It is one week before Good Friday. Let us take time to reflect on the description that Julian of Norwich records of Christ’s sufferings on the cross, as seen in her Revelations. These are without parallel in medieval literature—or any literature for that matter. In the Second Revelation, Julian writes:
And after this, I saw with bodily sight in the face of the crucifix that hung before me, in which I beheld continually a part of his passion: contempt, spitting, soiling, and buffeting, and many exhausting pains, more than I can tell, and often changing of color.
Again in the Fourth Revelation, Julian describes:
And after this I saw, beholding the body plenteously bleeding in semblance of the scourging, as thus: the fair skin was broken very deep into the tender flesh, with sharp smitings all about the sweet body. The hot blood ran out so plenteously that there was neither skin nor wound, but as it were all blood. And when it came to where it should have fallen down, there it vanished.
Julian envisions the outpouring of Christ’s blood on the cross as “plenteous” and “precious,” because it is the boundless blood of the Son of God. It is also “our own nature” because it is very human blood, just like ours. And as precious as it is, so is it plenteous, sufficient to cleanse every and all sin, if only humankind will allow itself to be purified by it.
Behold and see the virtue of this precious plenty of his dearworthy blood! It descended down into hell and burst their bonds and delivered them, all who were there who belong to the court of heaven. The precious plenty of his dearworthy blood overflows all the earth, and is ready to wash all creatures of sinne who are of good will, have been, and shall be. The precious plenty of his dearworthy blood ascends up into heaven in the blessed body of our lord Jesus Christ, and there is in him, bleeding, praying for us to the father, and is and shall be as long as we need.
In the Seventh Revelation, Julian records Christ’s final agony: After this, Christ showed a part of his passion near his dying. I saw the sweet face as it were dry and bloodless with pale dying; and afterward more deadly pale, weakening; and then [it] turned more deadly into blue; and afterward more brown blue, as the flesh turned more deeply dead. For his passion showed to me most explicitly in his blessed face, and especially in his lips, there I saw these four colors—those lips that were before fresh and ruddy, lively and pleasing to my sight. This was a terrible change, to see this deep dying. And also the nose withered together and dried, to my sight, and the sweet body waxed brown and black, all changed and turned out from the fair, fresh, and lively color of himself into dry dying.
The greater Christ’s dehydration, the more acute his suffering became. Drying was, in Julian’s eyes, the source of his unquenchable thirst, both physical and spiritual. . . . As gruesome as Julian’s depiction of Christ’s physical sufferings may seem to us, it is still not as detailed as that offered by modern doctors and medical examiners who have studied the physical process of death by crucifixion. These experts provide a long list of the tortures and affronts to Christ’s body, which I recount in Julian’s Gospel.
In the Eighth Revelation, Julian is led into a realistic vision of the terrible dying of Jesus Christ. And thus I saw our Lord Jesus growing weaker a long time. For the oneing with the godhead gave strength to the manhood for love to suffer more than all men might suffer. . . . No tongue may tell, or heart fully think, the pains that our savior suffered for us, taking into account the worthiness of the highest, worshipful king and the shameful, pitiless and painful death. For he that is highest and worthiest was fullest noughted and most utterly despised.
Julian fully expects to see Jesus die on the cross in front of her:
And I looked for the departing of life with all my might and expected to have seen the body completely dead. But I saw him not so. And just in that same time that it seemed to me, by all appearances, that his life might no longer last, and the showing of the end must needs be near--suddenly, as I beheld the same cross, his face changed into a joyful expression. The changing of his blissful countenance changed mine, and I was as glad and merry as it was possible to be. Then our Lord brought this merrily to mind: “Where is now any point of thy pain or of thy grief?” And I was completely merry.
Julian waited and waited, but Christ did not die as in the gospels . . . Instead, as Julian looked steadily into the cross, Christ’s face was transformed before her eyes. His countenance looked so exquisitely joyful that it caused Julian’s own expression to change. Suddenly, she became “glad and merry,” implying happy, cheerful, ebullient, almost giddy . . . as if she had never had a pain in the world. And the locution that spoke within her mind in that moment was equally startling: “Where is now any point of thy pain or of thy grief?”
In that instant, Julian experienced the radical changeability of even the worst suffering. . . . Historically, we know Christ did not escape death. He really “bowed his head and gave up his spirit” on the cross (Jn 19:30). His side was really pierced with a soldier’s lance (Jn 19:34). He really was taken down from the cross and wrapped “in a linen cloth”; his body really was laid “in a rock-hewn tomb where no one had ever been laid” (Lk 23:53, Mk 15:46).
However, Julian’s unique gospel account of Christ’s passion and sudden transformation is based on a lifelike vision happening before her eyes. Moment by moment, her mind has been inspired by grace to experience the sensory images, the words, the vivid impressions, the intellectual understanding, and the emotional reactions. Like the images we project and perceive every moment of our lives, none of these mental images is absolute and unchanging. Therefore, every situation, every emotion, can (and does) change eventually. For Julian, in a mysterious and wonderful way, the image changed in an instant.
In this astounding transformation, Julian’s mind leapt into eternity. . . . It was as if Julian herself had died, letting go of all her assumptions about earthly reality and the inevitability of death. Her mind was privileged to glimpse the glory of Christ’s reality in the bliss of heaven, where sorrow and suffering do not exist.
I understood that we are now, in our lord’s intention, on his cross with him in our pains and in our passion, dying. And we, willfully abiding on the same cross, with his help and his grace, into the last point, suddenly he shall change his countenance toward us, and we shall be with him in heaven. Between that one [the pain on the cross] and that other [being in heaven] shall all be one time, and then shall all be brought into joy. And this is what he meant in this showing: “Where is now any point of thy pain or of thy grief?” And we shall be fully blessed.
As we accompany Christ during Holy Week—"in our pains and in our passion, dying” during this agonizing time of pandemic—let us take heart that the cross of Good Friday always leads to the empty tomb of Easter Sunday. And every form of dying—no matter how fearful it may seem to us right now—prepares us for the certain joy of resurrected life that nothing can ever take away. Like Julian, may our Good Friday “mourning” be turned “into dancing” (Ps 30:11) as we become “glad and merry” with Easter gratitude!
PLEASE NOTE: Excerpts quoted above are from Julian’s Gospel: Illuminating the Life & Revelations of Julian of Norwich (Orbis Books). Copyright © 2013, by Veronica Mary Rolf.
All text copyrighted © 2013-2018 by Veronica Mary Rolf. All rights reserved. No copying or reprints allowed without the express permission of the Author.