What is Man that Thou Art Mindful of Him?

An adventuresome friend of mine recently crossed the Atlantic on a 50-foot sailboat as a member of a four-person crew, sailing from the Caribbean to the Azores.  When I asked him what was the best moment of the journey, he told me that it was when he was half-way across the Atlantic, on a calm-ish day, and he summoned his courage and jumped overboard into the sea.  He wanted, he told me, to know what it would feel like to be a puny speck on the globe, floating there with the vastness of the ocean beneath him, and the wide expanse of sky above him.  He said that it was terrifying in a way, but also an unmatched opportunity to come to terms with fear, and to face his own insignificance (in planetary terms), and to be vulnerable to the universe.

My friend is not religious, and expressed nothing about the experience in religious terms, but he might have borrowed the thought from the theologian Soren Kierkegaard, who wondered, figuratively speaking, what was necessary in order to be “out upon the deep, in over seventy thousand fathoms of water, still preserving my faith.”

And the Psalmist, whose perspective is fundamentally religious, seems to have wondered about this feeling too.  “What is man,” he asks of God, “that thou art mindful of him; the son of man, that thou visitest him?”  Or to put it in more modern language, “What are human beings that you are mindful of them, or mortals, that you care for them?”  More poignantly, the Psalmist marvels at the favor that God shows to us humans, “the works of his fingers,” speaking with a notable but, I feel certain, unintentional lack of inclusivity: “You have made him but little lower than the angels; you adorn him with glory and honor;... you put all things under his feet.”

I wonder if my friend might have felt only but a little lower than the angels as he floated in the deep dark sea, beneath the never-ending sky.

The world seems to have more ways than ever of making us feel as though we are out in the deep.  And you can measure seventy thousand fathoms in more than just water.  There is a catalog of potential deeps in the news every day.  From wars that we have nearly forgotten, to political conflicts we can’t escape even if we want to.  There are the thousand dramas of each of our own inner fears, insecurities, and bitternesses.  There is the fact that the ocean depths are becoming still deeper, and the blithe way we willfully contribute to the literally deepening fathoms beneath us.  There are more ways than ever, it seems, to feel like a puny speck on the planet, and to be vulnerable to the universe.  What are human beings, O God, that you are mindful of them, or mortals, that you care for them?

The question is not a rhetorical one.  So many of us live our lives so far removed from God that we have forgotten that God made us “in his image, in his own image he created [us]; male and female he created [us].”  And so many of us haven’t the foggiest idea why it might be important that God made us according to his own likeness.  We forget that our creation in God’s own image is an expression of God’s love for us, an embodiment of the goodness of creation, and an assurance of our own special place in terms of proximity to God’s heart, and not on the food chain, that the story of creation is meant to tell.  Like all children, we have been free to take our parent’s love for granted.  And like all children, our propensity to do so has rendered us no less needful of that love.

What are human beings, O God, that you are mindful of them, or mortals, that you care for them. What is man that thou art mindful of him; the son of man, that thou visitest him?

When God created the heavens and the earth, he already knew, of course, what we would look like.  For there has never been a time when God was without his only-begotten Son, who “is the reflection of God’s glory and the exact imprint of God’s very being, and [who] sustains all things by his powerful word.”  And there never has been a time when God did not know that he would send his Son to be born of Mary.  There never was a time that God did not know that his Son would suffer and die.  There never was a time when God did not know that he would raise Christ up from the dead.  There never was a time when our redemption - both the need for it and the circumstances of it - was unknown to God.

The Scriptures testify to a divine symmetry in the likeness that we bear to to God’s image and the exact imprint of that image that is the incarnate Son of God, who came to be God-with-us.  Christ is the exact imprint; and we were made in God’s image and likeness.  God has always known this.  How could God fail to be mindful of us?

In the modern era, we have generally adopted an attitude of suspicion toward God.  We suspect that God is possessed of a certain hardness of heart that causes him and his church to treat the world and its people with a certain cruelty.  And those of us who want to think better of God find ourselves constantly trying to make excuses for him.  But Jesus knows that the hardness of heart is all ours.  The passage we heard from Mark’s Gospel this morning is typically referred to as Jesus’ teaching on divorce, and I suppose you can read it that way.  But a better way to read this passage, I think, is as part of Jesus’ extended teaching on our hardness of heart, in which he shows that when you have no other organizing principle - like a covenant of love - then hardness of heart results always, only, and ever in hurt, sadness, and sin.  Divorce is only an example of that.

But when we consider the heavens, and the work of God’s fingers, and we ask ourselves who are we that God should be mindful of us, we remember that God has made us but little lower than the angels, and adorned us with honor and glory.  We see that God has given us mastery over the works of his almighty hands, and put all things under our feet, even the seventy thousand fathoms of the deep, that ought to frighten us into oblivion, and make us see just how puny we are.  But the longer and the deeper we look, the more assuredly we see that God still made us in his image and likeness, just a little lower than the angels…

And so to the Lord our Governor, whose Name shall be exalted in all the world be honor, power, dominion, glory, and praise from this time forth and for ever more.  Amen.

Preached by Fr. Sean Mullen
7 October 2018
Saint Mark’s Church, Philadelphia

Posted on October 8, 2018 .