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City Church

THE PARISH CHURCH OF ST MARY THE VIRGIN, HENLEY-ON-THAMES

The First Sunday of Christmas

Jan 2, 2021, Author: Fr Jeremy Tayler

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Psalm 148
Isaiah 61.10-62.3
Luke 2.15-21

+In the Name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit.
Amen.

“But Mary treasured all these words and pondered them in her heart”.

This for me is one of the loveliest verses in the Bible. Here we are given a little window into the inner life of the Mother of Our Lord. Surprising events accompany the birth of this surprising Child, and Luke tells us that Mary treasures these things, she stores them away inside her as precious memories. And not only does she treasure them, but she actively ponders them in her heart. We see in her not only the quality of loving and valuing the things of Jesus, but also of reflecting on them, on thinking about them carefully, of weighing up their meaning and importance. In this as in so many other things, Mary is a model for us; we too should treasure these things and ponder them in our hearts.

On the face of it our Psalm for this morning could not be more different. Luke’s brief description of the inner life of Mary takes us inside the heart of one human being; the psalmist, on the other hand, is working on a grand scale. “Praise the Lord from the heavens! Praise Him in the heights!”. The scale is cosmic, universal.

The arrangement of the Book of Psalms is interesting and a little mysterious. At first it might just seem to be a jumble of all sorts of different poetry combined in no very obvious order: psalms about wisdom, anguished individual prayers for help, psalms with an obvious setting in a corporate liturgy, songs of kings, communal laments, songs of thanksgiving and hymns of praise.

But on closer examination some order is discernible. There are five collections of psalms combined to form a single book, each ending with a doxology, a short outburst of praise. There are various points in the collections where psalms appear to stand in relationship to each other, although the extent to which this is so is inevitably disputed by scholars.

But one thing is very clear: the end of the Book of Psalms is formed of a sort of super-doxology, a succession of ecstatic hymns of praise to God. In Latin, the last three psalms all begin with the word Laudate, a command to praise, which is the origin of the name of Lauds which was given to the ancient monastic office of Morning Prayer, the ancestor of our Prayerbook office of Matins. In the old Latin office, one of these Laudate psalms was sung every morning.

Psalm 148 is one of these Psalms. It is one of the most important passages in the Bible addressing themes of creation. Others include the Benedicite, part of the Greek version of the Book of Daniel, which is also familiar from the Prayerbook Matins service. In Psalm 148 we find the concept that the praise of God belongs not only to humankind, but to the whole creation. We find an ordered view of the cosmos, beginning with the heavenly host, moving through the sun, moon and stars, before descending to our own planet with its atmosphere, seas and land, each with their respective creatures, and finally addressing the human race, and the people of Israel specially chosen to be close to God. This psalm was the inspiration for the famous Canticle of the Sun written by St Francis of Assisi, which in turn inspired the wonderful hymn “All creatures of our God and king”.

What are we to make of this extraordinary juxtaposition of our Psalm and our Gospel? On the one hand we have the breath-taking exhilarating cosmic scope of Psalm 148, the heavens and the highest heavens and the depths and the mountains all taking their place in a universal hymn of praise. On the other, we have the intimacy of the inner life of Mary, who treasures and ponders the things of her Son in her heart.

In the first place we might notice that the human obsession with size does not seem to be particularly important to God. Although the psalmist speaks of the heavens and the moon and the stars and the mountains and the depths, although the psalmist gives us this wonderful cosmic sweep, yet at the end, at the smallest level, we find a kind of intimacy and depth of meaning. The psalmist doesn’t go all the way to the level of the individual human heart, but rather speaks of the people of Israel that God has chosen to be close to Him. The sun and the moon and the mountains and the depths have their special place in God’s creation, and in their ordered existence they give praise to God, but it is at the human level that we find the element of creation that God has chosen in a special way to be close to Him.

Reading today’s gospel in the light of this psalm, we simply pursue the same line of thought but take it a step further. We descend from the heavens to the earth to the people of Israel, we follow the same cosmic sweep from the celestial to the human, and we come to this one town to this one family to this one young woman and her baby.

Second, we learn of the dignity and resource of the human heart. We have the capacity to think on a cosmic scale. Admittedly cosmology has moved on rather since the time that the psalmist wrote, we no longer think of the sky as a firmament that holds back a great body of water, and which occasionally springs a leak, as last night. Human beings have an ability and a desire to think, however inadequately, about abstract questions far beyond the scope of our day-to-day concerns. There is a grandeur to human thought, there is rationality, there is creativity, there is compassion, there is contemplation, there is speculation. We see this both in the psalmist’s conception of a kind of liturgy of the universe in which everything gives its proper praise to God, and we see it in Mary’s ability to treasure and ponder the words and events around her Son’s birth in her heart.

God has given us, uniquely among God’s creatures, an ability to ponder and to contemplate, an ability even to comprehend the bigger picture, or at least to strive to comprehend it, a capacity to think on a global and even on a cosmic scale, to ask questions about the universe and its meaning. This is an aspect of being made in God’s image, this is why humanity has a pivotal role within God’s creation, and this is why the restoration of the breach between God and humanity in Jesus Christ that we celebrate at Christmas has truly universal implications. And this also why the human heart can never be satisfied with finite things, it is why consumerism is such a dead end, it is why our desires appear insatiable.

The human heart was not made to expend its extraordinary God-given capacities on limited and finite things. Whether our meditations take the form of the grand cosmic sweep of the psalmist, or the intimate treasuring and pondering of Mary, may we honour the dignity and resource of the human heart and mind. May we seek to use our God-given capacities in the contemplation of God’s goodness and the wonders of His works, and in meditating on His love revealed in the Nativity of our Lord Jesus Christ, and for the good of our brothers and sisters and the whole creation, to the praise and glory of God, Father, Son and Holy Spirit.
Amen.