Over the past few days, our Lenten study with Julian Norwich has taken us to some pretty heady places, talking about the nature of sin, the justice of God in an unjust world, and the relationship between suffering, divinity, and love. But who is this Jesus? Who is this one for whom all the suffering in the world is not enough to thwart his love?
The Gospels, Jesus talks about himself in many ways. But among the more memorable are the ‘I am’ sayings in the Gospel according to St. John:
- “I am the bread of life” (John 6.35, 48, 51)
- “I am the light of the world” (8.12; 9.5)
- “I am from above,” “I am not of this world” (8.23)
- “I am the door for the sheep” (10.7, 9)
- “I am the good shepherd” (10.11, 14)
- “I am the resurrection and the life” (11.25)
- “I am the way, the truth, and the life” (14.6)
- “I am the true vine” (15.1)
These are on top of the several ‘absolute’ ‘I am’ sayings, where says something like “I am he”; or “I am” full stop (John 6:20; 8:24, 28, 58; 18:5).
These statements always drew a shocked reaction — sometimes violent — from the crowd, leading most scholars to think that they were interpreted as hearkening back to the divine name, a name considered so holy that by the time of Jesus no one dared to utter it. The name, normally translated using the title ‘the LORD’ in English Bibles and simply transliterated as YHWH in biblical studies, comes from Exodus 3, where it is revealed to Moses in the incident with the Burning Bush. It means something like ‘I am who I am’ or ‘I will be what I will be,’ essentially affirming that God will not be defined by anything other than God’s own actions. By appropriating that name for himself, Jesus wasn’t only audaciously claiming his own identity as God but also revealing something about who God is: ‘He who Is’ is ‘the bread of life’: the one who feeds us; ‘the light of the world’: the one who reveals; ‘not of this world’: wholly other; and so on.
All this is in the background of Julian’s twelfth vision, which she relates in Chapter 26 of her Revelations of Divine Love. It’s a very short chapter, as the revelation was so powerful to her that she felt she could not add anything useful to it. She writes:
And after this our Lord showed himself to me, and he appeared to me more glorified than I had seen him before, in which I was taught that our soul will never have rest till it comes into him, acknowledging that he is full of joy, familiar and courteous and blissful and true life. And again and again our Lord said: I am he, I am he, I am he who is highest. I am he whom you love. I am he in whom you delight. I am he whom you serve. I am he for whom you long. I am he whom you desire. I am he whom you intend. I am he who is all. I am he whom Holy Church preaches and teaches to you. I am he who showed himself before to you. (Ch 26)*
I am he. I am he. In this vision, Julian is given a whole list of new ‘I am’ statements, but these are not metaphysical or metaphorical like the ones in Exodus and John, but are rather all relational. Here, Julian experiences Jesus as identifying himself — and by extension, identifying God — as the One Who Loves and Who Is Loved.
What more is there to be said about this? Everything and nothing. And so I’ll end today’s short post with Julian’s own briefest reflection on what she saw and heard:
The number of the words surpasses my intelligence and my understanding and all my powers, for they were the most exalted, as I see it, for in them is comprehended I cannot tell what; but the joy which I saw when they were revealed surpasses all that the heart can think or the soul may desire. And therefore these words are not explained here, but let every man accept them as our Lord intended them, according to the grace God gives him in understanding and love.
* 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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