This Sunday several themes, both provided by our lectionary and occasioned by the day’s proximity to the Commemoration of St Francis of Assisi, come together: the wonders of God’s creation; the beauty and sanctity of human relationships; our need for humility and openness to God as seen both in the innocence of children and in Christ’s own self-abasement.
The 11:15 liturgy begins with the proper Introit, which (though the Introits do not often relate to the lessons provided in the modern lectionary) treats God’s role as sovereign creator:
O Lord Almighty, everything has been placed in your power, nor is there anyone to be found who can withstand your power: for you have created everything – heaven and the earth, and all the wonders that are contained beneath heaven’s compass – you are Lord of all creation, O God.
From the Prayer of Mordecai (Greek Esther)
We continue with ‘For the beauty of the earth’ , part of a fine hymn by Folliot S. Pierpoint. The present text is a very good general hymn of praise which takes in a number of things for which we ought to give thanks: the beauty of earth, sky, day, night, sun, moon, features of the land and the things that grow upon it; our ability to sense, and to make sense of, these things; love both divine and human, familial and friendly; the Church; all of God’s gifts, including the spiritual gifts of faith, hope, love, peace, and joy. And it is in the Eucharist – the Greek word for ‘thanksgiving’, and the very ‘pure sacrifice of love’ which the Church ‘offer[s] up on every shore’ – that we most fittingly and fully ‘give our thanks and praise’.
Our Old Testament Lesson, from Genesis 2, recounts God’s creation of, first, all animal life, and then of human partnership. The appointed Gradual Psalm, Psalm 8, picks up on the first aspect, the grandeur of creation and humanity’s place within it. The writers of the creation accounts in Genesis 1 and 2 believed that we had a unique role – ‘whatever the man called every living creature, that was its name’; in chapter 1, the divine commands to ‘subdue’ and ‘have dominion’ over the earth – and the Psalmist finds this a source of wonder: ‘When I consider your heavens, the work of your fingers… what is man that you should be mindful of him?… You give him mastery over the works of your hands…’ And we too – however much we continue to learn about animal intelligence, emotion, and society; the unseen communion among plant and fungal life; and the nature of this nebulous and precious thing we call ‘life’ – cannot escape the feeling that we have a special role to play in the order of things, and cannot escape our responsibilities as stewards of God’s good earth. Isaac Watts’s ‘I sing the almighty power of God‘  also offers us this challenge, as it reminds us that God is to be perceived in all of creation – that all of it is holy.
The Old Testament Lesson was, however, appointed for its second aspect, the account of the divine creation of human partnership, as this constitutes the topic of the first part of the appointed Gospel. In this passage, Our Lord refocuses the understanding of marriage from a legal one in which the man has the power to end the contract – a Mosaic concession to human ‘hardness of heart’, as he says – to one of equal, permanent, and divinely ordained character, in which two truly become one, constituting as it were a new node in the endless web of creation. There is, without a doubt, forgiveness in God’s bountiful grace when we tear the fabric of the universe by failing to uphold such a standard, but we are nonetheless called to see and to treat both our primary and all other relationships as sacred.
Meanwhile, our Epistle passage from the letter to the Hebrews highlights Christ’s role in creation, ‘through whom [God] created the worlds… [who] sustains all things by his powerful word’ – a notion found in other Epistles as well and connected to the figure of Wisdom in the canonical and deuterocanonical Wisdom literature. The writer to the Hebrews goes on to quote the aforementioned Psalm 8, this time applying it to Christ (often called the ‘son of man’, a term used in this Psalm), who was ‘made… a little lower than the angels’ in his Incarnation and Passion, but who, through his self-abasement and subjection to death for our sake, is ‘crowned with glory and honor’ in his Resurrection and Ascension. This Epistle portion is reflected in Bland Tucker’s paraphrase of another passage on the same topic (from Philippians 2), ‘All praise to thee, for thou, O King divine’ . Our own need for humility and innocence as a prerequisite to receiving and perceiving the divine is also highlighted in the last part of our Gospel portion: ‘whoever does not receive the kingdom of God as a little child will never enter it’.
Many of these ideas are at least hinted at in our postcommunion hymn, ‘Now thank we all our God’ : thanksgiving; God’s wondrous works; our family relationships; God’s bounty and love. The hymn is all the more remarkable for having been written in a time and place of terrible plague; we would do well, in our own time of contagion (not forgetting what we may have lost, nor the uncertainties ahead) to cultivate a sense of gratitude for what we do have.