The Suffering of Love

One of the biggest theological ‘problems’ in Christian theology (as opposed to Christian life) is what we call ‘atonement theory’, essentially the mechanics of of our salvation, particularly as it relates to the Cross. Christians across all time and space agree that “Christ died for our sins” — but the question of what exactly that means and how it worked gets pretty messy pretty quickly. The fact is that the New Testament uses a lot of different metaphors to describe it and so the picture we get from the Scriptures is multifaceted and doesn’t lend itself to easy theorizing. In the portion of Julian of Norwich’s Revelations of Divine Love that I’d like to look at today (Chapters 20-22, which cover her eighth and ninth visions), she offers us a perspective on the cross we don’t often find in the Christian West: the Cross as the outpouring of God’s love.

Julian’s eighth vision was a terrible sight of Jesus in prolonged agony on the Cross, suffering more than she thought anyone could. Eventually she discerns that “I saw our Lord Jesus languishing for long, because the union in him of the divinity gave strength to his humanity suffer more than all men could” (Ch 20).* She concludes: “the most important point to apprehend in his Passion is to meditate and come to see that he who suffered was God” (Ch 20). So far so good. There is not too much surprising here for most Christians, though the language of divine suffering was very controversial in the history of Christian thought. As we’ve seen a few times already on the blog, the general conception of virtue in the Greco-Roman thought that Christianity inherited was as the ability to stay strong and stable amidst the ups and downs of life. In this framework, to allow oneself to be impacted or changed by someone else’s action was a sign of moral weakness; hence why the word ‘passion’ is connected to the idea of passivity when it’s used in theology. One of the supreme characteristics of God in such a framework is that God is passionless — God cannot experience suffering or change in any way. So the very idea of God’s suffering on the cross was contradiction in terms. The articulation that the Church eventually settled on in trying to reconcile this with the Cross was that “One of the Trinity suffered in the flesh,” thereby preserving both divine passionlessness and the unity of Christ’s two natures in his suffering. (I’ll leave it up to you whether this is a satisfying solution or a linguistic hedge! For me, I think using the ancient philosophical attributes of God is silly, but fine as long as we remember that the Incarnation undoes them.) At any rate, Julian concludes that what is most important about the Cross is that “he who suffered was God.”

Where things get interesting — and less philosophical — is when this eighth vision gives way to the ninth. She writes:

[J]ust at the moment when by appearances it seemed to me that life could last no longer and that the revelation of his end must be near, suddenly, as I looked at the same cross, he changed to an appearance of joy. ..and I was as glad and joyful as I could possibly be. …[O]ur Lord suggested to my mind: Where is there now any instant of your pain or your grief? (Ch 21)

What could this transformation mean?

I understood that in our Lord’s intention we are now on his cross with him in our pains, and in our sufferings we are dying, and with his help and his grace we willingly endure on that same cross until the last moment of life. …The reason why he suffers is because in his goodness he wishes to make us heirs with him of his joy. And for this little pain which we suffer here we shall have an exalted and eternal knowledge in God which we could never have without it. (Ch 21)

Here we have the idea, present in Paul’s letters and becoming an increasing focus in atonement theology over the past few decades after a few centuries of neglect, of Christ’s suffering as solidarity with our own. This can be imagined both ways. There was an ancient Christian teaching on the Incarnation that said that Christ became human in order to fill all aspects of humanity with divinity, and so Christ’s suffering on the Cross is an expression of God’s radical solidarity with the human experience of suffering. But, from our perspective this same fact can look like our suffering on earth expressing solidarity with Christ’s suffering on the Cross. (As it is often said in response to the question of what Paul could possibly have meant when he wrote of “what is lacking” from Christ’s suffering: What is lacking is our participation in it.) This is the same truth seen from two different sides. And so, for Julian, “we are now on his cross with him in our pains.”

This is true for physical pains and the experience of dying to be sure, but it’s more than that if we zoom out. For the Passion wasn’t just those few hours on the Cross. The Passion was being betrayed by a friend, feeling abandoned by God and let down by those he relied on most, being conspired against, experiencing the injustice of so-called justice systems, being ridiculed, teased, and tortured. By undergoing these things, God, fully present in Jesus, showed solidarity with all these horrible but all-too-common human experiences; by undergoing these things, we participate in his Passion. And the point of this radical solidarity is for us to share also in the divine life and joy.

The question is, is it worth it? Julian’s vision continued: “Then our good Lord put a question to me: Are you well satisfied that I suffered for you?” … If you are satisfied, I am satisfied. It is a joy, a bliss, an endless delight to me that ever I suffered my Passion for you; and if I could suffer more, I should suffer more” (Ch 22). She is then taken up into a vision of heaven, where she witnesses that “We are his bliss, we are his reward, we are his honour, we are his crown.” And, “although the sweet humanity of Christ could suffer only once, his goodness can never cease offering it. Every day he is ready to do the same, if that might be” (Ch 22). The vision concludes:

Then his meaning is this: How could it be that I should not do for love of you all that I was able? To do this does not grieve me, since I would for love of you die so often, paying no need to my cruel pains. And this I saw as [a] way of contemplating his blessed Passion. The love which made him suffer it surpasses all his sufferings, as much as heaven is above earth; for the suffering was a noble, precious and honourable deed, performed once in time by the operation of love. And love was without beginning, it is and shall be without end. (Ch 22)

Here the Cross is understood not to balance the books of some divine accountant or as satisfaction owed to an offended nobleman, as in so much of Western atonement theory of the late Middle Ages and Modern periods. Rather, it is simply, wholly, and entirely, an expression of God’s love. It is a sacrifice, certainly. But it is not the sacrifice owed to an angry God, but a sacrifice of love. Such sacrifice is rare in our world but not unknown. It’s the sacrifice of a mother jumping in front of a vehicle to save her son. It’s the sacrifice of a man running back into a burning building to find his daughter. There is no greater force our world than love. And this stands to reason. For God is at the centre of things, and God is love. And so, we are saved out of God’s love. God saw human suffering and love demanded that God experience it, take it upon Godself, and sanctify it and bless it. In this world we will have trouble, but God has overcome the world and all it can throw at us.


* Unless noted, all quotes are taken from the long text of Julian or Norwich’s Revelations of Divine Love as translated and set in Julian of Norwich, Showings, translated by Edmund Colledge and James Walsh. The Classics of Western Spirituality. Mahwah, NJ: Paulist Press, 1978.

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