In the Womb of God


Readings

John 15.9–17

As truly as God is our Father, so truly God is our Mother; and he showed that in everything; and especially in these sweet words where he says: ‘It is I.’ That is to say, ‘It is I, the might and the goodness of the Fatherhood; it is I, the wisdom of the Motherhood; it is I, the light and the grace that is all blessed love; it is I, the Trinity; it is I, the unity. I am the sovereign goodness in all manner of things. I am the one who makes you to love; I am the one who makes you to long. It is I who is the endless fulfilling of all true desires.’ — Julian of Norwich, Revelations of Divine Love [59] 

Julian writes of being enclosed in love, like a child in the womb. Whether this comes from theological texts, or from her own experience of growing a child in utero, it becomes a powerful image that continues the idea of God’s love being everywhere — upwards, in the ground, in all creation, and even inside us: ‘For as the body is clad in cloth, and the flesh in the skin, and the bones in the flesh, and the heart in the chest, so are we, soul and body, clad and enclosed in the goodness of God.’ (Chapter 6) — Janina Ramirez, Julian of Norwich

———————-

Before we start today, I’d like you to close your eyes and be still. Breathe in, and out … in and out … Become aware of your breathing.… 

If our bodies are working as normal, we’re often unaware of breathing. We forget that we are surrounded by air. That it’s all around us.

I’m usually blissfully unaware of the air that is keeping me alive unless I’m short of breath, or the winter westerlies are blowing, or there’s a cyclone.

But it’s there, all about us. And we are alive because of it.

If I were to fall in a deep pool of water, I’d be very aware that I’m no longer enveloped in air. I’d focus my energies on getting back into it.

I’m very glad that I don’t have to do anything for the air to be there. It’s a gift from the Creator.

I’m often unaware of something else too. I am also surrounded by the love of God. It’s not something I am aware of all the time, but that doesn’t stop it being true.

1 John 4.19 says ‘We love because [God] first loved us’. 

It’s the love of God, flowing all around us and through us, that makes us capable of love. We may not always be aware of it. But like the air, it’s still there. 

Of course, we can be aware of it sometimes. When people show you deep care, or when a passage of Scripture strikes a deep chord within, it can spark that recognition of being ‘in’ God’s love.

Yesterday, 8 May, was the day the church sets aside to remember a woman who lived with an awareness of being in God. She was born in 1342 and died around 1416. We don’t actually know her name for sure; we call her Julian of Norwich. She was the first woman to write a book in the English language. The Revelations of Divine Love is a record of sixteen visions received by Julian. These revelations have informed and encouraged people for centuries. (You can find a cheap copy of this book, or download it as an ebook; just make sure you get a modern language version. The English Julian wrote is a little different from ours.) 

The clue to Julian’s concern is in the title: The Revelations of Divine Love. In later life she wrestled with the meaning of everything God had shown her; this is what she says at the end:

‘Learn it well: love was God’s meaning. Who showed it to you? Love. What did God show you? Love. Why did God show it? For love. Hold yourself there and you shall learn and know more of the same. But you shall never know nor learn any other thing there.’ In this way I was taught that love was our Lord’s meaning. [86]

We know very little about Julian. She could read, but she called herself ‘a simple creature unskilled in letters’ [2]. She received her revelations — she called them her ‘showings’ — around the age of thirty, at a time when she and everyone else thought she was dying. She spent the rest of her life reflecting on these experiences.  

I could go on about Julian all day, but just one thing for now: while she lived in a very different time over seven hundred years ago, her emphasis on the love of God our Father and Mother has a quite contemporary ring to it. 

In this congregation, it’s normal to hear of God as Mother. We begin our Communion prayer always with ‘God our Father and Mother …’ Before the sermon, I pray 

Compassionate God,
our Maker, Mother, and Midwife,
be our hope, our refuge
and our protection. Amen.

But we don’t do this because we’re doing something shiny and new that we only made up last week. We stand in a long tradition of contemplatives and mystics who knew God as Mother as well as Father. Julian is but one example, though an outstanding one.

Listen to her again:

As truly as God is our Father, so truly God is our Mother; and God showed that in everything; and especially in these sweet words where God says: ‘It is I.’ … [59]

‘It is I.’ Don’t worry. I am here, I am with you, for you. I will never leave you nor desert you. 

Perhaps Julian had had a child, and gained this motherly perspective from her own experience. We just don’t know. 

While she lived over 700 years ago, in late medieval times, Julian lived in a similar age to ours in one important way: she endured a time of pandemic. In her case, it was the Plague, the Black Death. There were several waves of this pandemic in her life, and well over 7000 of the 12000 people in Norwich lost their lives to the Plague. An almost 60% death rate. 

Julian certainly witnessed all this first hand:

And at this time I saw a body lying on the earth; a body that was heavy and ugly, without shape and form, as one swollen by a stinking quagmire. [64]

I’m sure despair was in the air; yet Julian found hope. 

One source of that hope was seeing God, and even Jesus, as her loving Mother. More than that, she sees every one of us as enclosed in God:

For as the body is dressed in cloth, and the flesh in skin, and the bones in flesh, and the heart in the whole, so are we, soul and body, dressed in the goodness of God and enclosed. [6]

Where are we fully enclosed in another, except while we are carried in our mother’s womb? It doesn’t matter that you’re a grown up, or a child who was born a long time ago. Julian sees us as still being safely enclosed within God’s womb. And loved, and beloved. Whatever happens: pandemic, climate change, losses of all kinds, we are enclosed in God our Mother. We are surrounded by God’s love on every side. 

This is what Julian discovered. 

When we turn to our Gospel Reading today, we appear to find a different emphasis. Not resting in God’s womb, but actively showing love to one another:

This is my commandment, that you love one another as I have loved you. No one has greater love than this, to lay down one’s life for one’s friends.… I appointed you to go and bear fruit, fruit that will last … [John 15.12–13, 16]

But is it so different, really? 

Remember last week’s Gospel Reading? It’s the few verses before today’s. It begins

I am the true vine, and my Father is the vinegrower.… Abide in me as I abide in you. Just as the branch cannot bear fruit by itself unless it abides in the vine, neither can you unless you abide in me. I am the vine, you are the branches. Those who abide in me and I in them bear much fruit, because apart from me you can do nothing. [John 15.1, 4–5]

‘Abide in me.’ That is John’s message; abide in me, and you will bear fruit. 

It’s a different picture to Julian’s. She thinks of being in God’s womb, John thinks of being fed by the vine. They are different, yes, but oh so similar. We are fed by the life of God in order to bear fruit that will blossom and grow.

We love because [God] first loved us. [1 John 4.19]

We grow as we are part of the life of the vine, as we are fed by God our Mother. 

Julian famously wrote

All shall be well, and all shall be well, and all manner of things shall be well. [27]

How could she say this? Did she live a sheltered life? Was she incurably optimistic? Did she turn a blind eye to suffering? 

No. She lived out of her secure faith that she was a beloved child of God. She invites us to do the same, today. So as you become aware of the air you breathe, become aware also that you are in God and will be for ever. 

West End Uniting Church, 9 May 2021

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