Sermon for The Feast of Julian of Norwich (c.1342-1416)
I’d like to address my comments to the middle school students and their chaperones who are with us this afternoon from Hilltop School in Brattleboro, Vermont. Of course, it’s okay if the rest of you want to listen in. Nothing I’m going to say is secret. But I want to speak mainly to these young people because I think the message we have today is especially important for them to hear, to learn and to remember.
Today we are celebrating the feast of a very interesting woman who lived in England in the 14th century. Her name was Julian, and she lived in the city of Norwich, so she’s usually referred to as “Julian of Norwich.” I’ll tell you more about her in a minute, but first let me say that she was born in the year 1342 and that it was a very difficult time to be alive. In the 14th century, Europe suffered through a terrible plague called the Black Death. Maybe you’ve heard of it. It was highly contagious and deadly and it swept through towns and villages killing all kinds of people — rich and poor, old and young, it didn’t matter. No one was safe. In the end it was estimated that somewhere between 75 and 200 million people died from it, which was about one-third of the population of Europe at that time. Can you imagine a disease so terrible that it took the lives of one out of every three people?
The Black Death wasn’t the only thing. England and France were enemies during this time, always fighting. In fact, the war they were engaged in during this time was later named the 100 Years’ War. Imagine a war that goes on for 100 years!! Imagine the death and destruction and the suffering that that kind of war would bring!
The Church should have been there to comfort and help people in all this trouble, but the Church was a mess at this time. There was a lot of corruption. Church leaders were living luxurious and decadent lives, and cared mostly about building extravagant buildings and collecting beautiful art. They neglected their Christian duties. Even the Pope was corrupt. In fact, the Church divided and for a time there were two popes, one in Avignon in France and the other in Rome in Italy – and of course, they didn’t get along. It really was a complete mess.
So into all this hardship and war and division and tragedy, Julian was born. We don’t know much about her early life, only what she later wrote about herself in her book, called The Revelations of Divine Love. In that book she tells us that when she was about 30 years old, she became seriously ill – so ill that the priest was called to give her Last Rites. Everyone thought she was going to die. She hung on for several more days and on the seventh day, the pain suddenly left her and she had a series of fifteen visions of the Crucified Christ that brought her great peace and joy.
She wanted to know what these visions meant. What was God trying to say to her? She writes in her book: “From that time I desired oftentimes to learn what was our Lord’s meaning, and fifteen years after (yes, 15 years later!) I was answered (when an inner voice said to me): ‘Do you want to learn the Lord’s meaning in this thing? Learn it well. LOVE was his meaning. Who showed this to you? LOVE. What did he show you? LOVE. Why did he show it? For LOVE. Hold yourself in this love and you shall learn and know even more.’ Thus it was,” wrote Julian, “that I learned that LOVE was our Lord’s meaning.”
This was the message and the meaning behind her visions: they were all about LOVE. God was revealing to her how deep and broad and rich the love of God was. God was showing her how much God loved the world and everything in it, and God was showing her that nothing was stronger than this love, there was nothing in the world that could overcome it.
Julian gave her life to God. She became a recluse, an anchoress, in Norwich, living quietly in a small dwelling attached to the Church of St Julian. Even in her lifetime, she was famous as a mystic and spiritual counselor. If you visit the city of Norwich today, you can see a replica of the small house that she lived in, attached to the wall of the church. Inside, there is a window cut through the wall of the church, so that she could observe the church services and receive Communion from the priest. There was also an outside window, so that people could come and talk with her (but only if she felt like it). She stayed in the little hut always, giving herself to prayer and reflection. Other people helped her and brought her food and whatever things she needed.
When Julian looked at the Cross on which Jesus died, she didn’t see it as a terrible instrument of death, which of course it was. She knew that, but she saw it as a symbol of God’s great love for us. She recognized God’s love in everything and in everyone. After all her visions, she wrote, “LOVE was our Lord’s meaning. And I saw for certain, both here and elsewhere, that before he ever made us, God loved us, and that his love has never slackened, nor ever shall.”
Let me tell you about one of the visions that Julian had. In fact, I’ll just read you the part of her book that describes this vision:
“… in this he showed a little thing, the size of a hazelnut lying in the palm of my hand, as it seemed to me; and it was as round as a ball. I looked thereon with the eye of my understanding and thought, ‘What may this be?’ And it was answered generally thus: ‘It is all that is made.’ I marveled at how it might last, for I thought it might suddenly have fallen to nothing for its littleness. And I was answered in my understanding, ‘It lasts, and ever shall, because God loves it. And so all things exist and are sustained in their existence because of the love of God.”
So in this vision she imagines a small, round object in her hand, as small as a hazelnut, and she wonders what it is. The voice tells her, It is everything that has been made – in other words, everything and everyone who has ever existed. Julian then wonders how it survives because it’s so small and vulnerable. And the voice responds by saying, It lasts and always will last, because God loves it and because it is God sustaining it and caring for it. God’s love is sustaining and supporting everything that exists in the universe – every person, every plant or living creature, every mountain or river or sea, every planet or star or sun, every moment of every day. All of it is held together, sustained and supported by the God of Love.
Love – God’s love – was all around, and Julian saw it like no one else. It was almost like God lifted the blinders off her eyes (the blinders that the world puts over our eyes that prevent us from recognizing God’s presence and activity in our world) and God showed her how things really were. That everything and everyone was being held and sustained and given life by the hand of God, and that God was full of LOVE and it was LOVE that was holding everything together.
Julian had some pretty radical things to say. One of the things she insisted on was that God was both our Father and our Mother, and that Jesus also was a mother to us. This can still be pretty radical to say nowadays, but it was really radical in Julian’s day. “To the property of Motherhood,” said Julian, “belongs kindness, love, wisdom, and knowing; and it is God… The kind loving mother that understands and knows the need of her child, she keeps it very tenderly, as all kind mothers do. And even when things change, and the child grows older and bigger, she changes the ways she behaves toward the child but she does not change her love. Her love continues always the same.”
Julian was so important to the people of the 14th century because in all their trouble and misery, she was able to give them hope. Her words about God’s all-embracing and eternal love, and about Christ’s charity towards the human race demonstrated on the Cross, were immensely comforting for the people of her day.
And they can give us the same comfort today. Because we too live in a difficult time, when there seem to be many threats and dangers – climate change, and the threat of nuclear war, and the possibility of widespread famine and water shortages, economic and political instability, and so many other things. And Julian would say to us: Yes, there is always trouble and danger. There always has been. But if you look beyond all that, you will see that there is a God of LOVE who has brought all this into being and who is now holding it and caring for it. And the LOVE that God is never changes. It can never fail us, or forsake us, or forget us. In fact, as St Paul says, “There is nothing in all the world that can ever separate us from God’s love – not even death!” And when we know that, when we can really see that and know it deep in our hearts, then the fear goes away and is replaced by Love.
One of Julian’s quotes has become a favorite saying for many people, and a great source of comfort for them. She tells us that the Lord gave her these words: ‘I can make all things well; I will make all things well, I shall make all things well; and you can see for yourself that all manner of things shall be well.”
That is a word of comfort and of hope that we can carry with us. God is love. Nothing can separate us from God’s love. And that means that “all shall be well, every manner of thing shall be well.” Don’t be afraid. Don’t worry. God’s LOVE will always be there for you.
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