Grant that we may share the divine life: A Sermon for a New Year

Grant that we may share the divine life

Stuart Higginbotham

The Second Sunday after Christmas

January 2, 2022

I remember getting my first copy of The Book of Common Prayer years ago and slowly flipping through the pages. I had no idea what a “collect” was then, no idea how the pieces fit together, no idea what some of the services meant. It was unusual to me, mysterious, but rather than being off-putting, for some reason that mystery drew me in and affirmed a growing awareness in me that, somehow, God was as close as my breath. The words and images on those pages stirred my heart, and that curiosity nudged me forward.

If you were to ask me what my favorite collect or prayer of the day is, I would tell you without a doubt it is the prayer for today, for the Second Sunday after Christmas. It is the lynchpin of my theology, the way I understand the relationship and bond between God and humanity and all creation. 

O God, who wonderfully created, and yet more wonderfully restored, the dignity of human nature: Grant that we may share the divine life of him who humbled himself to share our humanity, your Son Jesus Christ; who lives and reigns with you, in the unity of the Holy Spirit, one God, for ever and ever. Amen.

The prayer itself comes from a much older Roman Catholic missal, the liturgy used during the mass. The priest would say this prayer as they poured a little water into the wine, symbolizing the union of two natures in Christ as well as the lived reality of our union with God. The image is a powerful one; once you mix the water and wine, you cannot separate them out.

When I read or hear this prayer, I visualize it like a flow of energy, of light, flowing from God to us and from us to God. In theological terms, we speak of this as a mutual indwelling, a non-dual wisdom, that God abides in us and we abide in God. In Christian terms, while there may be a distinction between Creator and creation, there is no separation. And, when we really meditate on the truth of this, the reality that this prayer points us to, perhaps we see just how radical it is–and how much it should challenge us to live differently in the world. If there is no separation between each of us and God, and we are all united with God, then we are all united with one another and there is no separation between us. Maybe we should act like it.

These past two years have been a time of revealing. They have exposed so much that has been lurking under the surface of our humanity for too long. The pandemic did not cause the struggles we are experiencing now. The pandemic did not cause the tension between self-obsession and self-centeredness on one hand and self-emptying and a regard for others on the other. The pandemic did not cause the social friction or political turmoil and mistrust in institutions. The pandemic did not cause the anger.

This energy, if you will, was coiled just under the surface of our shared life, and the pressure and pain of changing habits and experiencing limits and facing our mortality was like the pressure of a needle on an overfilled water balloon. Our consumer obsession and the constant distraction of the superficial in our culture keeps us numb to many things that need to be healed–until we are challenged in our habits and behaviors. We don’t like looking in mirrors; we prefer focusing on other people’s problems. 

The question before us now is “what is pouring out from us and how can our practice of prayer nurture a healing response?” 

These days feel apocalyptic because, by definition, they are: they are a time of revealing, of peeling back, of sometimes painful aspects of human life being torn open.  But the struggle and tension is not all that is revealed. I have experienced myself and have heard many of you share how, in the midst of these times of strain, you have never felt more alive in your practice of faith. So many of you have shared how your practice of prayer is more centered, more grounded. Your awareness of God’s presence has become heightened. You feel held, embraced, and loved. 

Grant that we may share the divine life of him who humbled himself to share our humanity.

Perhaps you have experienced the truth of this mutual indwelling. Perhaps these are more than words for you. Perhaps you are seeking a place where you can pause and open your heart even more to the Spirit’s call and be supported in your searching for wholeness, for that deeper awareness of our union with God and one another.

Here is where the image of the magi becomes an icon for us in today’s Gospel, this group of mystics who set out on a journey, drawn by a vision and a desire to embody wholeness in their lives. O, Come let us adore Him.

I don’t really do New Year resolutions, but I do look for ways to be more intentional. This year, as I begin my ninth year with you all as rector, I am focusing intently on how our practice of prayer shapes the way we live in the world. After the past eight years, and especially the past two, I see in my own heart how absolutely essential it is to cultivate a practice of prayer that strengthens this awareness of God’s indwelling presence in our lives. Without this posture, without this prayer, it is far too easy to slide into despair or into anger, to give up or lash out. 

Our practice of prayer helps us, because it calls us, like today’s collect describes of Jesus, to empty ourselves of our own ambition and urge to succeed or accomplish and rest in the Spirit’s movement. 

O God, who wonderfully created, and yet more wonderfully restored, the dignity of human nature: Grant that we may share the divine life of him who humbled himself to share our humanity, your Son Jesus Christ.

This past week, so many colleagues have shared stories of Archbishop Tutu. A few friends had the opportunity to work alongside him in South Africa, and they texted photos of him with their children, each of them with enormous smiles on their faces. To the person, as we were texting after his death, they each described the same thing: that there was such grief with the death of this dear elder as well as enormous gratitude for the grace of God that they experienced in and with him. There was sadness yet also deep joy that it was so clear that God’s presence was–and is–holding us all. Archbishop Tutu showed us, in his life, what is true for all of us. Now, we are called to set out on our own journey to promote healing and wholeness, grounded in the truth of this mutual indwelling of God.

Archbishop Tutu gave the sermon at one of my graduations at the University of the South, in Sewanee, in 2008. I remember sitting in the front row, right in front of the pulpit, as we watched him walk up the short set of stairs and begin his sermon. I didn’t want to blink, because I didn’t want to miss any moment of seeing him and hearing him. He started with a joke, as he often did in sermons, to let everyone settle in.

When he got near the end of the sermon, no one wanted it to end. He closed his eyes and I could feel him remembering not only his experience of pain and suffering in South Africa. Of course that was there, but it was also clear as he spoke that he was centered in an awareness of the indwelling presence of God that fills and connects all of life. In his own life, Archbishop Tutu had experienced how the deepest reality of humanity and the dynamic energy of God are inextricably linked. He realized in his own life that the energy of God flows into us all, uniting us to one another and calling us to nurture healing and wholeness. 

That awareness enabled him to respond faithfully to whatever presented itself. He never stopped being a human for one moment, but through this awareness of God’s indwelling presence, he showed us all just what being a human can be. I remember going to the dining hall after the service and running into him coming out of the kitchen in his violet cassock. He had gone in there to say hello to everyone and thank them for their service. These were the closing words of his sermon that day:

“Let us together transform this world hurting from wars, injustice and oppression. Help me transform the hatred. Help me transform the homophobia. Help me transform poverty. Help me transform this world.”

So, as we take these first steps into this year, so much uncertainty may surround us still. Yes there is anger and frustration and toxicity and greed and ignorance. Yes, there is such self-centeredness and too much apathy. And, yes, there is always the reality that today’s collect calls us to see, the truth of God’s presence that we are all living in.

May we have eyes to see it. May our hearts open to it. May our mouths proclaim it, and may our lives embody it. Amen.

**I don’t know who drew this icon, so if you do, please let me know.

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