‘All shall be well, and all shall be well, and all manner of things shall be well.’
(Julian of Norwich 1342 – 1416)
All shall be well! So says Julian of Norwich, according to her most famous quote. But what could a 14th century Christian mystic from Norwich possibly know? In the modern world where we face a climate crisis, serious biodiversity loss, and 1% of people have well over half the world’s wealth while others struggle to eat, her words seem naïve at best, possibly deluded. And that’s without considering the personal struggles that many of us face.
A few weeks ago I had the opportunity to go to Norwich with some other Methodist ministers, to visit the place where she lived and to learn more about her life and her writings. We know about Julian because of the book she wrote, ‘Revelations of Divine Love’, which is the earliest surviving writing we have by a woman in the English language.
When Julian was about 30 she became very ill and expected to die. It was while she was seriously ill that she experienced a series of powerful visions of the passion of Jesus Christ. This experience is probably the reason she became an anchorite. Being an anchorite was a kind of monastic lifestyle. She lived the rest of her life in the confines of a small single room – her cell. But instead of being shut away in a convent, her cell was built on the side of a parish church in the heart of the city.
Her cell had three windows. One through which her maid could pass her meals. A second into the church, so that Julian could take part in the worship. And a third which looked out on to the street, and where anyone could come and speak with Julian.
The 14th century was a hard time to be alive. In the middle of the century the Black Death swept across Europe causing the death of 75-200 million people. Something like 50% of the population of England died and the disease returned in fresh outbreaks over the following decades. It’s hard to imagine.
Death was an ever present part of life. Julian herself is thought to have lost a husband and a child. She was far from naïve about how difficult life can be. Her window onto the street was on a busy thoroughfare near the port of the second biggest city in England. There would not be many aspects of life she wasn’t aware of.
Her book was written in two parts, the first is a short account of her visions written soon after she recovered from her illness. The second, written much later in her life, is a longer account of the visions with her lifetime’s reflections and insights.
As for ‘all will be well’ – it was Julian’s deeply held conviction that, through God’s love and in God’s time, all things will indeed be well, however hard life might be that this moment. In the meantime Christians keep a window on the worship of God and a window on the struggles of the world and continue to speak of the divine love that creates, renews and sustains us.
A few weeks ago my wife, Liz, and I had day out to Coventry. Our aim was to visit the cathedral where I will be ordained in June.
There are actually two cathedrals in Coventry, they sit next to each other, almost physically joined together. The old medieval cathedral is essentially a ruin: the bombed-out shell of a once magnificent place of worship, built to the glory of God. Destroyed by bombs dropped by the Luftwaffe in 1940, its empty remains stand as a victim of conflict, a sign of the pain, suffering and destruction that war brings. A few delicate fragments of stained glass can still be seen near the still standing tower, looking like they could be blown out by the next strong gust of wind.
Next to the ruin stands a new cathedral. Another magnificent place of worship. A remarkable building with many beautiful features, including some beautiful stained glass and an incredibly huge tapestry.
After the old cathedral was bombed, the words ‘Father Forgive’ were written on the wall of the ruined chancel. Provost Dick Howard made a commitment not to seek revenge, but to strive for forgiveness and reconciliation with those responsible.
Events at Coventry were symbolic in rebuilding relationships between Britain and Germany after the War, and gave rise to the Community of the Cross of Nails - a worldwide network of churches and other organisations dedicated to peace-building and reconciliation.
I believe that God is the ultimate peace maker and the Cross of Christ, the ultimate act of peace making.
One of the names for Jesus is Emmanuel, which means ‘God with us.’ It is found in the first chapter of Matthew’s Gospel, part of the nativity story, and so Emmanuel has become a Christmas word and we don’t necessarily hear it outside of the Christmas season. Yet Emmanuel gets to heart of the incarnation. Of God becoming human in the person of Jesus of Nazareth. In Jesus Christ God becomes a vulnerable new born baby, and continues to be vulnerable as a fully grown man. He comes to be with us, not in power, but in weakness. Not to declare war on sinners, but to declare peace and reconciliation with those he loves. It is a dangerous path, one that leads to pain, suffering and death on the cross.
The Coventry Cross of Nails is not about nails that held together roof timbers – even though that is what they are. Yes, it evokes, the painful loss of a much loved building, crucified by the violence of war, but more clearly it evokes the cross of Christ, together with the nails that held him there; crucified by the violence of people in conflict with God, as he cried out ‘Father Forgive’.
But it wasn’t simply the nails that held Jesus to the cross, but love: the desire to be with us and for us to be at peace with him. St Paul writes, ‘God proves his love for us in that while we were still sinners Christ died for us.’
The story of Coventry Cathedral is a story of death and resurrection. And like the death and resurrection of Jesus of Nazareth which it echoes, it reveals something of how peace can be found.
Jesus tells us to love as he has loved us. To love our neighbour, yes, but to love our enemy too. It is in the risk and the desire to love and to forgive, to seek the good of the other person – even when we think they might be hostile – that peace is found.
Just a couple of weeks ago the COP27 climate change talks were in the headlines. Heads of State, other leaders and campaigners from across the globe had descended on Sharm el-Sheikh in Egypt for the annual UN conference on climate change. Each year these summits are the focus for much of the world’s anxiety about the changing climate. And this year has been another one filled with extreme weather events: droughts, floods and extreme temperatures, including a new record temperature of 40.3°C in the UK.
The COP talks are also a focus for hope. Each year we hope for agreements that will slow, stop or even reverse human induced climate change. We also hope for agreements that will bring about justice sharing of the burden between countries that have largely caused the problem and those who are suffering the most.
Unfortunately, all too often there is a significant gap between what is hoped for and what is actually agreed, and between what is agreed and what actually happens in practice. Last year, the campaigner Greta Thunberg criticised the COP26 talks in Glasgow for being just ‘blah, blah, blah’: just a talking shop full of empty words. What is needed for real change is for countries and corporations to get beyond words to significant actions; to embody what they say in the way they act.
We are now in the Christian season of Advent, a time of hope filled waiting and expectant activity. It is a time of hoping and waiting for God to speak and to act. We wait for Christmas to arrive.
What arrived that first Christmas was not simply words from God, not even action from God. God goes beyond words and beyond actions. God’s Word becomes flesh, embodied in a human life. The word we use is incarnation. But what happened that first Christmas goes beyond the words and language that we have to satisfactorily explain. The Gospel writer John reaches for poetic language to try an express what is almost beyond our comprehension.
In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. He was in the beginning with God. All things came into being through him, and without him not one thing came into being. What has come into being in him was life, and the life was the light of all people. The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness did not overcome it.
Our waiting ends and our hope is fulfilled in the coming of God’s Word as a fragile and vulnerable baby. In the coming of Jesus the world is transformed and will never be the same again, because God’s word has become flesh.
This Christmas may you know the transforming love of God who’s Word comes to us in the form of baby Jesus.
It’s that time of year when many of us will be heading off for a summer holiday. What do you like when you go on holiday? Beaches or mountains? Something exotic or the comfortingly familiar? Full-on activity or simply quiet relaxation? Our family likes to get outside into the natural world and enjoy some dramatic scenery. So this year we went to Pembrokeshire, not far from St David's – somewhere that was new to us.
While we were there we got to explore some of the beautiful Pembrokeshire coastline. We walked parts of the coastal path and took a boat ride to see the coast from a different point of view. There is nothing quite like rugged cliffs, open sea and a wide expanse of sky to make you feel small. Not just small, but also, paradoxically, deeply connected.
We also had the opportunity to visit St David's Cathedral – a beautiful church in a spectacular setting. As well as enjoying the cathedral itself there was the added bonus of a display of art work.
Towards the rear of the cathedral was a display of almost thirty oil paintings by the Welsh artist Jeremy Thomas (www.jeremythomasart.co.uk). Each painting depicts a scene from the life of Jesus, from the nativity through to the ascension. Together they are part of a four year project to tell the story of Jesus Christ. A project the artist has called ‘The Human One’.
What struck me most about the paintings was how Jesus was often a very small figure placed in a large dramatic landscape. As a Christian it can be very easy to forget the essential smallness of Jesus’ life. He lived such a long time ago amidst the drama of the Roman Empire. His life was short and lived out in a small, troublesome corner of the world. In a teaching ministry that lasted only three years he profoundly touched many lives and caused such a stir that the religious authorities conspired with the empire to have him killed. Within just a few decades those who knew him had spread the Good News of Jesus into Africa and Asia as well as Europe.
Whether or not you get to travel this summer, I hope you have the opportunity to get a break from the usual routines of life, experience your life in a different way for at least a few days and perhaps get in touch afresh with your own humanness. Holidays can not only refresh us but give us a fresh perspective on ourselves and our own lives. They can leave us feeling more deeply connected to creation or to culture, to friends and family. They can help to ground us again in the important things of life.
Good holidays are holy days, like Jesus they can bring us closer to the things of ultimate significance that too often get lost in the noise of everyday life.
The coming of spring each year reminds us of new life from death, as new flowers emerge from what was recently frozen earth. It brings many opportunities to apricate in a spirit of philocaly!As April begins we find ourselves well through the season of Lent, with Easter rapidly approaching. Unlike Advent we don’t count down the days in anticipation of what comes at the end – unless, of course, you’ve given up chocolate! But, very much like Advent, Lent is a time of preparation and reflection.
Traditionally Lent is a season of penitence: of acknowledging the weakness and self-focus of our human nature and how that is sometimes expressed in anger, greed, envy and, sometimes, even violence. We look to God for forgiveness, healing and a better way forward.
This Lent we have seen too much of the darker side of humanity as the war in Ukraine has unfolded. The burning homes and bombed hospitals can make us despair of humanity and question where God is in all of this. Yet at the same time we have seen the courage and resilience of the Ukrainian people. We have also experienced an enormous outpouring of compassion in response to the refugees who have fled their homes in search of safety.
Compassion is a powerful emotion. It is also a word that carries a lot of meaning. Like many English words it has its origins in Latin. It is made up from the Latin words com, which means ‘with’, and passio, which means ‘to suffer’. So compassion means, quite literally, ‘to suffer with’. In practice it is the emotion we experience when we identify with suffering or distress of others and are moved to help.
Christians believe in a deeply compassionate God: a God who invites us to join in the divine response of compassion by helping the suffering and being people who work for justice and peace. More than this, God in Christ literally suffers with us. In Jesus Christ, God enters into the full experience of being human. In the events of Good Friday Jesus experiences conspiracy, betrayal, state sanctioned violence, abandonment and death. His suffering is such that he even questions the presence of God as he cries from the cross, ‘My God, my God why have you forsaken me?’ Our compassionate God is profoundly present in suffering. In Jesus Christ, God identified with and entered into the suffering of the world. God suffers with us.
But that is not the end of the story. Easter is coming: the day of resurrection, the morning of the empty tomb! The promise of Easter is that beyond suffering and death is new life.
God of Compassion,
help us to see the face of Christ in the suffering and the dispossessed,
to be moved by compassion
and to hold tight to the promise of Easter resurrection.
This Christmas is likely to be very different. Thanks to vaccines much of our life has returned to normal. Family gatherings are planned, presents can be given in person and church services are all ready to go ahead. A complete transformation from last year.
For many people, however, Christmas will still feel a little strange. Some people are no longer with us, others have become more frail either physically or mentally. Many people’s lives have been changed dramatically. There will be more subtle changes and concerns. Are we ready for that annual trip to the pantomime? We don’t really want to be singing Christmas carols through face masks, but we will. And I’m really not sure if mummy should be kissing Santa Claus underneath the mistletoe! It won’t be quite how Christmas used to be.
For the Christian Church this is the season of Advent, a time of looking forward to the birth of Jesus Christ. This includes remembering how the Jewish people of over two thousand years ago were also looking forward to the coming of the Christ. They had experienced the trauma of having their country overrun, their capital city and temple destroyed and their people taken off into exile in Babylon. Even after their return from exile and rebuilding the city and the temple, there was a lingering sense that things were not as they had been. God was no longer with them in the way God had been in the past. They had a deep longing and a yearning for God to come and be with them again.
Advent is a time of longing and yearning for God to come close again, to know God’s presence with us and for God to make the world right again. Soon, at Christmas, we will celebrate how God comes to be with us in the person of Jesus Christ, how God is making the world right through him and is inviting us to join in.
May you know the peace and blessing of the God who comes to us in Jesus this Christmas.