Beauty – The Divine Embrace

January 13, 2019 — Rev. Nancy Parent Bancroft
Readings: Isaiah 42:1-4, 6-7. Luke 3:15-16, 21-22


Irish poet, author, priest, and philosopher John O’Donohue once wrote, “We live between the act of awakening and the act surrender. Each morning we awaken to the light and the invitation to a new day in the world of time; each night we surrender to the dark to be taken to play in the world of dreams where time is no more. At birth we were awakened and emerged to become visible in the world. At death we will surrender to the dark to become invisible. Awakening and surrender: they frame each day and each life.” Between them, O’Donohue says, is the journey where anything can happen.

When O’Donohue’s ancestors, the Celts, searched for meaning and security and comfort in this in-between time they put their trust in the faithful patterns of the moon, stars, sun and seasons. In this Beauty, they experienced the Divine. Long before them, the Greeks did the same. For them, order in nature, order in the cosmos was Beauty. And it was Beauty that helped them cope with the frailty and uncertainty of the journey between awakening and surrender, between the visible and invisible. How the Celts and the Greeks understood Beauty, we might call manifestations of God; Epiphanies, encounters with our loving God. John O’Donohue refers to each encounter with beauty as a Divine embrace.

Last week we celebrated the Feast of the Epiphany But there are several epiphanies presented in the gospels –  those special events in Jesus’ life where his presence was especially manifested with power. Jesus’ baptism is one of those epiphanies. There are several recorded versions of the baptism of Jesus.  The story is found in the three synoptic gospels, Mathew, Mark and Luke, but also there are several accounts of each of those stories.  Original copies of the Gospels have not been preserved, as is typical for ancient documents; biblical texts that survive are third-generation copies, with no two completely identical. This is not surprising since the gospels were written to evangelize – to teach and inspire and certain parts were stressed or even changed depending on the perceived needs of the audience. And in that spirit, I’m glad that the revised common lectionary that recommends the Sunday scriptures for Christian Churches suggests that today we use Luke’s version of Jesus’ baptism because it differs from the other two gospels in a couple of ways that I think are important for us to ponder at this time.

You heard Luke’s version read this morning. The Holy Spirit descended upon Jesus in bodily form as a dove, and a voice came from heaven, “Thou art my beloved Son; with thee I am well pleased.” In newer translations, which are thought to be more accurate, the adjective “beloved” is made a separate phrase to emphasize the intensity of the personal nature of this experience. “You are my Son. My beloved. In thee I am well pleased.”

In all three synoptic gospels, the Spirit descends “like a dove.”   Luke and the other evangelists use the dove as a beautiful metaphor for the Spirit’s coming into our lives. It is graceful, gentle, and quiet. That’s the point being made. The Holy Spirit came to Jesus gently, quietly; in beauty  – and in Luke’s version, privately.

That is the second example of how Luke’s version is different than the other gospels. The other writers imply that the Spirit descended upon Jesus at his baptism, apparently when he was still in the water. That is the way this scene is often portrayed in religious art -Jesus, standing waist deep in water, John the Baptist standing next to him, pointing at Jesus, as if to say, “This is the one. Above Jesus’ head in these scenes is the Spirit, as a dove, descending.

But in Luke we read, “Now when all the people were baptized, and when Jesus also had been baptized and was praying, the Holy Spirit descended upon him.” This Epiphany, this special presence of God in this event, came to Jesus when he was by himself, praying. It wasn’t a public event. It was a personal and private experience. He came out of the water, went off by himself, and prayed. That is when it happened. It was in the in-between time, between his awakening and his surrender that Jesus opened himself to beauty and experienced himself as a child of God. Beloved. Before he had begun his public ministry, before he had changed water into wine, before he had begun his church, or called his disciples, before he had cured anyone, before he preached, he is found beloved.

This is who you are, Jesus, the voice says. This is who you are: Child of God. Beloved of God. The object of God’s pleasure and delight. And then in the next verse, we find Jesus beginning his ministry.   In knowing who he is and whose he is, Jesus is then free to live the life he was born to experience. Following his baptism he committed himself to spread the good news through his words and actions that like him, we all are immeasurably loved – all of us.  And throughout his ministry Jesus continued to ensure that all knew that they were included.  Jews and Gentiles, saints and sinners, women and children as well as men, the poor and the wealthy, the sick and the infirmed at a time when many believed that their afflictions evidenced that God had rejected them. All are beloved of God.

Can you imagine what it would be like to hear the voice of God saying, ” Oh My Child, Do You Know How Pleased I Am with You?” Would there be anything greater than this? Would any one moment ever be so indelibly written in our memory? These would be words we would treasure, words we would ponder over and over and over. If we never received any other accolade in life, this would be enough-more than enough-because these would be words that satisfy our deepest longing.  This would be a moment we would savor forever, “I am so very pleased with you, My child.” The inexpressible peace, the unfathomable joy! The confidence! The assurance! The sense of fulfillment! Just to know this is how God feels about us!

But He has done. And He does speak to us, encounter us, show us his deep love. And like Jesus in Luke’s Gospel, such an epiphany is often experienced in prayer. Prayer need not be words. I understand prayer as openness to the Divine. Someone once referred to prayer or contemplation as wasting time with God. And a frequent place to encounter the Divine, to commune with the Divine is through Beauty. John O’Donohue, spoke of beauty as that in the presence of which we feel more alive. In his book Beauty: The Invisible Embrace he writes,Beauty is a gentle but urgent call to awaken. To open our eyes, hearts, and minds to the wonder of our own relationship with it.”   He continues, “The human soul is hungry for beauty; we seek it everywhere in landscape, music, art, clothes, furniture, gardening, companionship, love, religion, and in ourselves. When we experience the Beautiful, there is a wonderful sense of homecoming; we feel fully alive. Our lives become illuminated. ” O’Donohue is describing a Divine embrace.

Just as Jesus came to know who he was and whose he was in that moment of grace following his baptism, so too, in openness to God and through Beauty– we come to know who we are and whose we are.

The beloved of God. The sons and daughters of God – in whom God is well pleased. . And in knowing who we are and whose we are, we are then free to live the life we were born to experience. Jesus’ baptism, what he experienced tells us something about what it means to be human in relationship with God, what’s available to us in relationship with God.
So many suffer daily, even a lifetime because they believe a false narrative about themselves. They see themselves as bad, sinful, not enough. What was offered to Jesus in the voice from heaven, was also meant for us to hear and know about ourselves. Didn’t Jesus come to show us that? To tell us this? So that we know it deep within the depths of our souls? This is the good news. We can see ourselves as one in whom God is well pleased – now, not in some future, not when we get our life together (whenever that is), not when we become more moral, more “Christian,” but now. This is the good news that is offered to us. We are created in the image and likeness of God who is Love. This is our participation in the eternal life of God.

Such an insight, such a truth, such a claim requires an entire life to fathom and fully live into. Unbelievably we forget. We doubt. Can this really, really be true? Am I, as I am, God’s beloved? It seems incredible. To be someone in whom God takes immense delight!

Beauty helps remind us. Beauty, God’s gifts of love. But we need to be open to it.

O’Donohue invites us to awaken the Beautiful; it is always secretly there, awaiting our attention and reverence in order to come alive. He says, “Beauty is the true priestess of individuation.”

These are ugly times. All around us we hear about and experience greed, dishonesty, fear, bigotry, what is vulgar and coarse. There is so much going on in our world that creates a sense of peril and discouragement. At times, we can feel overwhelmed with all the world events and concerns, as well as with our personal issues. During these times, we might wonder, “Where is the hope?” Were Beauty to awaken in the fields of politics, religion, human interactions and decisions  our world would heal, and  wells of hope would refresh us. We forget over and over again the Divine life in us until recollection is stirred by some experience of beauty in nature, the creative arts, or acts of kindness, generosity, or courage.  Then we remember and wonder why we ever forgot.

And following an Epiphany – a Divine embrace, we are ready to Be the Love, as one of our banners reminds us. When we experience ourselves as the beloved of God we are empowered to be agents of hope. The world needs us. Many years ago John F Kennedy wrote “…I am certain that after the dust of centuries has passed over our cities, we . . . will be remembered not for victories or defeats in battle or in politics, but for our contribution to the human spirit.”

We have just begun a new year. The coming year, the time between awakening and surrender is filled with uncertainties yes, but also with possibilities. May we each take comfort in the words: “You are my mine, my beloved, in whom I am well pleased.”  And may we also recognize through Beauty that this is God blessing us during this time in history and for the New Year 2019.