Sermon for Evensong at St Giles-in-the-Fields, London
28th February 2016
I’ve been asked to preach tonight on a verse from the canticle known as the Te Deum: ‘When thou tookest upon thee to deliver man: thou didst not abhor the virgin’s womb’. As a teenager I had a somewhat difficult relationship with these words. I was incensed by the thought that wombs – and by implication women – were something that God would even consider abhorring, or ‘shrinking from in horror’ as the Latin word can be translated.
However, I hope that my theological understanding is a little more sophisticated and nuanced than it was back then, and that I may have a bit more to offer you than just my adolescent outrage. The Te Deum is a text written by one of the bishops and theologians of the Early Church – possibly Ambrose, possibly Augustine, possibly Nicetas. That goes some way to explaining the particular phraseology of this verse: it has to be said that the Early Church Fathers did have some odd ideas about women, many of which of course can be put down to their cultural context and understanding.
But I don’t think, actually, that the writer was making a point – either positive or negative – about women. At least not deliberately or directly. I think what he’s saying is that when God chose to ‘deliver humanity’ the way that God chose to do it was to become fully human in every way: no compromise, no cheating, no pretence, no avoidance of the risk of childbirth and the sheer vulnerability of coming among us as one of us in every way.
Melanie Marshall, Chaplain of Lincoln College, Oxford, writes in The Church Times that when, in Christ, God was reconciling the world to himself, God wasn’t ‘fixing’ human nature, as though the essence of human nature is somehow wrong in itself. Rather, God was ‘reconciling human nature to divine nature, showing us that the two are not distinct like apples and pears, but wholly compatible’ (The Church Times 26th February 2016).
That’s a hard idea to get our heads around, perhaps because we have absorbed some questionable theology which teaches us that humanity itself is somehow intrinsically bad, rather than emphasising the essential human goodness which, yes, we struggle to inhabit fully without God’s grace, but is the fabric with which God made us and chooses to work.
Just as Jesus’s humanity and divinity cannot be separated out as apples and pears, neither can our embodied life – as people set in a particular time and place with particular responsibilities and commitments – be divided from our life in God. By inhabiting a human life, God said to us in Jesus: this human life that you lead is holy. Every aspect of it. Your relationships, your work, your joys and tragedies and questioning and fragility and gifts and experiences – all of it is sacred.
Our lives are not secular in parts and sacred in parts. They are of one piece and every bit of it is infused with God. The theologian Barbara Brown Taylor tells us a story from when she was a child. A preacher she knew made a connection: between the way he had seen her care for the wildlife in her garden, and God’s care of creation. After hearing that sermon, she tells us, ‘I walked out into a God-enchanted world, where I could not wait to find further clues to heaven on earth … I became a detective of divinity, collecting evidence of God’s genius and admiring the tracks left for me to follow’. Tracks which I believe are as evident in the God-given creativity and human community of the city as they are in the natural world.
So if I were able to have a conversation with my teenage self about this verse from the Te Deum I would say: See past the rather archaic language to the shock of the remarkable news. The news that God chose freely and fully and deliberately to participate in that most risky of miracles that is childbirth, in order to show that human life is indeed pregnant with holiness and fertile with moments in which we might experience his presence.
I would also tell my younger self that although whoever wrote the Te Deum was not intentionally addressing the status of women, he unintentionally points us to the truth that the sacred dwells in all of us, male and female, leaving us in no doubt that both women and men are bearers of the sacred.
I want to finish with a poem from Malcolm Guite’s collection, Sounding the Seasons. In it he uses the metaphor of the game of hide and seek to describe God’s determination to seek us out – that determination expressed most fully in God come among us in flesh and blood.
Ready or not, you tell me, here I come!
And so I know I’m hiding, and I know
My hiding-place is useless. You will come
And find me. You are searching high and low.
Today I’m hiding low, down here, below,
Below the sunlit surface others see.
Oh find me quickly, quickly come to me.
And here you come and here I come to you.
I come to you because you come to me.
You know my hiding places. I know you,
I reach you through your hiding-places too;
Touching the slender thread, but now I see –
Even in darkness I can see you shine,
Risen in bread, and revelling in wine.
God’s determination to connect with us in the physicality and tangibility of bread and wine. God’s persistence in seeking us out when we try to hide ‘below the sunlit surface others see’. And God’s extraordinary decision to be nurtured in the womb of a young woman and brought to birth in love to show the full glory of humanity infused with the grace of God.