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Posts Tagged "Crucifixion":

Julian of Norwich: Beyond Torture – Chris Fewings

The quotations from Julian below are edited

Last year I received on my birthday a hazelnut, a traditional crucifix, and a card showing Julian of Norwich, who became in the fourteenth century the first woman to write a book in English. She was a highly original and articulate theologian and visionary, forgotten for centuries but seeming to speak directly from her time to ours.

The crucifix with its tortured Christ seemed at first a very odd gift, especially in the context of Julian of Norwich, who saw not one whit of anger in God. Then I remembered how, as she lay at death’s door at the age of thirty, she had asked for a crucifix to be held before her eyes, and wanted with medieval gruesomeness to experience Christ’s pain.

‘After this I saw the body bleed freely because of the scourging. The fair skin was broken very deep into the tender flesh with sharp blows all about his body. So the hot blood ran out so freely that I could see neither skin nor wound, but as it were all blood.’

She recovered and the visions she had seen and her thoughts on them were written down, going far beyond blood and gore and exploring the motherly love of God, especially in the second book she wrote about twenty years later.

‘I saw that he is to us everything that is good and comforting for us: he is our clothing that wraps us, clasps us, and enfolds us because of his tender love, that he may never leave us; being to us everything that is good.’

* * * * *

‘He shewed me a little thing, the size of an hazelnut, in the palm of my hand; and it was as round as a ball. I looked at it and thought: What can this be? And the answer came: it is all that is made. I marvelled how it might last: it was tiny it might just have disappeared. And the answer came to mind: it lasts because God loves it.’

Her view of the fall is encapsulated in her vision of a lord sending a servant on a mission:

‘I saw a master and a servant, the master sitting calmly and in peace, the servant standing before his master reverently, ready to do his will. The master looks upon his servant lovingly, and sends him off to do his bidding. The servant not only goes, but starts at once, and runs in great haste, eager to do his master’s will. But then he falls and is badly hurt, and groans and moans and wails and struggles, but he can neither rise nor help himself in any way.

‘I marvelled how this servant might meekly suffer there all this woe, and I looked carefully to learn if I could perceive in him any fault, or if the master should assign him any blame. And in truth there was none, for only his goodwill and his great desire was cause of his falling; he had no hate, and was as good inwardly as when he stood before his master, ready to do his will. His master looked on him with all tenderness and compassion — and I also saw him rejoicing to think of the restoration he would bring his servant by his plentiful grace.

‘Now this courteous master says “Look, look, my beloved servant, what harm and distress he has taken in my service in his eagerness. Is it not fitting that I recompense him for his shock, his hurt, his injury and all his woe? And not only this, but should I not give him a gift that will be better to him than his own wholeness should have been? How else can I thank him?”‘

* * * * *

‘A mother may let her child fall sometimes, and to be hurt in various ways, but she would never allow any real danger to come to the child. And even if our earthly mother let her child perish, our heavenly mother, Jesus, will never allow his children to perish.’

Julian’s writings have been important to me for nearly thirty years. I wrote this short poem last year because in receiving the crucifix I realised that I had skimmed over her close attention to the tortured Christ. She is the voice of the motherly love of God, but she does not shy away from pain and cruelty.


Before she was enfolded and enfolded us
in words that recognise that mothering
is more than something local (a universal
sling holding us to the torso of reality,
as we cry out to our core of being),
she saw the worst that men can do to men
and felt her life suspended. So if you
would like to hold a hazelnut in hand
and know the woods that can enclose you
can be enclosed in a single palm,
don’t shrink away from Amnesty International,
special rendition, fingernails ripped off.
There may be nothing you can do but run on errands
and fall until your ankle’s twisted round.
The mother-king will raise you to herself.

Julian’s feast day is celebrated on 8th May in the Church of England, and 13th May in the Church of Rome. More extracts from her work can be found on Wikiquote. I was introduced to her work by the booklet Enfolded in Love edited by Robert Llewelyn. The photograph (of Norwich Cathedral) is from Wikimedia Commons

“He Opened Wide His Arms For Us On The Cross”: Chris Fewings


Today is Holy Cross Day. We’re told Jesus “opened wide his arms for us on the cross”, but it’s easy for Christians to forget that the cross was an instrument of torture and execution. You wouldn’t expect to go into church and see a noose hanging from the ceiling, or an electric chair in front of the altar. We sing hymns like “I’ll cherish the old rugged cross” almost as if the cross were a teddy bear.

Why do we say “the tree of shame has become the tree of glory”? Why should dwelling on the pain and death of one man heal us? Perhaps because Jesus accepts his pain and reaches out from it to us. When I’m in pain, I tend to curl up and turn my back on people, or snap at them to keep them away. Jesus stretches wide has arms and says, I can survive this. I’m not going to kick back against the people who caused me pain. When I’m gone, I want my best friend to look after my mum and my mum to look after my best friend. I want to wrap my wings around all of you in your pain. I don’t want you to suffer alone.

So we lift high the cross. We believe that in Jesus our pain and suffering can be transformed. And this can happen by contemplating the cross. When we stop our busy lives to look at this image of a man in pain who is not crushed by that pain, and who is not cut off from us in his pain, we wonder. The spirit of Jesus, the spirit of sonship, the spirit of the little child who trusts his parents, can breathe through us and we cry out Father, I place myself in your hands. Life, universe, mother, I trust you. Either this cup will pass, or you will give me strength to bear it. And the possibility opens up of opening our arms to others, in spite of the pain, instead of closing ourselves off.

I love the hymn The Old Rugged Cross. Maybe that’s because it does encourage us to look to Jesus when we are suffering. But there is a danger in cherishing or clinging to the cross. There is a fine line between learning to accept and grow through our pain on the one hand, and secretly hanging on to it on the other. I’ve caught myself thinking “My pain is greater than yours” or “no one can understand me – my pain is special”. Pain competitions cut us off from each other. Suffering is something which can unite us, because we all experience it.

So what did Jesus mean when he invited us to deny ourselves and take up our cross and follow him? It’s an invitation to freely accept what life throws at us. It’s our duty to avoid unnecessary pain, but there’s stuff we can’t avoid – so why fight it? Better to contemplate it like the cross: simply look at it and let it be.

The church presents the cross not only as a remedy for pain but as a remedy for sin: the pain we inflict on others. A lot of pain is caused directly by other people, deliberately or otherwise. It may be by a drunken driver, by someone you live with, or by someone who can’t love you. We may deliberately hurt people we know, to get back at them, or we may hurt people on the other side of the world by the careless way we live our lives and use resources like petrol or electricity or plastic.

Sin means separation: from God, from other people, from the deepest part of ourselves. From the natural world, which will nurture us if we let it. Cutting ourselves off by thinking of ourselves as different or special, either much better or much worse than other people. Cutting ourselves off from others may make us feel safer or easier, but it often hurts us and them.

Jesus stretches wide his arms and says, It stops here: I’m not going to lash out, and I’m not going to run away. In certain circumstances we may need to protect ourselves from other people. At other times we may need to confront them. Earlier in his public life, Jesus slipped away from his enemies. A few days before his crucifixion, he had a go at the money-changers in the temple. But when it came to the crunch, he followed the path of non-violence to the point of no return.

In different ways, we can stretch out our arms to the people who are causing us pain, even if they don’t mean to, or don’t even realise they’ve hurt us. There is no guarantee those people will respond the way we want them to. But we gain nothing by lashing out. And in the end, we have much to gain by not running away.

Jesus stretching wide his arms is the glory of the cross and the glory of the resurrection. Out of the freely accepted pain and bewilderment of the crucifixion comes the excitement – and the puzzle – of the resurrection. Who is this man? Who walks beside us on the dusty road? Who eats breakfast with us at the side of the lake? Who gives himself to us in this bread and wine which we offer to him? It’s the Son of Man, the ordinary bloke, the one who challenges us to recognise him in everyone.

If we let go of our fear of other people just a little bit, if we stretch out a hand to someone who has hurt us or may hurt us, we may get slapped in the face. Whether that happens or not, we may find ourselves changing and find a little Easter sunrise when we least expect it, and after that no doubt another crucifixion, and another Easter, from glory to glory.


This is an edited version of a talk given at St Paul’s Balsall Heath. Chris Fewings blogs at


The main illustration is the Volto Santo from Lucca Cathedral and can be seen here. By Joanbanjo. The second is a bronze by Iturria.  Both downloaded under CCL from Wikimedia.

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