Sermon for Second Sunday before Lent High Mass Sunday 4 February 2018
Readings: Proverbs 8.1, 22-31; Colossians 1.15-30; John 1.1-14
If you have visited the Sistine Chapel as a tourist, you will know that the experience is a rushed affair with no more than a few minutes to take in its extraordinary interior in the company of several hundred others before being hustled through by the attendants. So, when I was staying at the Anglican Centre in Rome last year and my host Archbishop Moxon, the Archbishop of Canterbury’s representative to the Holy See and I, were invited to spend a whole evening there, we jumped at the chance.
We were to sit in on a recording session of the Sistine Choir singing Christmas music composed for the choir over the centuries. As well as the music, we were also able to give our attention to the visual decoration of the chapel. Each time there was a break in the recording, we would move to another location on the benches around the wall, so that we could view another section of its decoration.
In Michelangelo’s great creation scene on the ceiling, where the spark of life passes from God’s index finger to Adam’s, there is at God’s side, with his arm around her shoulders, a beautiful young woman with eyes alert, poised for action. While some think this woman is Eve, it is more likely that she is Wisdom as represented in the poem in Proverbs 8 which we have just heard part of this morning. Strong and eager, this is Wisdom the “master-worker”, sharing God’s excitement and delight in the fresh new world and its inhabitants.
Today’s collect and readings and hymns focus our attention on creation and the Creator. It is significant that all the readings, not just the passage from Wisdom, are poetry or hymnody.
The psalmist has us sing of the one who:
“Counts the number of the stars
and calls them all by their names.
Great is our Lord and mighty in power;
there is no limit to his wisdom.
He covers the heavens with clouds
and prepares rain for the earth;
He makes grass to grow upon the mountains
and green plants to serve mankind.
He provides food for flocks and herds
and for the young ravens when they cry.”
This is a God who not only creates life but sustains in it being.
So, in the Epistle, the writer is quoting a section of an early Christian hymn which sings of Christ as the one through whom and for whom: “all things in heaven and on earth were created, things visible and invisible;” the one who “is before all things, and in him all things hold together.”
Christ is the mediator of both creation and redemption; the one through whom the Creator acts; the one who existed before creation. He is “the image of the invisible God”, the one in whom, “all the fullness of God was pleased to dwell.” The hymn expresses a conviction and hope based on God’s will and purpose through Christ “to reconcile to himself all things, whether on earth or in heaven, by making peace through the blood of his cross.”
It is a hope echoed in Julian of Norwich’s “Revelations of Divine Love,” from which the choir will sing at the Offertory: “All shall be well, and all shall be well, and all manner of thing shall be well.”
It may seem strange to be hearing the great Prologue of St. John’s Gospel again, so soon after when Christmas is over and the Crib is put away. It is the Gospel at Mass on Christmas Day, and the culminating reading at the Festival of Nine Lessons and Carols; which with Choral Evensong, is one of the Church of England’s great contributions to Christian worship.
The Prologue, too, is theology in poetic form. Its opening “In the beginning was the Word” deliberately echoes the opening words of Genesis, the first words of the Canon of Scripture: “In the beginning God created the heavens and the earth.” John then goes on to speak of the role of the Word in creation: “All things came into being through him, and without him not one thing came into being.”
That opening chapter of Genesis, with its repeated refrain of “God saw everything that he had made, and behold it was very good,” is a litany in praise of the Creator.
It is a theme taken up by St. Francis of Assisi in his Canticle of the Sun which we sang as our entrance hymn, and which has been taken up by Pope Francis in his letter on Caring for our Common Home: “Laudato Si.”
God’s purpose and work in creation is not simply the exercise of power but of love and of delight.
The poet-sage of the Book of Proverbs speaks of our search for Wisdom as moving us into delightful and playful relationship with our Creator. Wisdom was with God “at the beginning of his work…rejoicing and delighting in the human race.” We find this playfulness too in Psalm 104, where Leviathan, the beast of chaos in ancient Near Eastern myth, is shown as God’s plaything: “There go the ships, and Leviathan which you have made to play with.”
Wisdom pictured as playing before God is not a piece of sentimental nature worship but an important theological statement. It compliments and fills out the statement of divine approval in Genesis. These glimpses of God as a playful Creator touch on the truth that the creation of the world, and of humankind within it, though a divinely meaningful act, was not a necessary one so far as God was concerned. The idea that it was not necessary for God to create the world does not mean God was not serious; quite the opposite. God’s decision to create the world was a matter of absolutely free choice. It was in no way constrained by pre-existing conditions. This is what the traditional doctrine of creation-out-of-nothing affirms. Yet a free choice is not an arbitrary one. God created the world, including humankind, for the sake of God’s own pleasure and ours, as the mention of “delights” suggests. Freedom and delight belong together, in divine play just as in children’s play.
If God’s attitude to creation is one of delight and playfulness, then our attitude to our Creator and creation ought to be the same. That is one reason why catholic Christianity uses art and music and poetry to celebrate both Creator and creation.
That is a something to keep in mind when we hear the sterile and joyless debates between fundamentalists – both Christian and atheist – talking past each other in a dialogue of the deaf. The mistake which Christian fundamentalists made and make, in response to scientific discoveries which seemed to undermine the traditional account of creation, was and is to see the Bible’s poetic language, the language of worship and praise, as historic and scientific record. Their scientific opposite numbers make the same mistake. One defends the scientifically indefensible and the other attacks the intellectually incredible.
But freed from such a straitjacket, Christian thought can take delight in scientific discoveries as the product of the exercise of that Wisdom which God has endowed us with. It need not be seen as a threat to God as Creator. That Wisdom is the source of the order in the universe which makes the scientific endeavour possible.
One of the heresies which afflicts much so-called “evangelicalism” in America, with dire consequences not just for the political life of that nation but far beyond it, is the belief that the world which God has made is not something very good, but rather something evil from which eventually true believers, the “born again.” are to be rescued from. This brings with it a refusal to accept scientific evidence of global warming – because science is the enemy of faith, part of that world dominated by Satan, not the product of that wisdom, that reason which is a divine gift. It brings, too, a readiness to exploit the world’s resources because the world has no tomorrow.
What differentiates us from both fundamentalists and those who see creation only as “nature,” something that is just there, with no ultimate purpose or meaning, is that we believe that God has created everything for a purpose and that is to be reconciled to him in the love of the Trinity which is the source and end of all life.
It is to that end that the divine “Word became flesh,” to share in the life of God’s creation. It is to that end that the same divine Word takes bread and wine, which earth has given and human hands have made, and makes them the vehicles of that divine life which is to transform all life.
That is a hope which should cause us both to delight in creation and to recognize our responsibility to care for it. When the Book of Genesis speaks of us begin given “dominion” over creation, we need to understand that dominion not as an untrammeled right to exploit and destroy for our own snort-terms ends, but as a responsibility, a stewardship, a duty to care for our common home; a duty which is itself the source of joy as we delight in its flourishing. It is a duty and a joy which we celebrate with all the beauty of the created world, in art and architecture, poetry and music, lights and incense and vestments and the rest.