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Beginner’s Wisdom

After our worship service last week, I heard someone comment that we’ve had baptisms two weeks in a row, and that next week, meaning this morning, we would be back to “normal”. I can understand what they might have been feeling- after the joy, the delight, the wonder of new life that we witness when we baptize a little one, things do seem a little quieter today.

A baptism works on our hearts, our souls, our minds in deep ways. We listen as the parents promise to raise their child in faith, and to give prominence to God in their lives, and in the life of the child. We make our own prayers asking for blessings upon the child. There is something about asking God to bless a person- remembering that our lives are in God’s hands that inevitably arouses thoughts of mortality. Hopes and dreams, gratitude and fear, joy and anxiety are all in the room with us. In the beautiful moments of a baptism, we can also have an encounter with mystery- with things bigger than the words we have to talk about them.

Deep things can get stirred up. Deep things like our own, deeply personal questions about life, and death, and the meaning and purpose of our existence, and the reality of God. It’s good for us to come together in this safe, welcoming space and allow those big questions and wonderings float up from our inner depths. It is good to be part of a community where those questions can float around, even if we don’t always talk about them, and don’t claim to have all the answers worked out. We need places in our lives where we are encouraged to encounter mystery.

A few years ago I was out for a walk with our son Joel, and I noticed on the path ahead of us the amazing sky blue of a robin’s egg. I was about to point it out to him, but stopped myself as we got closer, and I saw that within the broken halves of the egg there was the tiny dark form of a partially formed baby bird, shiny and wet, and being devoured by insects. When I realized what I was seeing, I experienced a powerful lesson about the beauty and brutality of creation- the shortness and uncertainty, the potential, and the utter vulnerability of all life, including ours.

In the face of that deep mystery, there is a real temptation to try to pin God down- to define God and how we relate to God, so that we can feel safe and secure.

When we baptise, and often when we offer a blessing, the words used will include reference to God the Creator, Jesus the Saviour, and the Spirit as Guide or Comforter. In my training for ministry I was taught that in order for a baptism to be “official”, and so that it would be recognized as such by other Christian churches, we have to make sure to use what is called the “Trinitarian Formula”. God described as “Father, Son and Holy Spirit”.

This uniquely Christian teaching, that there is only one God, but that God is known to us in these three ways, is the called the doctrine of the Trinity. This congregation is called Trinity United Church in deference to this historic idea about God.

Today is Trinity Sunday- the only special Sunday in the church calendar that is devoted to a theological teaching about God. It’s a teaching that gained official status in the Christian Church back in 325 A.D. at a meeting called by Constantine, the ruler of the Holy Roman Empire. He was in the process of making Christianity the official religion of the empire. With his military background, it seemed to make sense to him that all Christians be taught to believe the same things- similar to the Standard Operating Procedures military units follow. He called all the bishops and prominent leaders and teachers of the faith together for the Council of Nicea, and tasked them with writing the manual for Christian faith.

While I understand, and appreciate the importance of being on the same page with people, it also seems to me that it is problematic to define God, and then become totally invested in a particular set of words, or names, or ideas about God. It does not leave a lot of room for mystery, and for humility- the awareness that we are human and mortal, and limited, and that God, and God’s ways, are actually quite beyond our understanding. Once the words and names for God were set down in the Nicene Creed, other ways of imagining God, of talking about God were frowned upon.

Some important things were lost, or at least set aside, for a long time. The Old Testament reading we heard from the Book of Proverbs describes God the Creator as enjoying the company of a feminine figure, that is sometimes called “Lady Wisdom”, or “Sophia”, which is the Greek word for wisdom. She is the voice in Proverbs who says:

” The LORD created me at the beginning of his work, the first of his acts of long ago. Ages ago I was set up, at the first, before the beginning of the earth. When there were no depths I was brought forth, when there were no springs abounding with water. Before the mountains had been shaped, before the hills, I was brought forth– when he had not yet made earth and fields, or the world’s first bits of soil.

When he established the heavens, I was there, when he drew a circle on the face of the deep, when he made firm the skies above, when he established the fountains of the deep, when he assigned to the sea its limit, so that the waters might not transgress his command, when he marked out the foundations of the earth, then I was beside him, like a master worker; and I was daily his delight, rejoicing before him always, rejoicing in his inhabited world and delighting in the human race. “

So who, or what is this Wisdom figure? She seems to be something not quite God-like, because she was created by God. But she is not human either. This ancient poem preserved in the Book of Proverbs speaks of wisdom as a playful, creative, feminine figure, made by God before anything else was made, and leaving her mark on everything God made, like an apprentice in a Renaissance master’s studio, trusted to fill in details on a painting after the artist laid out the plan.

I am glad we had a chance to look at the Creation of Adam, a detail from Michelangelo’s work on the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel. Art scholars say that the Pope who commissioned Michelangelo was so keen to have him do this massive work, he pretty much allowed the artist to paint whatever he wanted. Scholars also believe that the artist read and re-read the Old Testament as he planned the project, and drew his own conclusions, rather than relying on the official theology of the church to guide his designs.

creation of adam

As we heard in the introduction to the reading from Proverbs, when Michelangelo designed the scene of the Creation Adam, he included the amongst the little babyish cherub angels floating around the figure of God, a very mature female figure. God’s right arm is outstretched towards Adam, and God’s left arm literally embraces Lady Wisdom.

I wonder how the history of the Christian church would have been different if the human leaders of the faith had embraced Lady Wisdom, and held her as close as God does in the painting. If the church had taught it’s people, and its priests, bishops, cardinals and popes to hold her in high regard, maybe the role of women in the church could have been different over the centuries. It remains a harsh reality that in many churches, women are stilled looked upon, and treated as second-class, not qualified, simply because of their gender, to serve as leaders.

Michelangelo’s painting seems to take its inspiration from the passage we heard from the Book of Proverbs. He offers us a picture of God that may surprise us. God has a friend, and delights in her company. This gives us a different way to think about God.

I don’t take Michelangelo’s picture of God literally. When I pray, I don’t imagine God looking like a half-naked bearded man floating in the sky, with a beautiful woman under his arm. But I am drawn to the image of Wisdom leaving her mark on all things that God creates. I think we can learn about God, and our relationship with God, as we pray about, and ponder deeply what we see, and experience here in the created world. There is wisdom present, even and especially in moments of mystery, which cannot be easily talked about or explained. Amen

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