Each Mother’s Day, I’ve gotten into the habit of reflecting on the idea of a Heavenly Mother in Mormonism (I wrote a short piece on this last year, which you can read here). Last year’s reflection stuck with me into the Christmas season, when I realized how closely Christmas was tied to Mother’s Day. Up until then, I was absolutely convinced that the greatest lesson of the Christmas story was Christ’s willingness to condescend from heaven and to become vulnerable by becoming human—an all-powerful God proving to us that both he and the Father have hearts that beat in sympathy with ours.[1]

But as I revisited the Christmas story this last December, I noticed something that I had previously been blind to—an even greater truth that has transformed my heart and my imagination. I still think that Christ’s vulnerability is a vital part of what Christmas “means,” but perhaps understanding that vulnerability this Mother’s Day can, in turn, help us to understand something equally profound—the truly divine power of Motherly love.

Winchester Cathedral, Burne Jones, The Nativity, Adoration of the Shepherds

Winchester Cathedral, Burne Jones, The Nativity, Adoration of the Shepherds

Christmas and Vulnerability

Let’s start with how the Christmas story relates to vulnerability. In the Book of Mormon, King Benjamin delivers what might be considered the book’s first Christmas sermon, but he doesn’t talk about Christmas in the way that we’re most familiar with. Quoting an angel, Benjamin tells his people that “the time cometh, and is not far distant, that with power, the Lord Omnipotent who reigneth, who was, and is from all eternity to all eternity, shall come down from heaven among the children of men, and shall dwell in a tabernacle of clay, and shall go forth amongst men.” Immediately after this, Benjamin tells us that by choosing to be born into this “tabernacle of clay,” Jesus makes himself vulnerable to “temptations,…pain of body, hunger, thirst, and fatigue” (Mosiah 3:5, 7).

Here, Benjamin suggests that, for a God, to become human means to become vulnerable—to be susceptible to pain, hunger, thirst, fatigue, and everything else that we may struggle with. For Benjamin, one of the true miracles of Christmas was the fact that Jesus, “the Lord Omnipotent,” chose to become absolutely vulnerable—not just to the vicissitudes of life, but to life itself. Births are risky, and were even more so in the ancient world. There was no modern sense of sterility at birth sites and certainly no modern medical equipment. Rooms were dirty, made even dirtier by the noisy animals all around, and as if to highlight this point, Luke tells us that Jesus was placed in an animal’s feeding trough after he was born (Luke 2:7). A holy night, but in less-than-holy surroundings.

“Nativity” by Rembrandt (1654)

Benjamin continues his sermon with the following, “And he shall be called Jesus Christ, the Son of God, the Father of heaven and earth, the Creator of all things from the beginning; and his mother shall be called Mary” (Mosiah 3:8). This last statement puts us firmly into a Christmas setting, and for all of Jesus’ glory and greatness, in the end, Benjamin points us back to Mary, the mother of God.

Earlier in the Book of Mormon, Nephi’s Christmas encounter also deals with this theme of vulnerability. When Nephi asks to understand the tree in Lehi’s dream, an angel begins by showing Nephi a virgin (“most beautiful and fair above all other virgins”) in the city of Nazareth (1 Nephi 11:13-15). The angel then asks Nephi, “Knowest thou the condescension of God?” For us Christians, the answer seems obvious—this is virgin is Mary, and God is going to “condescend”—to voluntarily lower himself from the glory of heaven to the mud of the earth—by being born as a human.

But Nephi is genuinely stumped. Here’s his response: “I know that he loveth his children; nevertheless, I do not know the meaning of all things” (1 Nephi 11:16-17). So instead, the angel has to help Nephi connect the dots: “Behold, the virgin whom thou seest is the mother of the Son of God, after the manner of the flesh” (1 Nephi 11:18). This is apparently still a foreign concept to Nephi, so the angel then shows Nephi “the virgin again, bearing a child in her arms,” and just to make sure that Nephi understands, the angel says “Behold the Lamb of God, yea, even the Son of the Eternal Father!” And finally, to test Nephi’s comprehension, the angel asks, “Knowest thou the meaning of the tree which thy father saw?” (1 Nephi 11:20-21).

“The Tree of Jesse,” Saint Elias Orthodox Church

Nephi finally gets it, and excitedly responds, “Yea, it is the love of God, which sheddeth itself abroad in the hearts of the children of men; wherefore, it is the most desirable above all things” (1 Nephi 11:22). We often interpret this passage to mean that the tree in Lehi’s dream represents Jesus, and that’s partly correct. But when Nephi says here that “it is the most desirable above all things,” he’s actually talking specifically about the fruit of the tree, which Lehi earlier described as “desirable above all other fruit” (1 Nephi 8:15). The tree, then, represents Mary, who bore (or gave birth to) the fruit, which represents Jesus. This is why the angel spent so much time focusing on Mary—it is the combined loving actions of mother Mary and the voluntary vulnerability of Jesus the son that together result in “the love of God, which sheddeth itself abroad in the hearts” of humanity.

This is the point that really stood out to me this time—just as you can’t have fruit without a tree, you can’t have a son (or even the Son) without a mother. But then I noticed something else. It’s interesting that the angel tells Nephi that Mary is “the mother of the Son of God, after the manner of the flesh” (1 Nephi 11:18)—why didn’t the angel just say that this was the “mother of the son of God?”

One way of reading this is to see here the Latter-day Saint doctrine of Heavenly Parents[2]—just as Jesus had a mother “after the manner of the flesh,” he would also have had a mother “after the manner of the spirit,”[3] and the angel here might be pointing to that particular truth. In thinking about Christmas, then, I became much more sensitive to Mary’s significant role, but I also began to consider Mary’s significance for helping us to better understand the idea of a Heavenly Mother, and that is what I’d like to explore this Mother’s Day.

“The Virgin of the Lilies” by William Bouguereau (1899)

In writing about the necessity of considering both the son and the mother in the story of Christmas, G.K. Chesterton wrote:

“You cannot chip away the statue of a mother from all round that of a newborn child. You cannot suspend the new-born child in mid-air; indeed you cannot really have a statue of a newborn child at all. Similarly, you cannot suspend the idea of a newborn child in the void or think of him without thinking of his mother. You cannot visit the child without visiting the mother, you cannot in common human life approach the child except through the mother. If we are to think of Christ in this aspect at all…we must admit…that those holy heads are too near together for the haloes not to mingle and cross.”[4]

In this statement, Chesterton is speaking specifically about Mary, but I’d like to suggest that we can also read this in light of a Heavenly Mother—Jesus’ “halo” (or holiness at birth) bears witness to the fact that before he was born of Mary, he was once born of another hallowed (or haloed) Mother—in this sense, their haloes definitely mingle and cross, as the holy Son is the child of holy, Heavenly Parents.[5]

A mother is intimately connected to her children, so much so that each child carries with her or him a permanent reminder of the love that nourished them—a belly button (or, a navel mark). This would have certainly been the case with Jesus—he would have carried with him a constant reminder of his mother Mary’s love, from the cradle to the cross…and beyond. But is it also possible for us to see—through the love of Mary—the love of a Heavenly Mother for her son?

A Vulnerable God

Let’s return to the idea of vulnerability. Jesus’ vulnerability in being born as a human ultimately allowed him not only to take upon himself the sins of the world in Gethsemane and on the Cross, but this vulnerability also allowed him to feel deeply for the sins and the sorrows of the world. We can see a sort of prelude to the vulnerability of Jesus’ atonement in the death of Lazarus—even though we’re told several times that Jesus knows that Lazarus will live again (John 11:4, 23), we’re also told that “when Jesus therefore saw [Mary] weeping, and the Jews also weeping which came with her, he groaned in the spirit, and was troubled” (John 11:33). Then, in what is both the shortest and perhaps most powerful verse in our scriptures, we see that “Jesus wept” (John 11:35).

“The Agony in the Garden” by Franz Schwartz (1898)

Shortly thereafter, Jesus travels to Gethsemane, where we see the mortal culmination of Jesus’ vulnerability. The Book of Mormon prophet Alma describes this vulnerability in the following:

“And he shall go forth, suffering pains and afflictions and temptations of every kind; and this that the word might be fulfilled which saith he will take upon him the pains and the sicknesses of his people. And he will take upon him death, that he may loose the bands of death which bind his people; and he will take upon him their infirmities, that his bowels may be filled with mercy, according to the flesh, that he may know according to the flesh how to succor his people according to their infirmities. Now the Spirit knoweth all things; nevertheless the Son of God suffereth according to the flesh that he might take upon him the sins of his people, that he might blot out their transgressions according to the power of his deliverance” (Alma 7:11-13).

Notice here that Jesus “breaks” the bands of death, but does not “break” or eliminate the infirmities of his people; rather, he takes upon himself their infirmities so that he may “succor,” or “run to” us—to weep both for us and with us.

Motherly Love and the Atonement

Let us return to Mary, the mother of God. In the book of Moses we read, “behold, all things have their likeness, and all things are created and made to bear record of me, both things which are temporal, and things which are spiritual; things which are in the heavens above, and things which are on the earth, and things which are in the earth, and things which are under the earth, both above and beneath: all things bear record of me” (Moses 6:63). What, then, might be the heavenly “likeness” or “meaning” of mother Mary cradling the vulnerable baby Jesus in her arms?

I would like to suggest that just as Jesus’ vulnerability as an infant required the nurturing love of a mother, so, too Jesus’ vulnerability in performing an infinite atonement would have required an infinite, nurturing love—a love that would have surrounded Jesus in the same way that Mary surrounded Jesus after his birth. In other words, we may see in mother Mary a type and shadow of a Heavenly Mother, whose glorified, perfected, and infinite love may have cradled Jesus when he was infinitely vulnerable—in atoning for the sins of the world. And just as mother Mary’s love was necessary for the infant Jesus to survive (who was physically naked), perhaps the love of a Heavenly Mother was necessary for the spiritually naked Jesus to survive the demands of the atonement. I believe that this may be a glimpse of what it means to be created in the image of God—male and female. This ability to cradle the vulnerable with a higher, holier sort of love may be seen as the divine heritage of Heavenly Mother’s daughters.

“Pieta” by William Bouguereau (1876)

I also believe that this same inheritance of a Heavenly Mother can be seen in the creation and functioning of the Women’s Relief Society in Mormonism. Perhaps the reason why “Charity never faileth” is because the source of this highest form of love is Heavenly Mother herself, a gift that she offers each of her daughters.[6] In one of his first sermons to the Relief Society after it had been established, Joseph Smith suggested that this ability to lovingly embrace the vulnerable “is according to your natures—it is natural for females to have feelings of charity.”

In this same sermon, he also explained one of the primary purposes of organizing the Relief Society in the following: “You are now plac’d in a situation where you can act according to those sympathies which God has planted in your bosoms. If you live up to your privileges, the angels cannot be restrain’d from being your associates.”[7]

The Relief Society Declaration states that women are “beloved spirit daughters of God,” who, among other things, “find nobility in motherhood and joy in womanhood.” This is what I have found as I revisited the Christmas story, and it has taken on even greater significance for me this Mother’s Day. Each of us had a mother who provided a sacred space within herself in which we were able to grow, and some of us were fortunate enough to have a loving mother cradle us in our own vulnerable infancy. Like these mothers, I see Mary, the mother of God enveloping her terribly vulnerable child Jesus with the sort of holy love that can only be the inheritance of a perfect Mother.

I also see this particular nativity scene foreshadowing another Mother who envelops her infinitely vulnerable child Jesus from Gethsemane to Golgotha, providing a sacred space within which he could atone for our sins and our sorrows, and without which, we would have been lost. So in addition to remembering our own mothers, I hope that we will also remember the importance of Mary, mother of God, as well as the absolute necessity of God the Mother during this holy Mother’s Day.

Jacob Rennaker has a Ph.D. in Religion from Claremont Graduate University and blogs at Believing is Seeing.

[1] See The God Who Weeps by Terryl and Fiona Givens (2012) for an excellent treatment of this subject.

[2] This doctrine is affirmed at the very beginning of The Family: A Proclamation to the World (1995) states that “All human beings—male and female—are created in the image of God. Each is a beloved spirit son or daughter of heavenly parents, and, as such, each has a divine nature and destiny.”

[3] E.g. W.W. Phelps’ statement that “Christ kept his first estate Lucifer lost his by offering to save men in their sins on the honor of a God, or on his father’s honor.—Christ hated sin, and loved righteousness, therefore he was anointed with holy oil in heaven, and crowned in the midst of brothers and sisters, while his mother stood with approving virtue, and smiled upon a Son that kept the faith as the heir of all things!” (“The Answer,” Times and Seasons, Dec. 15, 1844 [vol. 5, no. 10]). For an excellent selection of Mormon teachings about Heavenly Mother, see David Paulsen and Martin Pulido, “‘A Mother There:’ A Survey of Historical Teachings About Mother in Heaven,” BYU Studies 50:1 (2011), pp. 70-97 (available for free here: https://byustudies.byu.edu/showTitle.aspx?title=8669).

[4] G.K. Chesterton, “The God in the Cave” in The Everlasting Man (1925).

[5] Once again, see The Family: A Proclamation to the World (1995).

[6] This idea of charity as ultimately coming from Heavenly Mother may be suggested in Mormon’s discourse on charity in Moroni 7. We read that “charity suffereth long, and is kind, and envieth not, and is not puffed up, seeketh not her own.” Here, Mormon describes “charity” using a distinctively feminine pronoun (instead of simply saying “charity…seeketh not its own”). He continues, “Wherefore, my beloved brethren, if ye have not charity, ye are nothing, for charity never faileth. Wherefore, cleave unto charity, which is the greatest of all, for all things must fail—But charity is the pure love of Christ, and it endureth forever; and whoso is found possessed of it at the last day, it shall be well with him” (Moroni 7:45-47). One way of reading that “charity is the pure love of Christ” is to say that “charity” is another word for “the pure love of Christ,” or the pure love which Christ has for each of us. However, another way to read this phrase is to say that “charity” is the pure love which one feels toward Christ, which was perhaps best exemplified by the pure love that mother Mary demonstrated toward the vulnerable baby Jesus.

The related idea of “mercy” having its source in Heavenly Mother may also be seen in D&C 88:40, which states that “mercy hath compassion on mercy and claimeth her own,” suggesting that mercy may be a divinely feminine principle.

[7] Nauvoo Relief Society Minute Book, April 28, 1842. This should also draw our attention to the fact that, according to Luke, during Jesus’ deepest agony in Gethsemane “there appeared an angel unto him from heaven, strengthening him” (Luke 22:43).