It is amazing how little our culture finds offensive: in films, on the internet, on primetime, cable, and streaming TV. There’s a cornucopia of binge-worthy series to watch with all kinds of sketchy situations and deliciously salacious scenarios.
(Which I am totally guilty of watching myself!😊)
Now I am no prude. I do not believe in censorship. And I am not an advocate of so-called “cancel-culture.” We can all just change the channel, after all. But I confess that I am often bewildered at some of the series passing themselves off as entertainment: 90-Day Fiancé; Hoarding: Buried Alive; Dr. Pimple Popper; America’s Worst Tattoos! Really? No holds barred, just about any tacky thing can apparently become must-see-TV. The squirmier the better.
But there is one situation that often gets censored, that still makes lots of folks squirm: the sight of a nursing mother. A mother’s breast, a suckling child, the picture of someone feeding another with themselves, many find to be downright offensive.
(Yes, please! Cover that up!)
“Eat me and live,” Jesus says. “Eat my flesh and drink my blood and live.”
Even if it is just a metaphor, Jesus’ in-your-face imagery was incredibly graphic. And Jesus knew it. The Jewish New Testament scholar Geza Vermes tells us, that in ancient Palestine hearing these words at the table, would likely have made Jesus’ disciples wretch and become a bit nauseous. Drinking blood was taboo. It violated the Torah. It was foreign, alien, and unthinkable. In the ears of his own people, Jesus’ words would have been down right offensive.
Such words were difficult, hard to swallow, hard to accept. Jesus, of course, was well aware and knew his disciples would complain: “Does this offend you?” he asks them.
This is my Body. This is my Blood.
Now, we are so accustomed to hearing these words Sunday after Sunday. In our ears, like a Christian mantra, they soothe and comfort and reassure. In the 21st century, they have lost some of their punch, some of their intended power. But in first-century Palestine, their poignancy would not have been missed.
Our offensive God breaks his own laws. Eat me, he says, and live. Devour me flesh and blood. Eat of my body and drink of my soul, and I will give you life. Like a nursing mother, suckling her hungry child, Mother Jesus feeds us with himself.
Julian of Norwich, a mystic and Anglican saint of the Middle Ages, was censored for addressing our Lord as Mother Jesus.
Julian lived at a time and in a place plagued by death. Throughout her life in the fourteenth century, England was continually at war and struggled with repeated outbreaks of the Black Death, the bubonic plague. During her lifetime “living quarters were commonly shared with rats… and clothing was worn until it fell off your back… Death was as ordinary and expected as the hopeful rising of the sun.” (Journeying with Julian, C. Hugh Hidesly)
Now, Julian was an educated woman and possibly a widow who may have lost a husband to the war and a child to the plague. Subsequently, she became an anchoress, a solitary- soul-friend taking up residence in a little church at Norwich (where she famously is said to have kept a cat.) There, shortly after the outbreak of the Great Pestilence, Julian experienced “sixteen showings” — sixteen visions. And in these visions, she vividly saw the Passion of Jesus. She saw the self-sacrifice of Jesus, not as a Father who saves us from afar, but as a Mother who feeds us tenderly on her knee.
She writes in “The Showings”:
“But our true Mother Jesus, he alone bears us for joy and for endless life… blessed may he be… so he carries us within his womb in love and travail, until the full time… when he suffered the sharpest thorns and cruel pain…”
“A mother can lay her child tenderly to the breast, but our Mother Jesus can lead us easily to his blessed breast through his sweet open side, and show us there the joys of heaven and endless bliss. See how I love you, the true Mother of Life and all things.”
The record of Julian’s visions was originally thought to be patently offensive and downright dangerous. For twenty years Julian suppressed the short version of The Showings for fear of being burned a heretic. But two decades later a longer edition of The Showings was published, blessed by the Pope as an authentic revelation of a loving and mothering God.
Julian’s dictated book was the first book to be written in English, the vernacular of her people. Written by a woman.
So, where on this earth might Mother Jesus show up? Where can we hope and help to see Mother Jesus in the broken places of this world?
- With those abandoned in the crumbling country of Afghanistan?
- In the barrios of earthquake-stricken Haiti?
- With migrants at our southern borders?
- In hospitals taxed to their limits by the pandemic?
- With the homeless on the streets?
- With struggling families at kitchen tables?
Though it may seem impossible and feel overwhelming, let us imagine concretely what Mother Jesus requires of us. We who have been so generously fed at this holy table, what can we do — to just as generously — nurture maybe even just one child — with the Lord’s milk of love and grace?
What this looks like, I do not pretend to know precisely. But for a start, here are links to several organizations working on humanitarian relief both on behalf of Haiti and Afghanistan.
- Episcopal Relief & Development
- Save the Children
- No One Left Behind
- Lutheran Social Services of the National Capital Area
- International Rescue Committee
- Catholic Charities Arlington
- Ethiopian Community Development Council
I know that there are many, many more.
Even a little donation — times a whole lot of people — can add up to make a significant difference. This week, let us all get down on our knees, and ask God to help us figure out the maximum help that we might be able to give.
So, let us pray , in these words inspired by Saint Julian:
In you, Father all-mighty, the world finds its preservation and its bliss. In you, Christ, the world has its restoring and its saving. You are our mother, brother and savior. In you, our Lord the Holy Spirit is marvelous and plenteous grace. You are our clothing; for love you wrap us and embrace us. You are our maker, our lover, our keeper. Teach us to believe that by your grace all shall be well, and all shall be well, and all manner of things shall be well. Amen. (ELCA PRAYER BOOK)
The Rev. Joani Peacock, Editor for Emmanuel Voices: A Parish Blog