During this Eastertime during which we celebrate Christ's resurrection, I want to share with you these hope-filled words of Julian of Norwich:
: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 expression 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.
Here, in the Eighth Revelation, Julian of Norwich describes her experience of seeing Christ’s sufferings on the cross transformed into perfect joy. It happened instantaneously. She had been plummeted into his cruel pains and now glimpses his resurrected glory. It was such an overwhelming surprise that she became “glad and merry,” implying happy, cheerful, ebullient, almost giddy—as if she might laugh out loud once again, 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. (We recognize the feeling: when we start laughing aloud in gratitude and relief that some near-tragedy has just been averted, even as hot tears still flow down our faces.) 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 was 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.
By her faith, Julian knew Christ had already died and the resurrection had already occurred. Therefore, even in her vision, she could not actually see Christ die, because she believed from Christian teaching that he cannot die again: “We know that Christ, being raised from the dead, will never die again; death no longer has dominion over him. The death he died, he died to sin, once for all; but the life he lives, he lives to God” (Rom 6:9–10, italics added).
In this Revelation, Julian’s mind leapt into eternity. In that sublime moment, she saw Christ’s face utterly transformed into a radiant expression, like the instant when Peter, James, and John saw Christ transfigured before their eyes on Mt. Tabor, “and his face shone like the sun, and his clothes became dazzling white” (Mt 17:1–2, Mk 9:3). 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 expression 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."
By the sheer suddenness Julian suggests what a holy death might be like: one moment in pain, the next in bliss. She understands that not only has Christ overcome the curse of sin through suffering, he has eradicated the mighty grip of death altogether: “Where, O death, is your victory? Where, O death, is your sting?” (1 Cor 15:55). For some, death might even be ecstatic: “because God did not make death, and he does not delight in the death of the living. For he created all things so that they might exist; the generative forces of the world are wholesome, and there is no destructive poison in them, and the dominion of Hades is not on earth” (Ws 1:13–14).
In seeing that death is as evanescent as any given moment of life, Julian not only believes, she experiences that death is not final in any ultimate way, either for Christ or, because of Christ, for all of humankind. It is a passage from one form of life to another, not an end, but a beginning. “So you have pain now; but I will see you again, and your hearts will rejoice, and no one will take your joy from you” (Jn 16:22).
I wish you all the Easter transformation of suffering into joy that Julian herself experienced. May you be graced to see that, in truth, “He is risen!” and that Christ has overcome all our pains, fears, and woes. And may you, like Julian, be “glad and merry” in the Lord’s triumph over sin, suffering, and death. Happy Easter!
NOTE: Excerpts above and translations from the Middle English are from my book, Julian’s Gospel: Illuminating the Life & Revelations of Julian of Norwich (Orbis Books, 2013). Copyright © 2013 by Veronica Mary Rolf.
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All text copyrighted © 2013-2018 by Veronica Mary Rolf. All rights reserved. No copying or reprints allowed without the express permission of the Author.