Proper 22, Year B, St. James’ Church, Sewanee

“But from the beginning of creation, ‘God made them male and female.’” (Mk. 10:6).

“The world is charged with the grandeur of God. / It will flame out, like shining from shook foil,” wrote the 19th century poet and priest Gerard Manley Hopkins. Hopkins loved the natural world, and his poetry is full of wonderful images drawn from nature. In the poem from which these lines are drawn Hopkins goes on to speak of the ways in which both creation and the human creature have become marred and distorted over time; but then he goes on to say, “And for all this, nature is never spent; / There lives the dearest freshness deep down things.” Hopkins leaves us in this short poem with an image of the Holy Ghost brooding over a “bent world,” bringing a new light into the darkness of the old day.

Our Gospel today invites us to consider that “dearest freshness deep down things” as we ponder Jesus’ response to the Pharisees’ question about divorce. They want to know whether it is lawful or not for a man to divorce his wife. Not, as in Matthew’s version, a question about the grounds of divorce, but rather a straight up question of whether divorce is lawful.

Jesus in response asks them to look for an answer in the Law of Moses: “What did Moses command you?” (Mk. 10:3) They tell him: “Moses allowed a man to write a certificate of dismissal and to divorce her” (Mk. 10:4): a reference to the fairly humane provision in Deuteronomy that allowed a divorced woman to take away her note of dismissal and to marry again.

Jesus then tells them that provision for divorce is only included because of the hardness of the human heart. When God first made human beings he made them male and female, to be joined together as one flesh (quoting both chapters one and two of Genesis). Jesus ends with, “Therefore what God has joined together, let no one separate” (Mk. 10:9): words that have been incorporated in marriage liturgies for centuries.

The “dearest freshness deep down things” figures here because Jesus, in responding to the Pharisees’ question, is going straight back to the beginning, to creation and the creature in all their glory. He takes us back to the Genesis moment when the world, newly minted, “shining from shook foil” as the poet puts it, came forth in its primitive freshness. He takes us back to the innocence of “our first parents,” as Adam and Even were called by early Christian writers.

In responding to the Pharisees, Jesus is not so much setting aside the Law of Moses as articulated in Deuteronomy as he is balancing it against another part of the Mosaic tradition (Moses being the traditional author of both Deuteronomy and Genesis). Jesus’ words here take us back to the Garden, back to innocence, back to a world that was not yet disfigured by sin and death. It’s not simply nostalgia, the longing after what has vanished forever, because that world is still present in this world, buried deep within us.

The human heart is hard, no doubt about it; hardened by the passage of time and by the hard experiences of life, but also hardened by sin: both the evil we have committed and the evil we have endured. Yet again, Hopkins: “There lives the dearest freshness deep down things.” When we drill down into the human heart, we find the evidence. Sin and death have done their worst, but they have not overcome what is wholesome and good.

Jesus’ words unearth and recover old possibilities for the human race that we have not yet lost sight of. Something as simple as the birth of a child or the rising of the sun can rekindle the memory of ancient gifts. But more importantly, Jesus’ words also plot a way forward. They don’t simply look back but also forward to a new promise. If we are rightly awed by the beauty of what God has made, by the glory of creation, we are even more rightly grateful for the gift of grace. The dawn of the Day of Resurrection is beautiful not simply because it is the beginning of a new day, but because it heralds new possibilities for the human race. The gift of a new life is compounded by the gift of God’s grace in baptism, marking us as Christ’s own forever.

That bond is unbreakable. Jesus’ words remind us that our relationship with God began “in the beginning,” and that God continues to be faithful to us and to call us to as new life of grace and forgiveness. We begin with creation and we see it perfected by grace, in the new life that Jesus offers us. “And for all this, nature is never spent; / There lives the dearest freshness deep down things.”

  • The Rt. Rev’d John Bauerschmidt, Bishop of Tennessee