“In Christ’s Presence Your Darkest Tomb is The Holy Spirit’s Womb”
A Sermon for St. John the Evangelist Episcopal Church, St. Paul, MN
by The Rev. Craig Lemming, Associate Rector
Sunday, March 8, 2020 – The Second Sunday in Lent
In the Name of the Holy Spirit who transforms tombs into wombs. Amen.
For those who missed it, our Rector Jered, our Deacon Margaret, and our Writer-in-Residence Barbara all contributed to throwing down homiletical gauntlets; each incrementally raising the bar in choosing music that connects us with the appointed Gospels. Let the record show, I had nothing to do with this clerical feud! I merely preached a sermon that connected the unifying and liberating personality of Dolly Parton with the Gospel. And now, six weeks later, my clergy colleagues have quadruple-dared me – with Johnny Cash, The Rolling Stones, Rod Stewart, and Prince – to take up their gauntlet. How could I possibly resist? But, before we get to the intoxicatingly beautiful song that you will fall madly in love with, we must journey with Nicodemus through darkness in order to be born anew; and discover with him that, sometimes the only adequate response to Holy Wisdom is silence.
Nicodemus was a Pharisee and member of the Sanhedrin: a highly revered rabbinical mind and one of the most powerful elders within the Temple elite. We read that Nicodemus “comes to Jesus by night” (John 3:2), presumably to avoid being seen visiting this “nobody from Nazareth.” (1) Now remember, this is the Gospel of Saint John the Evangelist. Our Patron Saint’s Gospel is always pregnant with poetic meaning, so we must apply a symbolic lens with which to interpret the meaning of this “night visit” with integrity. Nicodemus comes to Jesus by night. As the Compline liturgy reminds us, the night is dark, and our fears of the darkness of the world and the darkness of our own lives haunt us at night. It is in that dark night of the soul that Nicodemus comes to Jesus. And it is in that very darkness of night that Nicodemus finds the Christ already waiting to enlighten him. The watery chaos of Nicodemus’s darkest fears, the agony of his over-thinking, brilliant intellect, and the terror of the Unknowable Mystery become the birth pangs of new life. This is why metaphysical poet Henry Vaughan ends his poem titled “The Night” – his homage to Nicodemus – by proclaiming,
There is in God, some say,
A deep but dazzling darkness…
O for that night! where I in Him
Might live invisible and dim! (2)
We, like Nicodemus, struggle to understand the Holy Wisdom Jesus is trying to reveal. Nicodemus applies the full rigor of his intellect and ends up misinterpreting Jesus’ words into ignorant literalism – he tries to make sense of a fully-grown person literally re-entering their mother’s womb in order to be born anew. So, Jesus uses another metaphor of the wind to explain how the Holy Spirit inexplicably and uncontrollably brings all of us to new life. Jesus says, “what is born of the Spirit is spirit… The wind blows where it chooses, and you hear the sound of it, but you do not know where it comes from or where it goes. So it is with everyone who is born of the Spirit.” (John 3:8). Nicodemus, like many of us, still doesn’t get it. In response to Jesus’s metaphor of the wind symbolizing the Holy Spirit, “Nicodemus says to Jesus, ‘How can these things be?’” (John 3:9).
This is when an intoxicatingly beautiful song comes in handy. It was Spring 2002, I had just turned twenty, I had survived my first New England winter, and I walked into a Music History class at New England Conservatory that changed my life. Our professor asked our class, “Did you feel the warm spring breezes on your faces as you walked to class today?” A few of us nodded. “Did you notice the new flower buds beginning to blossom; the buzzing bees and birdsong?” A few more nods. Then our professor asked, “how many of you are falling madly in love, or have a crush?” The infectious giggling that overtook the class confirmed that we had all contracted a serious case of spring fever. I know I had about seven crushes myself. Then our professor introduced us to a song that captures and expresses the words of a pastoral ode to Zephyrus: the warm and gentle breeze from the west who brings the season of Spring along with all of the creative, erotic energy that gives us new life. Our professor invited us to listen closely to how the exuberance and warmth and swirling coloratura passages of these two voices perfectly capture the warm, irresistible breezes of Spring that breathe new life into all of us and all of Creation:
Click here to listen.
Music is a sacramental conduit that connects earthly things with heavenly things. For me, Claudio Monteverdi’s “Zefiro Torna” composed in 1623 connects the warm western breezes of Spring with the irresistible new life that God’s Holy Spirit recreates in each of us and in all of Creation. (3) And like the two florid voices rush and swirl seamlessly into and out of the musical texture we just heard, we do not know where the Holy Spirit comes from or where the Holy Spirit is going. And this is the whole point Jesus is making. We don’t need to know. We need only relish the mystery. As theologian David Bently Hart teaches, “[i]n pursuit of those [God] loves, [Christ] invades even the very depths of that hell we have made for ourselves and one another – in the cosmos, in history, in our own hearts – so as to drag us to himself.” (4) In her chapter on Nicodemus and Jesus titled “Born Again,” Barbara Brown Taylor explains this elusive truth that we and Nicodemus struggle to accept. She writes, “The Spirit gives you life. She comes and goes. She is beyond your control.” (5)
In this Holy Season of Lent each of us needs to enter into the darkest places within ourselves and trust that the crucified and risen Christ is already there, waiting to redeem that dark night of our soul from the tomb of fear into the sacred womb of new and abundant life. The Holy Spirit births each of us into new life and we will never fully understand, predict, or control her mystical ways. We need only choose, like Nicodemus who came to Jesus by night, to be present with the presence of God in Christ and trust the Holy Spirit is already making all things new in ways that are completely beyond our control or understanding.
I leave you with the words of St. John of the Cross, the divine mystic who was intimately acquainted with The Dark Night of the Soul.
the Virgin will come walking down the road
pregnant with the Holy,
“I need shelter for the night, please take me inside your heart,
my time is so close.”
Then, under the roof of your soul, you will witness the sublime
intimacy, the divine, the Christ
as she grasps your hand for help, for each of us
is the midwife of God, each of us.
Yet there, under the dome of your being does creation
come into existence eternally, through your womb, dear pilgrim—
the sacred womb in your soul,
as God grasps our arms for help; for each of us is
His beloved servant
If you want, the Virgin will come walking
down the street pregnant
with Light and sing. (6)
- See John 1:46.
- David Bentley Hart, That All Shall Be Saved: Heaven, Hell, and Universal Salvation (New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 2019), 27.
- Barbara Brown Taylor, Holy Envy: Finding God in the Faith of Others (New York, New York: HarperOne, 2019), 167-68.
- St. John of the Cross, “If You Want” in Daniel Ladinsky Love Poems from God: Twelve Sacred Voices from the East and West (New York: Penguin Group, 2002), 306-307.