The theme of my sermon today is the relationship between the natural and the Divine.
In today’s Gospel reading there is much that is natural that we can identify with. Mary rushes with haste to a Judean town in the hill country to see Elizabeth. When Elizabeth hears the sound of Mary’s greeting the child in her womb leaps for joy. Joy is something we may all experience or hope to experience. Allowing for the fact that Mary is a virgin, both Elizabeth and Mary are mothers-to-be. All very natural.
Where, though, does the Divine sit in this scene? The obvious moments are when we learn that Elizabeth ‘was filled with the Holy Spirit’. The source of her joy and the joy of her unborn infant John is the knowledge she has that the fruit of Mary’s womb is none other than the Son of God. Then there is the blessing that Elizabeth knows belongs to Mary because Mary believed ‘that there would be a fulfilment of what was spoken to her by the Lord’.
In Luke’s text, then, there are clear indications of the natural movements and emotions of Mary and Elizabeth and clear indications of the workings of the Divine presence. All this for Luke, as Jerome’s Biblical Commentary expresses it, to bring together two mothers-to-be to praise God in their lives. Praise God as Elizabeth will give birth to John, to be known as John the Baptist, who is the precursor of Mary’s child. This bringing together reflects Luke’s purpose; not just to write history but give us the promise and fulfilment in events that he proclaims fit into God’s plan for salvation.
So far, so good. What, though, if we probe a bit further into the relationship between the natural and the Divine? Is there a distinction to be made between them? Having read today’s Gospel text, I have already made a swift identification of the natural and the Divine but is there a hierarchy involved here? By this I mean an order of precedence. Are we to view every word of Luke’s text as Divine or do the obvious expressions of the Divine that I have given take precedence over the natural behaviour and motions of Elizabeth and Mary? To give a specific example: is Mary rushing to the Judean town a Divine event or is it just the vehicle used by Luke to express the Divine in his narrative?
I would say that the word ‘hierarchy’ here is a bit misleading. I believe that everything we do and feel and say matters to God but what the Gospel writers aim to do for us is to show us, by reference to the Divine, that all our ordinariness reaches its full measure when we are told of Divine happenings, such as the mystery of the Incarnation. As one Commentary on Luke expresses it, these happenings dignify our human nature and this is of particular value for us to know now in the turbulent, pandemic filled time that we are going through. Thus it is, as the Commentary expresses it, as we enter into Mary’s silence, faithfulness and obedience and love, so the new comes to birth in us as in her. In the Christmas season, God breaks into the world to reveal his glory and bring his peace.
Where we might, I believe, use the word ‘hierarchy’ is in the relationship of the Divine with the Divine. We know from today’s Gospel reading that John, on sensing Mary’s presence, ‘leapt in Elizabeth’s womb’ because of the joy at Mary’s presence which heralded the impending birth of Jesus. Joy because John, as Luke affirms earlier in his Gospel, ‘will be great in the sight of the Lord’ but as an adult, when he baptizes the multitude, will declare that he is not worthy to untie the thong of Jesus’ sandals’. He John, baptizes with water but
Jesus will baptize with the Holy Spirit. There is an order of precedence here. Then there is the hierarchy of angels and if we look further on through the centuries we find Dante’s Divine Comedy with a motion of the spheres from earth, through the planets upwards to Paradise. A layered cosmos with Paradise at its summit.
In this relationship of the Divine with the Divine there does appear to be the greater and the lesser if we take John’s words to heart and if we contemplate the cosmos. This is not, though, a negative state of affairs. Let us return to today’s Gospel reading to find out why. The presence of Mary makes the yet-to-be born John leap for joy. John is lesser than Jesus but even before Jesus is born, whilst still in Mary’s womb, he has prompted a positive motion in John that we could say marks the beginning of John’s journey with God. If we look at the word ‘leap’ it is to pass abruptly from one state to another; there is a new beginning here. Similarly, there is a new beginning for Mary as the mother-to-be of the Son of God as she will transit from being a lowly servant to being called blessed by all generations.
There is, I believe, a parallel here between the positive effect of the Divine upon the Divine and the positive effect of the Divine manifesting itself in our ordinary, everyday lives which I have spoken of as one of renewing, dignifying and giving our lives full measure.
What this reflection upon the relationship of the natural with the Divine has led me to believe is that from whatever view point you are considering this relationship it is always positive. As Karl Barth, the great Swiss Reformed Protestant theologian said, creation and evolution are a ‘yes’.
Let us today hold on to that ‘yes’ to counteract all the negativity that we are currently wrapped up in. Let us do what John did in the womb and leap for joy at the prospect of Christmas to come and the Second Coming. That is a leap of faith which offers us a new beginning, filled with aspiration, hope and joy.