Probing the Mystery of the Cross

Palm Sunday: 25th March, 2018
Rev'd Dr Hugh Kempster, Vicar of St Peter's, Eastern Hill

Probing the mystery of the cross is the theme of my sermon today, building on Fr Greg's words last week. The theological friend and companion I have chosen to help me in this task is a Mystic. Julian of Norwich was a woman who devoted most of her life to probing the mystery of the cross which came to her in a vision. Although she wrote only one book (in two versions); although she lived more than 600 years ago, in a tiny cell in medieval England; although when she started her book she may not have even been able to read or write; Julian of Norwich has shaped my theology and my ministry probably more than any other writer.

Thomas Merton, in his book Seeds of Destruction (1968) is very clear about Julian's contribution to theology: "Julian is without doubt one of the most wonderful of all Christian voices. She gets greater and greater in my eyes as I grow older, and whereas in the old days I used to be crazy for St John of the Cross, I would not exchange him now for Julian if you gave me the world and the Indies and all the Spanish mystics rolled up in one bundle. I think that Julian of Norwich is with [John Henry] Newman the greatest English theologian." (p. 274)

I first encountered Julian when I was a residential ordination candidate at the College of St John the Evangelist in Auckland, New Zealand. My Clinical Pastoral Education (CPE) supervisor was trying to knock me into some sort of psychological shape, and she gave me a copy of Julian's book A Revelation of Love. I fell in love! With Julian, I might add. Although, truth be known, my supervisor, Marie Pollard RSM, was a tough and beautifully wise woman; something of a Julian-character herself.

In the opening chapter of the earlier version of her book (the Short Text) Julian tells of three graces that she earnestly prayed for as a younger woman: to enter deeply into Christ's Passion; to embrace as a gift any sickness that might come her way; and to receive the three wounds of St Cecilia, namely the wounds of contrition, compassion and longing for God's will. St Cecilia's wounds stayed with Julian, a sort of lay rule of life it would seem, but the other two graces she had asked for faded from her memory.

Then at the age of thirty she fell seriously ill. After a few days her priest came to visit, and gave her a crucifix to gaze on as she prepared to pass into the next life: "Daughter," he said, "I have brought you the image of your saviour. Look at it and take comfort from it, in reverence of him who died for you and me" (Colledge & Walsh, p.128). As her life seemed to be slipping away, Julian contemplated the crucifix, and then suddenly she recalled the youthful wishes that she had forgotten: illness had now come upon her, but a deep recollection of the Passion she had not yet sought. So she asked the Lord to fill her body with "recollection and feeling of his blessed Passion ... that his pains might be my pains" (p. 129).

Then the most incredible thing happened, God gave her this grace in a vision, a series of sixteen "showings"; it was a veritable tsunami of religious experience that was to snatch her from the jaws of death and catapult her into arguably the most dangerous of medieval professions, that of a female lay theologian.

There isn't time now to go through all sixteen of these remarkable showings, but do join me for the discussion group after Mass in the hall, when we can dig a little deeper. But for now, I'd like to look at just the ninth showing.

Contemplating the crucifix, Julian saw red blood literally pouring from the crown of thorns, she then watched the blood dry and her beloved Lord's face turn deadly pale, then blue, and finally brown, as death took hold of his flesh. And then she writes (pp. 214-6):

I watched with all my might for the moment when Christ would expire, and I expected to see his body quite dead; but I did not see him so, and just at the moment when by appearances it seemed to me that life could last no longer ... he changed to an appearance of joy .... Then our good Lord put a question to me: Are you well satisfied that I suffered for you? I said: Yes, good Lord, all my thanks to you; yes, good Lord, blessed may you be. Then Jesus our good Lord said: If you are satisfied, I am satisfied. It is a joy, a bliss, an endless delight to me that I ever suffered my Passion for you.

Both Fr Greg, and Colleen the week before, in their sermons offered a critique of "penal substitution." Christ's salvific death on the cross has long been misunderstood as the placating of an angry God. With this lens, we can misread St Paul, for example, when he writes (Romans 3:24-25): "they are now justified by his grace as a gift, through the redemption that is in Christ Jesus, whom God put forward as a sacrifice of atonement by his blood." Or Athanasius, likewise, can be read in different ways according to our different soteriologies (Festal Letter VII): "He became incarnate for our sakes, so that he might offer himself to the Father in our place, and redeem us through his offering and sacrifice" (emphasis mine).

Our theology of atonement matters, especially as we are now entering into Holy Week, together dramatically enacting the ancient events of violence, betrayal and execution. Why do we put our selves through this each year? Are we just reinforcing this idea of an angry oppressive God, or can we find liberation and hope in this brutal narrative; a God of love?

Julian's mystical insight gives us a liberative, non-violent lens to read Holy Week. As I quoted a moment ago, she writes crucially: "Are you well satisfied that I suffered for you?" The Middle English phrase, translated as "well satisfied," is "well apaid." Mrs C. F. Alexander's classic Good Friday hymn is a nineteenth-century reiteration of this atonement theology that we must watch so carefully:

There was no other good enough

To pay the price of sin;

He only could unlock the gate

Of heaven, and let us in.

What do we understand by this? Is this Divine Child-abuse, an angry God demanding sacrifice. No! says Julian. The anchoress turns this theology on it's head: "Are you well satisfied that I suffered for you?" our Lord says to Julian. My concern is assuaging your anger, not God's. My joy is complete if I have saved you, healed you by my sacrifice. This is the Father's gift, and mine. This is what brings me joy in my suffering.

Robert Fruehwirth, former priest director of the Julian Centre in Norwich, sums it up beautifully (The Drawing of this Love, p.61): "In the standard theology of Julian's time, still popular in our own, the Passion of Jesus is understood as ‘satisfying God', not us .... Julian's visionary experience of God in the Revelations inverts this entire story ... Jesus presents his Passion [to Julian] ... asking her if this is enough to slake her wrath and offended sense of justice — if she can, in other words, accept and be at peace with herself, her life and the world, and with God who, as the creator, is responsible for all this."

Julian's is a beautiful and liberative mystical theology for us to take into the rigours of Holy Week. So I do urge you, with Julian, to enter deeply into the Passion and probe the mystery of the cross this week; and, if you possibly can, journey with us here at St Peter's through the Triduum of Maundy Thursday, Good Friday and Holy Saturday. And as you do, attend to your theology. In a nutshell, God is love, not an angry overlord; and we should always seek to reflect that love, in our sorrows, our confusion and our pain, as much as in our joy.

Alae Taule'alo