetic figures. I had the impression that the authors simply did not like her non-traditional images but, disinclined to say that, they erected a strained bridge between them and the Catechism instead–to the detriment of her work as a whole. Does Sr. Johnson argue from metaphors to doctrine? I doubt it.

      In any case, she is not alone in her thinking about figurative language being essential to naming God. Martin Buber writes, “The lover in the Vita Nuova rightly and properly says for the most part Ella and only at times Voi. The spectator of the Paradiso, when he says Colui, speaks from poetic necessity, and knows it. If God is addressed as He or It, it is always allegorically” (I and Thou, Ronald Gregor Smith translation, 96). And later, “[F]or we miss Him, Him who is, if we say ‘I believe that He is’–‘He’ is also a metaphor, but ‘Thou’ is not” (106).

      1. Mary – I disagree with Wuerl’s (Weinandy) statements from many points.

        Any reputable sacramental theologian would have difficulty with Wuerl’s definition of metaphor as restricted and limited. Have seen others posit that our images of God come from scripture …… but, of course, this leads one to ask: so, God directly told the gospel/Pauline writers to use certain images which the church then canonized. It is a stretch to believe that since it rejects traditional catholic scriptural approaches, biblical exegesis; research on how the gospels/Paul were developed. It harkens back (at its roots) to a literal, fundamentalist approach to both scripture and the language used to describe God overlaid by sanctioning this by quoting from later councils or fathers of the church (all of which were influenced by their cultures, Roman structures,etc. and ignoring the 1st century experience of the church).

        Beyond this point, many folks have honed in on authority; Weinandy’s exclusive atonement focus; side issues around cathecism versus theology approach based on the age of the student; etc.

        Suffice it to say – Wuerl did a poor job and got caught with his pants down and he is reacting – typical episcopal pattern over the last 20 years. It is sad.

  3. I was recently teaching a class of First Year honors students a similar text from Julian of Norwich and they thought it was the most bizarre thing they ever heard of. I tried to convince them that this was a thoroughly traditional image, but they thought it was icky.

    Kids today.

  4. Thank you very much for this post. Giving birth to the world, what a wonderful thought. Jesus definitely started something entirely new.
    I will enjoy praying and meditating your reflection.
    Wonderful

  5. I have to admit I find it a little icky myself – if only my stepfather hadn’t taken me to see that natural childbirth movie when I was a kid 🙂 Seriously, though, it seems like this kind of metaphor might maybe emotionally distances us from the awfulness of crucifixion?

  6. But the NT emotionally distances us from the “awfulness” of the crucifixion all the time — not only in John, who presents the crucifixion as exaltation, but also in the Synoptics, who do not dwell on the Mel Gibson side at all. Same goes for Paul’s langauge of the Cross.

    The blood and water from Jesus’s side in John 19 suggest giving birth.

    Another idea is the birth of Chirst or of the eternal Word in the human soul (it goes back to Origen): I suppose medievals such as Eckhart would speak of the birth of God in the soul.

    Images of God and of Christ as mother have very firm scriptural backing. Jesus speaks of himself as a mother hen. John Paul I rightly said that God is not only our father but also our mother.

    Naming of God is a human activity — even in the case of the “revealed” biblical names — and the naming of God is an ongoing process — if a name of God becomes oppressive it is dropped. A criterion of a valid naming is that it have effective liberative impact. The Bible exhibits this inner dialectic of the divine names. At best they serve as fences around the divine glory, not as definitions that pin God down.

  7. Rite of Baptism for Children:

    Praise to you, Lord Jesus Christ, the Father’s only Son, for you offered yourself on the cross, that in the blood and water flowing from your side, and through your death and resurrection, the Church might be born.

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