What is Epiphany?

Though Lent is right around the corner, technically we’re still in the season of Epiphany. What does that mean for us and for the Church?

Source: Unsplash/Sergey Zhesterev

What is Epiphany?

Epiphany reminds us of how the light of Jesus Christ continues to guide our lives every day —even after we put away the bright and cheery Christmas lights. Epiphany is a Christian holiday celebrated in the West on January 6. The word “Epiphany” originates from the Greek epiphaneiameaning “manifestation” or “appearance.”

Also known as “Three Kings Day,” the Western church largely celebrates the visit of the three Magi to the newly-born Jesus in Bethlehem that is detailed in Matthew 2:1-12. More broadly, the day of Epiphany commemorates the revelation of Christ as the eternal Savior of all humankind. Not only did Christ reveal himself as the Son of God to the three Magi, but also through his baptism (Mark 1:9-11) as well as through his first miracle in the turning of the water to wine at Cana (John 2:1-11). The liturgical season of Epiphany, which stretches from January 6 through Ash Wednesday, highlights all these “theophanies” or “epiphanies” of Christ’s divinity to the world.

All these significant revelations of Jesus have been commemorated on Epiphany at different historical periods and in different regions throughout the Eastern and Western churches. In addition to Christmas and Easter, Epiphany is one of the three oldest Christian feast days.

What is the difference between Epiphany and the Twelve Days of Christmas?

The Twelve Days of Christmas traditionally refers to the period of 12 calendar days between Christmas Day, December 25, and Epiphany on January 6.

What’s the difference between Epiphany in the Western church and Epiphany in the Eastern church?

Western Christians, such as Roman Catholics and Protestants, and Eastern Christians, such as Russian and Greek Orthodox churches, follow different calendars when it comes to deciding feast days and liturgical seasons. In the West, Christmas is celebrated on December 25 and the feast of Epiphany is celebrated on January 6. Additionally, the feast day of Epiphany in the Western church principally focuses on the visit of the Magi to baby Jesus and how this visit revealed Jesus’ divinity. Eastern Christian traditions follow the Julian calendar in which Christmas Eve falls on January 6 and the feast day of Epiphany falls on January 19. In the East, the feast of Epiphany principally focuses on Jesus’ baptism, and how this act revealed Christ’s divinity. Western Christians celebrate Jesus’ baptism on the Sunday that follows the Epiphany feast day.

How long does Epiphany last?

The feast day of Epiphany lasts for 24 hours and is observed by Western Christians on January 6. For Christian traditions that follow the Revised Common Lectionary, such as the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.), the liturgical season of Epiphany lasts from January 6 through Ash Wednesday, which marks the beginning of Lent.

Do Protestants celebrate Epiphany?

Yes, Christians all around the world celebrate Epiphany: Protestants, as well as Roman Catholics and Eastern Orthodox.

What is the history of Epiphany?

Source: Unsplash/Robert Thiemann

The church’s celebration of Epiphany is one of the church’s three earliest feast days, even older than Christmas. As a result, its history is complicated and has no one pervading theory of origination. In Journey into the Heart of God: Living the Liturgical Year, Philip Pfatteicher cites the earliest recorded evidence for Epiphany dated around 215 in Egypt. Some historians believe that the church’s observance of Epiphany was established to replace local pagan feast celebrations dated in and around January 6. (A similar hypothesis has been proposed for December 25 by Paul F. Bradshaw and Maxwell E. Johnson in The Origins of Feasts, Fast, and Seasons in Early Christianity.)

Scholars note that another theory for the establishment of Epiphany is linked closely with the celebration of Easter. (See Bradshaw and Johnson and Pfatteicher.) Early Christians in Asia Minor celebrated both the death and resurrection of Jesus and the Jewish Passover on April 6. They chose April 6 because they professed that Jesus’ life was perfect and this perfection must be reflected in the dates of his conception and death, meaning that his beginning and end must have occurred on the same date. Therefore, they believed that the date of Jesus’ crucifixion must have been the same as his conception — April 6, nine months before his birth on January 6.

There are still other accounts of early Christians in places like Alexandria, Egypt, celebrating Epiphany without any mention of Jesus’ birth narrative at all. In Alexandria, the Gospel of Mark was the available Scripture. Since the Gospel of Mark notably omits the story of Jesus’ birth, their Epiphany celebrations focused on the baptism and miracle stories of Jesus. These earliest Epiphany celebrations were feast days for the baptism and joyous welcome of new catechumens, or converts, into the life of the church.

In Journey into the Heart of God: Living the Liturgical Year, Philip Phatteicher notes that a gradual “exchange of feasts” took place between the Eastern and Western Church in the mid-to-late fourth century. The Western church received the Eastern observance of Epiphany and the Eastern church adopted the Western observance of Christmas. When the Western church in Rome adopted the Eastern celebration of Epiphany, the story of the three Magi was the focus of their celebration. Jesus’ baptism would later be commemorated on a Sunday after the Sunday of Epiphany, as it is today in the West. Today, the connection between Epiphany and Jesus’ baptism remains stronger in the East. In the West, Epiphany, known today as “Three Kings Day” in some regions, is most commonly associated with the journey and gifts of the three Magi.

Is Epiphany in the Bible?

Bradshaw and Johnson note that Epiphany has historically been a celebration of many theological themes, including Christ’s birth before Christmas was observed. On Epiphany, the Eastern and Western churches throughout the centuries have also commemorated Jesus’ baptism, the journey of the three kings to visit the Christ child, as well as the wedding at Cana wherein Jesus performed his great miracle of turning water into wine. The story of Jesus’ birth (Matthew 1:18-25; Luke 2:1-7), the journey of the three Magi (Matthew 2:1-12), Jesus’ baptism (Mark 1:9-11), and the wedding at Cana (John 2:1-11) are all located in the Bible.

In Journey into the Heart of God: Living the Liturgical Year, Philip Phatteicher notes that a gradual “exchange of feasts” took place between the Eastern and Western Church in the mid-to-late fourth century. The Western church received the Eastern observance of Epiphany and the Eastern church adopted the Western observance of Christmas. When the Western church in Rome adopted the Eastern celebration of Epiphany, the story of the three Magi was the focus of their celebration. Jesus’ baptism would later be commemorated on a Sunday after the Sunday of Epiphany, as it is today in the West. Today, the connection between Epiphany and Jesus’ baptism remains stronger in the East. In the West, Epiphany, known today as “Three Kings Day” in some regions, is most commonly associated with the journey and gifts of the three Magi.

What is the legend of La Befana: Italy’s Epiphany gift-giver?

On Epiphany Eve, the children of Italy anticipate the visit of a mythical figure who carries a broomstick and brings gifts. She’s a woman known as La Befana. Sources date that the legend of La Befana has been observed as early as the 13th century, easily pre-dating Santa Clause. The Italian legend blends with biblical tradition. The story goes that the three Magi stopped at the home of an old woman on their way to visit the baby Jesus. She offered them rest and hospitality. In exchange, they invited her to join them on their journey, but she turned down their offer, saying that she had too much housework to do. She later regretted her decision. Each year, on Epiphany Eve, La Befana sets out on her own search for the Christ Child, visiting the homes of children and leaving toys and sweets. A later adaptation of the myth even has La Befana leaving gifts of carbone — candy made to resemble coal.

What are “Star Words?”

Passing out “star words” has been a practice in Protestant churches for nearly a decade and continues to proliferate in congregations. The annual ritual derives from the story of the luminous star that led the three Magi to the Christ Child. “Star words” are intention words that are printed or written out on paper stars. Each year, during Epiphany worship, members of churches are invited to take a paper star, often either from a basket or from the Communion Table. Without knowing the word written on their paper star ahead of time, worshippers are invited to place their trust in the word they have drawn and to allow that word to reflectively guide them. The word we choose helps us prayerfully set our intention for the coming year. Star words are a lovely liturgical practice that encapsulates so well the spirit of Epiphany: our ever-present hope that God is an illuminating presence in our daily lives, calling us, loving us, and leading us forth into our world together.

What is Advent?

Advent was not always understood as a countdown to Christmas. In fact, the origins of our modern-day Advent celebration may not have had much to do with December 25th at all.

A version of this piece is published online at Presbyterian Outlook.

Source: Unsplash/Max Beck

What is Advent?

As the days shorten and the nights grow colder, Christians embrace God’s promise of light. Heralding the beginning of the church calendar year, Advent begins on the Sunday between November 27th and December 3rd. [1] Deriving from the Latin word, adventus, the word means “coming,” “approach,” or “arrival.” “Advent” is also a translation of the Greek παρουσία (parousia), a word historically used in the church to signify Christ’s second coming. The church collectively waits with hope-filled anticipation for arrival, “Advent,” of Christ in our world, the One born in the flesh and whose presence is with us both now and eternally.

What is the history of the Advent wreath?

Protestants, Roman Catholics, Orthodox, and other Christian traditions around the world celebrate the season of Advent with a host of annual rituals: contemplative worship, prayer, scripture study, and daily devotionals to name a few. In Journey into the Heart of God: Living the Liturgical Year, Philip Pfatteicher lifts up an enduring appeal of the Advent season: the development of meaningful traditions and customs celebrated both in worship, as well as in the home with our families. Today, the Advent wreath is one of most common symbols associated with the season.

Invented by Johann Hinrich Wichern in 1839, the Advent wreath was intended as a physical sign to help bring the spirit and expectation of the season to young boys living in a settlement house that Wichern founded in Hamburg. Evergreens and fire, two of the main materials that make up the Advent wreath, are both deeply rooted in ancient, pre-Christian symbolism associated with everlasting life. Though traditions vary today, four candles typically form a circle around the outside with one white candle in the middle, known as the Christ Candle. The four outer candles customarily represent peace, hope, joy, and love. One candle is lit for each of the four Sundays of Advent, with the Christ Candle as the final one we light on Christmas Eve.  

Why do churches decorate with purple during Advent?

Rich, deep colors are symbolic of the Advent season. As in the season of Lent, purple is one of the main liturgical hues associated with Advent. Philip Pfatteicher observes that the color purple holds different meanings for different church calendar seasons. Purple represents penitence during the Lenten season. Whereas during Advent, purple is often associated with royalty, signifying the anticipated arrival of Christ the king. Dark blue is also commonly recognized during Advent. In church history, a deep shade of blue is symbolic of hope and also of Mary, the mother of Jesus. Today, throughout the Advent season, clergy wear purple or dark blue vestments and churches are adorned in purple or dark blue paraments. In the Middle Ages, black was also a liturgical color associated with the observance of Advent.  

What are the historical origins of Advent?

Much like the mystical spirit of the season, the precise historical origins of Advent are something of a mystery. Scholars have pieced together significant evidence for annual liturgical periods of fasting and preparation in the early Christian church. Notably, these early Advent seasons didn’t culminate on December 25th but instead on January 6th, the day of Epiphany. On Epiphany, the church commemorates the revelation of the Christ-child to the world, represented by the three magi who traveled a great distance to Bethlehem to pay him homage. The early church’s observance of Epiphany included themes of the nativity, Jesus’ baptism, the miracle of the Jesus’ turning of the water into wine at Cana, and other revelations of Jesus’ identity to the world. In the West, Epiphany was marked as a feast day for the baptism and joyful reception of new catechumens, or converts, into the life of the church. In The Origins of Feasts, Fasts, and Seasons in Early Christianity, Bradshaw and Johnson point out that the connection between Epiphany and Jesus’ baptism is stronger in the Eastern church than in the West. In the Western Church, Jesus’ baptism would later come to be celebrated on a Sunday after the Sunday of Epiphany, as it is today.

Scholars believe that our modern-day Advent observance may have its origins in Spain and in Gaul. In the sixth century, the church in Rome observes a similar season of preparation for baptism. Bradshaw and Johnson note that these early church preparatory observances were of varying lengths, anywhere from three weeks to a six-week Advent in Rome. Pope Gregory I at the end of the sixth century eventually shortens the length of the Advent season to four weeks. Christmas Day, commemorated on December 25th, began as a local Roman church observance. In Rome, the four Sundays of Advent leading up to Christmas were officially set by Pope Gregory I. Though the early church’s celebration of Epiphany on January 6th was much older and celebrated more broadly, as Christmas Day gained wider acceptance in the church, the celebration of Advent became oriented not toward preparation for Epiphany but for Christmas.  

What is the theological significance of Advent?

As early church Advent celebrations were not centered upon December 25th at all, theologically Advent is oriented beyond the birthday of Jesus. Advent prepares us to celebrate Jesus Christ’s arrival, born into our broken world as a real, en-fleshed human being. However, the season of Advent also directs us toward the ultimate, eschatological hope of our eternal Savior’s second coming and the subsequent reconciliation of all things. In other words, we spiritually “get ready” for Christ to come again.

In Journey into the Heart of God: Living the Liturgical Year, Philip Pfatteicher writes, “The spirit of the season is expressed in the impatient cry of a sometimes desperate people, ‘O that you would tear open the heavens and come down’ (Isaiah 64:1).” In contrast to the often-ostentatious ethos of the commercial Christmas season, the Church’s Advent is a somber and soulful time of contemplation. Many of our Advent scriptures and hymns are of lament. A very familiar Advent hymn, “O Come, O Come Emmanuel,” has a haunting minor melody, in which the chorus cries out for God to save God’s people, to “ransom captive Israel.” In the final days of Advent, many churches hold “Longest Night” worship services in the evening, intentional spaces for communities to gather and lay bare the sadness and grief so often felt on these longest nights of the year.

The Church’s Advent journey does not abandon us at the threshold of despair and sorrow. Ultimately, this season orients us toward hope in a Savior who has the power to break through the anguish and sins of this world—and to ultimately redeem us all. The theme of the fourth and final Sunday in Advent is profoundly Incarnational, pointing us toward the eternal hope of God’s people in Jesus Christ and the enduring promise that our prayers for salvation have at last been answered. The Catholic Church has recited morning prayers together for hundreds and hundreds of years. One line of praise from these morning prayers (Lauds) on the final days of Advent strikes a triumphant and optimistic tone, beautifully summing up our ultimate hope of the Advent season:

“The Lord is here; go out to meet him, saying: Great is his birth, eternal his kingdom, strong God, Ruler of all, Prince of peace, alleluia!”

[1] https://www.christianity.com/wiki/holidays/what-is-advent.html


Small but steady witness: Big lessons from little churches (From May 9, 2022 Presbyterian Outlook Magazine)


No one besides me had entered our sanctuary for months, and it showed. I unlocked the wooden double doors bearing my handwritten sign that read: “Sanctuary Closed Due to Pandemic. Worship With Us Online.”Hot, stagnant air draped over me once I stepped inside the modest, single-room country church. As I walked up the center aisle, the wooden floors creaked in surprise at my unexpected feet. Pale morning sunlight illumined the chalky dust coating each unoccupied pew.

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” ‘Ode to Joy’ and the harrowing of hell” Holy Saturday post for Presbyterian Outlook

In 1786, Friedrich Schiller published his best-known work, a poem entitled “An die Freude,” known in English as “Ode to Joy.” Schiller’s poem was an instant hit. In fact, it was such a success that it soon sparked the imagination of another famous German artist. Shortly after its composition, Ludwig van Beethoven aspired to set the text of “Ode to Joy” to music.

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Smell, memory, and Christmas

Every Christmas, my late grandmother made peppernut cookies, (or pfeffernüsse, as she called them). Crunchy little morsels filled with warming spices, these cookies represented her family’s German roots. In a labor of love, Grandma created and then divided a lump of peppernut dough into several pieces and rolled out each by hand. She cut “nut” sized bites by wrapping a strand of dental floss around the ends of each long, thin tube of dough and by pulling tight. She baked cookie sheet after cookie sheet filled with the small, peppernut cookies, flooding their Iowa farmhouse full of cozy and comforting spices like cinnamon, nutmeg, ginger, and cloves…

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Enduring Grace, Imperfect Community

Source: Unsplash/Hannah Busing

Each Wednesday morning, I make a piping mug of tea, click a Zoom link, and am soon heartened by the panel of sleepy, smiling female faces checkered across my computer screen. Our Women’s Bible study has gathered early and faithfully throughout the pandemic. They graciously invited me to lead them on a journey through the Old Testament, specifically, to examine stories of biblical women. We started in Genesis, continued sequentially, and recently concluded with the virtuous woman of Proverbs 31. Together, we encountered the tragic pain, tender love, and resilient faith of the brave women of the bible.

We laughed with Sarah. We encountered God in the desert with Hagar. The collective courage of the daughters of Zelophehad empowered us. The appalling fate of the Levite’s concubine horrified us. The swift courage of Jael and her silent tent peg shocked us. We mourned and kept watch in the darkness with Rizpah. We discovered a model of resistance in Vashti and an advocate for justice in Esther.

The female saints of the Bible give voice to the failings of its many patriarchs, not to mention the pervasive brokenness of the whole community of faith. In scripture, God’s people repeatedly exploit the powerless and distort God’s teachings. Women and children are too often oppressed and violated. As our Bible study wrestled with these texts together, we never lost sight of the truth that these stories—however ugly or tragic—are all a part of our story.

Over and against harmful supercessionist interpretations of scripture, the Reformed tradition emphasizes our common kinship with the community of faith in the Old Testament. Amy Plantinga Pauw writes, “The church hears the judgments and promises of the Old Testament as God’s Word to them. The idolatries of the Old Testament are snapshots from the church’s family album. Both Israel and the Church struggle to be obedient and faithful; both often fail.” Our journey through the Old Testament this year reminded us how broken the church has been from its beginnings—and how much we utterly depend upon God’s grace to sustain us.

A global pandemic has taught us all a thing or two about the imperfections of our earthly community of God. Our collective experience has dealt us each a sobering reminder of human mortality—and made the institutional church acutely aware of its own fragility. Dispersed and scattered from our buildings last year, we worried how our congregations would survive. Now as we reopen our physical spaces for Sunday worship, church leaders wonder who will return—and what the future holds.

My suspicion is that we, the Church, will probably fail in many ways to meet this watershed moment: that once back in our buildings, many congregations will hastily revert to old patterns of “business as usual.” I think we need to accept now that the Church will not be radically different than it was before the pandemic, at least not overnight. Yet whatever happens next, God’s promise to the Israelites and to us remains the same: I am with you. When the Israelites were in exile, God promised them: “I am about to do a new thing; now it springs forth, do you know perceive it? I will make a way in the wilderness and rivers in the desert.” God promised new possibilities for God’s people. These new possibilities were not contingent upon a perfect record of faithful obedience going forward. God’s people had already established a long track record of screwing things up. God hadn’t forgotten that—and yet God promised them a future with hope anyway!

God made a way for the Israelites through the wilderness and will make a way for us, too. What “way” will God show us forward? That has yet to be seen. The Church has overcome many trials and taken on so many forms over the course of history. Our Reformed tradition relativizes all singular forms of church worship or procedure. The Scots Confession states that no “policy or order of ceremonies can be appointed for all ages, times, and places…” The architects of our early Reformed theology recognized that all earthly church forms are fragile and finite. As we discovered, our pandemic season ushered forth rapid innovation.  The church had to quickly adapt to fit the current context and to become an exclusively virtual community during a time of physical quarantine. What a pivotal moment in our church’s story! Together, we have demonstrated that God’s community on earth is truly capable of faithfully stepping out in hope to meet our future.    

Friends, we must not lose sight of our church’s story: that in all times and places the community of faith has been utterly dependent upon the grace of God. So why shouldn’t we boldly step out in hope for new possibilities now? We can learn much from the brave biblical women who relied on God’s grace to sustain them in troubled times. Now more than ever: let’s welcome the stranger, become fierce advocates for justice, and bear witness to this amazing story of God’s enduring grace for us.

Reading the “Curse of Ham” with America’s first ordained black preacher

Portrait of Lemuel Haynes
Source: Wikimedia Commons

During my senior year in college, I presented my first academic paper at a conference. (In Sioux Falls, South Dakota of all places!) In the middle of the windy prairie flatlands, I nervously presented my research to a modest audience of undergraduate students and their advisors. My topic? The devastating reception history behind Genesis 9:18-27, in which Noah curses the offspring of his son Ham.

This peculiar little biblical passage was a popular one in the Antebellum South, repeatedly manipulated and distorted into justifying American slavery. In Genesis 9:18-27, Noah had three sons who were the ancestors of all the peoples of the world: Shem, Japheth, and Ham. One day, their father Noah drank too much wine and passed out naked in his tent. Ham walked in, saw his father’s nakedness, then went and told his brothers.

The text is somewhat vague about the details of Ham’s alleged crime. Was Ham’s only crime accidentally walking in on his father naked? Or was it that he told his brothers? As you can imagine, biased interpreters took to excessively speculating about Ham’s sexual impropriety. Regardless, Shem and Japheth “covered the nakedness of their faither” with a piece of clothing, supposedly without seeing their father with their own eyes. And when Noah regained consciousness, he somehow knew exactly “what his youngest son had done to him.” Noah admonished, “Cursed be Canaan! Lowest of slaves shall he be to his brothers.”

According to racist myth, because Ham was believed to be the father of all the nations of Africa, Noah’s curse gives biblical sanction for their enslavement. Never mind that Canaan is the recipient of the curse. Canaan was cursed as a result of his father’s sin—and in the twisted rationale of white slaveholders, black slavery must be the all-time consequence.

Why am I recalling this tragic biblical interpretation? Because this week I am reading some of the writings of Lemuel Haynes, our country’s first ordained black minister. Though in his day, Genesis 9:18-27 was a favorite text of white slaveholders, Rev. Haynes was courageously offering a very different interpretation of this exact same passage!

In 1776, America’s first ordained black preacher wrote in rebuke of this biblical text being used to justify slavery. Lemuel Haynes writes, “Whethear [sic] the Negros are of Canaans posterity or not, perhaps it is not known By any mortal under Heaven. But allowing they were actually of Canaans posterity, yet we have no reason to think that this Curs Lasted any Longer than the comeing of Christ: when that Sun of riteousness arose this wall of partition was Broken Down.”

Haynes clearly casts doubt upon the belief that Ham’s son Canaan is the progenitor of the African people. Here, one of my former biblical studies professors, Lisa Bowens, helps us parse out the roots of Hayne’s criticism. Dr. Bowens writes, “…part of Haynes critique of this story’s interpretation lies in recognizing the improbability of knowing the identity of Canaan’s descendants.” Bowens goes on to note the importance of the New Testament for understanding Hayne’s reading of this Old Testament story. Bowens notes that in Haynes’ above critique, he draws upon the Letters of the Apostle Paul. [1]

Bowens states, “In Ephesians 2:14, where Paul discusses Christ’s destruction of the wall between Jew and gentile, Haynes understands the partition as the one prevalent in his day, the wall erected between black and white, slave and free, and insists that Christ destroyed these humanly instituted barriers also. Moreover, in Galatians 3:13 the apostle states, ‘Christ hath redeemed us from the curse of the law…’ Using the apostle’s language, Haynes grants that even if black were descendants of Canaan, Christ’s death removes this curse and therefore delegitimizes the use of the Ham narrative.” [2]

In the 18th century, we must remind ourselves that Haynes was writing in and for a much different time. Nevertheless, the burden of having to debunk any supposed “biblical curse” over one’s people is ludicrous and tragic. But what I find fascinating about Haynes’ reading of this story is that, despite the pain and trauma associated with it, Haynes still finds Christ as our source of liberation and grace. Whatever walls, he says, human beings construct to divide each other and whatever curse we may have once lived under as a result of sin, Christ has saved us from all sin and bondage! He declares, “But now our glorious hygh [sic] priest hath visably appear’d in the flesh and hath Establish’d a more glorious Oeconemy. He hath not only visably Broken Down that wall of partision that interposed…” Haynes goes to say that these walls have been rendered “obsolete!”

Lemuel Haynes lifted up his Christ-centered rebuke of Genesis 9:18-27 as a part of an essay entitled, “Liberty Further Extended: Or Free Thoughts on the Illegality of Slave-Keeping.” His refutation of the “Curse of Ham” is one piece of a much broader argument against slavery. The distinct courage of Haynes is clearly demonstrated by his rejection of lazy interpretations of white preachers. He challenges slavery in light of the grace and freedom promised to all through the victory of Christ’s Resurrection. Finally, Haynes reclaims a biblical text for those abused and traumatized by its centuries of misreading and misuse, lifting up a liberating reading of this passage that is, above all else, the Good News. Thanks be to God!

[1] Bowens, Lisa M. African American Readings of Paul: Reception, Resistance, and Transformation. E-Book. Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2020.

[2] Bowens, Lisa M. African American Readings of Paul: Reception, Resistance, and Transformation. E-Book.

The wounds of God for the wounded people of God

In the face of suffering, Julian of Norwich found comfort in the vision she received from God: “All will be well…”
Source: Unsplash/Josh Applegate

After losing someone close to her, my mother-in-law shared a comment has stuck with me.  “Isn’t it strange? Now she’s just another coronavirus statistic.”

400,000 deaths.

Our country has surpassed 400,000 deaths to the pandemic. In just under a year, more Americans have died of Covid 19 than in World War II. Since the beginning of December, nine Americans are dying every five minutes. The coronavirus pandemic is currently the third-deadliest event in U.S. history, ranking after the Civil War and the Spanish Flu.  

The constant toll of Covid death has become a ritual that rises and sets with us. I wake up to a daily news briefing in my email inbox tracking the Coronavirus death toll. I wind down at the night with the news of the day—tracking the Coronavirus death toll. We can set our clocks to the steady, daily rhythm of gratuitous human loss and national despair.

In a couple of my church’s virtual classes and even an upcoming virtual retreat, I am guiding my Zoom attendees through the role of trauma in the life and faith of some major figures in the Bible as well as in church history.

In 14th century England, Julian of Norwich was no stranger to widespread death and societal trauma. Throughout Julian’s lifetime, England was ravaged by famine, religious persecution, violent political turmoil and revolt, and several iterations of the infamous Black Plague.[1] At the young age of thirty, Julian of Norwich found herself deathly ill. Like so many of her sick and impoverished peers of the lower classes, she waited–helpless and in pain–for her life to end. It was at this point of personal trauma, she received visions she believed were from God.

Fortunately, Julian would survive and go on to be the first woman to write a book in English based on her visions called, Revelations of Divine Love. As it turns out, Julian’s ecstatic, mystical revelations had everything to do with suffering, namely the suffering of Christ in the Passion event. Fascinatingly, Julian’s visions of Christ’s—often very graphic—suffering on the Cross revealed not grief, not fear, but joy.In beholding Christ’s wounds, Julian finds spiritual refuge.

She writes, “The beauty and vividness of [Christ’s] blood are like nothing but itself. It is as plentiful as the drops of water which fall from the eaves after a heavy shower of rain, drops which fall so thickly that no human mind can number them… And this is what gave me the most happiness and the strongest sense of spiritual safety.”

I was initially shocked by Julian’s association of such bloody imagery with feelings of joy. Today, on the heels of the violent Capitol riots, we are a wounded nation, torn asunder by deep partisan divisions and the ugly, entrenched myth of white supremacy. We are weary from a heated summer of police violence against Black lives and peaceful protestors. In Julian’s day, “in addition to the plague, many of the same people had heard about or watched men and women fighting for reform of the brutal feudal system slain like lambs to a slaughter.” [2] How can Julian behold the wounds inflicted upon Jesus’ body, culminating in his state-sanctioned execution, as a sign of spiritual safety?

Julian believes that in the eyes of Jesus, no one is insignificant. Jesus sees each of us and our circumstances equally. This was extraordinary at a time when the lower classes were barely recognized, by either their government or their Church. Julian was a woman so poor at her birth that her name wasn’t even recorded for posterity. (We call her “Julian of Norwich” after the church to which she later dedicated her life.) During Mass, only the priest would have been guaranteed to receive the cup of blessing. The cup (Christ’s blood) certainly would never have been given to the lower classes.

In such a context, Julian beheld the crucifix in one of her visions and wrote, “And suddenly I saw the red blood running down from under the crown, hot and flowing copiously, a living stream… I perceived truly and powerfully that it was he who was just so, both God and man, himself suffered for me, who showed it to me without intermediary… And suddenly, the Trinity filled my heart full of the greatest joy, and I understood that it will be so in heaven without end to all who will come there…”

Imagine that! As Julian lies helpless on what she thought would be her deathbed, in the midst of the relentless trauma, violence, and death all around her—living in the daily reality of an unjust and cruel class system — Julian finds happiness, comfort, safety, love, and social equality on the Cross. Consider that this is a time when a young, poor woman would have been prohibited from writing theology at all, let alone theology as radical as this!

Seeking answers for the countless suffering around her, Julian looks to the ultimate suffering of the One. For suffering on its own isn’t an end in and of itself. Our suffering in this world is not a punishment for our sins, nor is it redemptive. Christ sees our pain and suffers so that there will be an end to our suffering!

Julian writes, “And with the beholding of Jesus’ passion… I did not see sin, for I believe that is has no kind of substance, no share in being, nor can it be recognized except by the pain caused by it… And it seems to me that this pain is something for a time… For the passion of our Lord is comfort to us against all this… And because of the tender love which our good Lord has for all who will be saved, he comforts readily and sweetly, meaning this: It is true that sin is the cause of all this pain, but all will be will, and all will be well, and all manner of things will be well.”

In her visions, Julian sees a wounded Lord for a wounded world. She receives God’s tender words of comfort as a healing salve and promise of future hope. Above all, no matter who we are, Julian believes that Jesus is all love and needs no intermediary to reach us. In God’s eyes, we are never a mere statistic. For a time such as this, Julian implores that we turn to God because she knows that God has already turned to us. In fact, she hears God lovingly calling to us.

“… Tenderly our Lord God touches us and blessedly calls us, saying in our soul: ‘Let me by all thy love, my dearworthy child. Occupy thyself with me, for I am enough for thee. Rejoice in Thy Savior and in thy salvation.’ ”

[1] For my research on Julian’s social and historical context I drew from the following work on Kindle: Hall, Amy Laura. Laughing at the Devil: Seeing the World with Julian of Norwich. E-Book. Durham: Duke University Press, 2018.

[2] Hall, Amy Laura. Laughing at the Devil: Seeing the World with Julian of Norwich. E-Book. Durham: Duke University Press, 2018. (Emphasis added.)