In the image of God
Sunday 28 January
Morten Lauridsen’s setting of O magnum mysterium, which we’ve just heard, is a bit like Marmite – you either love it or hate it. There are those – and they have a point – who see in Lauridsen’s writing, an over-indulgence, a lack of compositional rigour, and a concern for sensuousness over substance. On the other hand, there is an equally valid view which claims that this piece needs to be listened to in a particular way - rather as one might contemplate an icon. That the music simply ‘is’ – that we take it or leave it – but if we choose to take it, if we gaze upon it (as it were) with our ears – we discover something of immeasurable beauty. We find ourselves immersed in the sound, and we are caught up in an experience of something which lies far beyond both the words and the music.
It could be said that Lauridsen’s approach to these timeless words is absolutely right; because the words speak of an utter sense of wonder and the mystery of the infant Christ lying in the crib.
O great mystery,
and wonderful sacrament,
that animals should see the new-born Lord,
lying in a manger!
The point of this whole Christmas / Epiphany season is that we are invited to gaze upon the scene in the Crib, and in that gazing, we come face to face with God in human form.
This is the ultimate mystery which lies at the heart of Christian believing – that God chooses to become human – one of us; that the creator chooses to become creaturely, entering the world of time and space, the world of physicality and sense, and so share to the fullest possible extent our experience of being human. The 17th century poet Richard Crashaw expressed it like this:
Welcome all wonders in one sight!
Eternity shut in a span.
Summer in winter, Day in night,
Heaven in earth, and God in man.
Great little one whose all-embracing birth
Brings earth to heaven, stoops heaven to earth.
The incarnation brings heaven to earth; eternity becomes tangible. And in taking human flesh, God affirms anew the created order – the physical world – the world of flesh and blood. Archbishop William Temple claimed that ‘Christianity is the most materialistic of all religions’ in that ours is a religion of the physical – a religion in which God not only sees everything that he makes – ‘and behold it is very good’ – but gives material substance the ultimate affirmation by becoming a human being.
When we look on the infant Christ in the manger – as Lauridsen’s music encourages us to do – we look, and we see God. But we are also reminded that each of us – every human being – carries God’s image. The writer of the book Genesis, at the end of the first creation story records a profound truth:
So God created humankind in his image,
in the image of God he created them;
male and female he created them. (Gen 1.27)
All human beings bear the image of God – and as such, all women and all men are worthy of total respect. The way we treat other human beings is the way we treat God.
This past week, a story broke about a charity fundraising dinner, held at the Dorchester Hotel by the Presidents Club – a men-only dinner attended by billionaires, businessmen and politicians. 360 invited men were present, and for the evening, 130 female hostesses were hired, instructed to dress in a particular way, and before the evening began, were made to sign non-disclosure agreements guaranteeing their silence about the event.
What wasn’t known by the organizers was that a journalist from the Financial Times was present as one of the hostesses. And what has transpired from her report has made shocking reading, with serious allegations of sustained sexual harassment of the women present by male guests. Such has been the disgust at the news that charities who had previously been beneficiaries of the Presidents Club will be returning their money – the most notable case being Great Ormond Street children’s hospital, which will be returning over £1/2m in donations.
What was going on there was not only totally exploitative and abusive, it was a systematic devaluing of half the human race.
God created humankind in his image,
male and female he created them. (Gen 1.27)
This basic principle – which holds for all the Abrahamic faiths – mean that whenever we look upon a human being – we see something there of God – of ‘God’s image.’
As Christians, our belief is that, in God’s work as creator - and more fully through breaking into the world of flesh and blood in Jesus – God affirms the whole of what it is to be a human being, made in God’s image. God affirms the physical beauty of men and women; God affirms his gift of sexuality, and of the possibility of loving human relationships. Beauty, love, sex – all express something of the goodness and essential character of God. What took place at the Dorchester Hotel, with its objectification of the women present, was an utter denial of the all this.
As one journalist has observed, things are changing and are changing quickly – thank God. The current climate is one that will not tolerate this, or other recent disclosures about public figures. Zero tolerance is now the order of the day, as should be the case in a civilised society. But there is a theological rationale too, for why such behaviour is totally off-limits. We were made, each of us, all of us, to flourish and to be carriers of the image of God. To insist on right behaviour - to insist on the dignity of all human beings – is non-negiotiable for all who follow Christ. We must promote, and ensure, the equality of women and men in God’s world, and the respect which is due for all who carry the image of God. Not for the sake of political correctness, but because to do anything less is to insult not only our sisters – but also our God, who created us in his image.
York Minster, 11.30 Matins, Sunday 28 January 2018