Home History of Hymns: "Mothering God, You Gave Me Birth"

History of Hymns: "Mothering God, You Gave Me Birth"

"Mothering God, You Gave Me Birth"
Jean Janzen
The Faith We Sing, No. 2050

Jean Janzen

Mothering God, you gave me birth
in the bright morning of this world.
Creator, source of every breath,
you are my rain, my wind, my sun.*

“Mothering God, you gave me birth in the bright morning of this world.” So reads the opening phrase of a text by poet Jean Wiebe Janzen (b. 1933). Ms. Janzen’s text has been associated with such contemporary issues as “feminism” and “inclusivity,” and some commentators have expressed discomfort with its unusual imagery.

It may come as a surprise then that the inspiration for Ms. Janzen's text comes from the writings of a 14th-century mystic, Julian of Norwich (c. 1342–c. 1416).

Ms. Janzen was born on the central Canadian prairies and grew up in Mountain Lake, Minn. During her college years she fell in love with literature, and was especially enthralled by the writings of enigmatic poet Emily Dickinson. She went on to study with poets Peter Everwine, Philip Levine and C.G. Hanzlicek, and has grown into an established and celebrated poet in her own right.

As for the lyricist, Julian of Norwich lived a life of prayer and solitude at the church of St. Julian, from which she took her name. Scholar Anna Maria Reynolds described medieval England as a place of “violence, cruelty and pessimism,” these conditions heightened by the Hundred Years’ War (1337-1453) and the Black Death.

In light of all this, the colorful and encouraging words of Julian, informed by her solid faith, stand out in even sharper contrast. Scholar Austin Cooper called Julian “a very intelligent woman . . . of great warmth and charm whose religious experience is expressed with vivid precision and gentle humanity.”

In 1373, the deathly ill anchoress experienced a series of 16 profound visions, later published as her Showings. Julian saw Christ as our “true mother,” saying, “The human mother will suckle her child with her own milk, but our beloved Mother, Jesus, feeds us with himself.”

Ms. Janzen was asked to contribute some new hymn texts for the 1992 Hymnal: A Worship Book of the Mennonite church, using the writings of some of the English mystics for inspiration. Ms. Janzen was enthralled by “the rich language of these mystics and their startling ways of speaking to God and about God.”

In this text, Ms. Janzen, a mother herself, weaves the metaphor of God as nurturing mother into a hymn describing the Holy Trinity. “When I read the words of Julian of Norwich as she refers to God as her mother . . . I was astounded,” Ms. Janzen said.

Ms. Janzen's hymn is constructed of three four-line stanzas in long meter. The text is written in the first person, attributing to each person of the Trinity different aspects of motherhood.

For its initial publication in Hymnal: A Worship Book, American composer Janet Peachey provided an evocative tune on a Phrygian scale. The text also appears in the 1997 Book of Praise of the Presbyterian Church in Canada (set to David Ashley White’s mixed-mode tune ROCHESTER), and in the United Methodist Church hymnal supplement The Faith We Sing.

Ms. Janzen’s text brings new life to Julian’s inspiring words and challenges contemporary singers to form a renewed understanding of the nature of God.

“We carry this treasure, our hymns, with us into the 21st century, this bearer of good news, of God’s story, of our story,” said Ms. Janzen. “Next to the Bible, they are our best source for light and hope . . . and we hold them out to others with our open hands and voices, for the story is not ours to possess. It is ours to give away.”

*© 1991 Abingdon Press, admin. By The Copyright Co. All rights reserved. Used by permission

Ms. Donaldson is a student of Dr. Michael Hawn in the master of sacred music program at Perkins School of Theology, SMU.

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