In medieval paintings and sculptures of the crucifixion, Mary was most often depicted standing to the right, beneath Christ on the cross, with St. John the Evangelist on the left. Countless times, while deep in prayer, Julian’s eyes would have moved from the central crucifix in church down to Mary, standing in sorrow, her hands clasped together, and then over to the disciple John, “the one whom Jesus loved” (Jn 13:23). Julian’s great devotion to Mary is apparent here, as her heart longs to see Christ’s mother at the foot of the cross. And Christ is well aware that Julian, like “all my blessed creatures,” longs to see her. Saint Mary was considered to be the most compassionate and powerful mediatrix between sinful human beings and her son. Julian would have sought her intercession in every crisis or moment of need.
And for the marvelous, high, and special love that he hath for this sweet maiden, his blessed mother, our lady Saint Mary, he showed her highly rejoicing, which is the meaning of this sweet word, as if he had said: “Wilt thou see how much I love her, that thou might rejoice with me in the love that I have in her and she in me?”
Previously, Julian had contemplated Mary standing beneath the cross, suffering with Christ, lamenting her great loss. Now Julian sees Mary rejoicing in eternal bliss with her Son, delighting in his love and he in hers. She understands that the words the Lord spoke to her were intended “in love to all mankind that shall be saved, as it were all to one person.” It was as if he had said to Julian and to everyone: “Wilt thou see in her how thou art loved? For thy love I have made her so exalted, so noble, so worthy. And this pleases me, and I want it to please thee.” In the love Christ has for Mary, Julian recognized how much Christ loves each and every human being. In fact, Christ has made Mary so highly glorified, honored, and worthy in order to be an inspiration for all women and men. He has raised her body into glory to be with his own. He has crowned her queen of heaven and earth. She gives the Lord the greatest worship and pleasure and he wants everyone to take great pleasure in her, too.
Yet Julian becomes acutely aware, through an inner teaching, that she is not being encouraged to long to see Mary in a physical presence while here on earth. She is to contemplate her spiritually, in “the virtues of her blessed soul—her truth, her wisdom, her charity,” whereby Julian might learn to know herself better and more reverently fear and serve God. Even so, when Christ asks Julian if she wants to see Mary, Julian answers eagerly: “Ye, good lord, gramercy. Ye good lord, if it be thy will.” She admits, with striking candor, that she had often prayed for just such a vision, and on this occasion, “I expected to have seen her in bodily likeness,” just as she saw Christ on the cross: “But I saw her not so.” Rather, when the Lord asked the question (“Wilt thou see her?”), in that very moment, Julian was shown “a ghostly sight” of Mary, similar to the imaginative vision she had had of her as a girl, little and simple, at the time of the Annunciation. Mary appeared this time “exalted and noble and glorious and pleasing to him [Christ] above all creatures.” Julian is sure that Christ wills it to be known that everyone who “likes” (in medieval English, “like” is an even more intimate form of the word “love”) and delights in him must also truly “like” her, with all the connotations of delighting in everything about her. And Julian realizes that this very “liking,” this most familiar manner of loving, is the purest form of “bodily likeness” that she could possibly have experienced.
Julian was not disappointed that she was not allowed to enjoy Mary in a physical manifestation, as she did Christ. And in all her Revelations, she saw no one else “spiritually” or “individually” but Saint Mary. In this showing, Julian was deeply touched that Christ had confided to her his own love for Mary as a young maiden, as a suffering mother, and now, as an exalted and noble lady in heaven. In revealing to Julian his great love for Mary, by extension Christ was showing, in yet another way, his great love for Julian. And for each one of us.
In this time of a tragic war in Ukraine, with millions of fleeing refugees, incomprehensible suffering, death, and destruction, we may tend to give up hope that there can be any meaning to such agony. But if we stand with Mary beneath the cross of her Son, as Julian did, we may be reassured that suffering and death are not the end of the tragedy. There is meaning to all our suffering, because Christ is transforming it even now into his own resurrection. We must hold to that with all our hearts as we honor Mary today, on the Feast of the Annunciation. Her “Yes” to the angel allowed her to become the Mother of God. She lived a life of great joy and inconceivable sorrow. Yet eventually, she beheld her Son risen in glory. That is the divine transformation of suffering. Let us stand firm with Mary and with Julian, “highly rejoicing” that in Christ, “all shall be well."
NOTE: Excerpts above and translations from the Middle English are from my book, Julian’s Gospel: Illuminating the Life & Revelations of Julian of Norwich (Orbis Books. 2013). Copyright © 2013 by Veronica Mary Rolf