This morning, I see several calls for celebration: in our country, it’s Mother’s Day, when we acknowledge mothers and mother figures who have touched our lives. In the Episcopal Church, today marks the commemoration of early Christian mystic and theologian Julian of Norwich, whose words are as relevant and beautiful today as when she wrote them in the 14th century. And in my personal life, today is my last Sunday at Emmanuel, a day to say farewell after nearly two years of worshiping and learning with you all. It’s a lot!
There is a good chance you all know some of Julian of Norwich’s words – even if you didn’t know that they are attributed to her. Julian was an anchoress: she lived in permanent seclusion in a small cell attached to a church in Norwich, England. After nearly dying of an illness when she was thirty years old, Julian received fourteen revelations, or visions, from God, and later in life, she wrote about their meanings. Writing largely about sin’s effect on humanity and personal relationships with God, Julian had a markedly positive, optimistic tone. She wrote extensively about the compassion of God, God’s tenderness and mercy. Notably, she wrote of God using the image of a mother in addition to a father, which of course was and still is far more common and accepted. Julian refers to God the Creator as father and mother, and to the second person of the Trinity as mother. This femininization of the Divine was shocking to many, but it depicts a more compassionate, gentle God. A God more like the Shepherd we hear about in today’s Psalm, perhaps the best-known piece of Scripture in the whole Bible.
I am confident that you all are familiar with Psalm 23, and many of you may have it memorized. But I want to read it aloud with just a few slight changes:
The Lord is my shepherd, I shall not want.
She makes me lie down in green pastures;
she leads me beside still waters;
she restores my soul.
She leads me in right paths
for her name’s sake.
Even though I walk through the darkest valley,
I fear no evil;
for you are with me;
your rod and your staff –
they comfort me.
You prepare a table before me
in the presence of my enemies;
you anoint my head with oil;
my cup overflows.
Surely goodness and mercy shall follow me
all the days of my life,
and I shall dwell in the house of the Lord my whole life long.”
Why not a feminine depiction of the shepherd? A feminine host, preparing the table? (For the record, I took Greek as my biblical language in seminary, not Hebrew. But I did confirm with a Hebrew scholar classmate of mine that my change to the pronouns here is a viable translation – for most of this psalm, the pronouns are not gendered. Only once is “he” used in the original text, so I think I’m okay.) Thinking about my mother, sister, and grandmothers on this Mother’s Day, thinking about myself – a fairly young woman – heading out to do this work of ministry as my full-time vocation, and thinking about the news coming out of the Supreme Court this week – I am empowered by Julian’s feminine depiction of our Savior. Why not a woman?
I am in what we might call a liminal space: just a few days from commencement, dorm room packed into boxes that are headed – well, I don’t know yet, other than into the trunk of my car. In a few weeks I will begin this entirely new job, this new vocation – I will be doing work that I have trained for, but that I can never really be fully prepared for. I am leaving the place I’ve lived for seven years, people I love, and the comfort of knowing what I am supposed to do every day. It’s all good stuff. I am not dying, but honestly, I do feel a bit like I’m in a dark valley. There are glimmers of light all around, but it’s still a bit frightening. But when I think back over the course of my life, in the darkest valleys, there has still always been that light. That comfort. That peace which surpasses understanding. Even in the dark valley, I have never felt completely alone. The motherly, sisterly, fatherly, friendly, shepherd has always been beside and ahead of me, guiding me along the way. I hope and pray that you all have felt her presence too, even amidst the trials and tribulations of your lives and of our collective life these past two years. I pray that no matter how difficult the situation, you have always been shown goodness and mercy, and have had still waters to lie down beside.
We cannot predict the future: we do not know with certainty where the road we walk on is leading. The only thing we can be sure of is that God will be beside us along the way. We can’t always easily see or feel God’s presence, but even in the dark valley, we can rest in the knowledge that we are not alone. God will always be with us, rod and staff there to comfort us. And in the words of Julian of Norwich, “all shall be well, and all shall be well, and all manner of thing shall be well.”
— The Rev. Winnie Smith
The Rev. Joani Peacock, Editor for Emmanuel Voices: A Parish Blog