“For God so loved the world, that he gave his only Son…” (Jo. 3:16).
Hildegard has been on the calendar of saints for a long time: she died in the 12th century, after all, at the age of eighty-one, so she’s been a part of the church triumphant for a long time. But she has not been on Anglican calendars much, or on our list of saints in the Episcopal Church until recently. I can’t think of a single church dedicated to her. Part of the reason is obvious: she is Hildegard of Bingen, after all, born in the Rhineland. Along with the apostles, prophets, and martyrs of the early church, our calendars tend to be filled with the names of local heroes, Anglo-Saxons by and large, with a few Celtic survivors as leaven in the lump.
Christianity, however, is a global phenomenon; and the communion of saints extends to every corner of the world, no matter how strong our attachment to our own worthies. Hildegard deserves to be better known, even outside of her native country. Born in the late 11th century, Hildegard was given by her family at a young age to the religious life, becoming in effect a founding member, and later abbess, of a new religious community for women. She became known for her holiness, and led an extraordinary preaching mission throughout Northern Europe. Hildegard became a correspondent of kings and popes, much sought out for her wisdom.
Monastic communities gave scope to women’s leadership, and opportunities for education and prayer that normally would only be available to the upper class. If Hildegard showed up at our gathering today, I think she would have fit right in. Her life gives the lie to the idea that the Middle Ages was a “dark age,” for women or anyone else.
A written account of her mystical visions, complete with her own illustrations, was approved by Pope Eugenius III. She also wrote commentaries on Scripture, and treatises on medicine and natural science. She was a composer of liturgical music, having the interesting idea that if heaven was full of music (a Scriptural idea from Revelation), then the devil must not be able to carry a tune! Sin, you see, is tone deaf; it ain’t got no rhythm. Hildegard was a leader of the church, on the strength of spiritual insight like this, and her extraordinary personality.
If Hildegard is remembered for her remarkable accomplishments, our Gospel for her feast rightly focuses on the foundation of all life in Christ. “For God so loved the world, that he gave his only Son…” (Jo. 3:16). Our own works, as estimable as they may be, are not the basis of our life, but rather the action of God. This verse from the Gospel of John (sometimes seen on placards at sporting events, summing up the good news) makes God the chief actor: the one who loves us. How we respond to God’s love of us is important, but we begin with God.
At the same time, the verse fleshes out what love means. It is an easy word to toss around, but difficult to encompass with our whole heart. Our Gospel reminds us that love takes form in a human life, the Word made flesh, Jesus Christ our Lord. Love is sacrificial: the Son of God is given for us, giving his life on the cross for us. Love has content for Christians, and is seen most clearly on the cross. God loves us that much, to put all on the line for our sake. God is willing to pay the price for human sin. Jesus gives himself as a ransom for others.
I think we sometimes get caught up in our own heads, whether we are worthy of such a great gift, or whether we’re worthy at all. Self-worth is the concept that launched a thousand self-help books, but it’s not really the point of our proclamation of the good news of what God has done. The point, rather, is that no one of us is worthy, not a single one. Nervous worry over our self-esteem can be a trap. On the contrary, whatever our accomplishments, whatever our extraordinary gifts or lack thereof, doesn’t matter at all to God.
In spite of ourselves, and our unworthiness, God loves us and gives us grace. Jesus pours himself out for us in the sacraments, making us his sons and daughters through baptism, and giving us his body and blood in the Eucharist, so that we can live our lives in him. This is the foundation of our life in Christ, given as a gift rather than owed as a debt.
On this feast of St. Hildegard, we give thanks for the gifts given to her, and the grace at work in her life. If we were worthy then grace would not be a gift and would in fact cease to be grace. In truth, God loves us, and that love is given as a free and extraordinary gift in Christ Jesus our Lord.