Freshers' Evensong - Revd Dr Megan Daffern
Caius Freshers’ Evensong 9 October 2022 6pm - The Acting Dean
Ps. 113; Isaiah 44.1-8; Matthew 18.1-5
The start of anything new is often a time for thinking about the old.
Perhaps those with new rooms are noticing the things that are better or worse than your rooms last year (location, light, furniture, size, facilities…). Perhaps Freshers you’re realizing quite how much your families did for you at home (washing, cooking, providing cash…) or how much your freedom was formerly curtailed by attentive family members…
We’re often tempted to set new experiences against comparable past experiences. I’ll try not to say too often “At Jesus Oxford…” or “Lucy Cavendish…”. Likewise, you may find yourselves trying not to say to me, “But, Cally…”
There are some things that it may be worth comparing. But let me say first of all that Deans are *not* worth comparing. Equally neither are the Universities of Oxford or Cambridge. Neighbouring colleges – now that may be different…
But it’s definitely best to avoid comparing yourselves with what you think everyone around you is like. We could all dismay ourselves with the inward thought “so-and-so-is-amazing-and-better-than-me”. Or “everyone else is really clever and I don’t belong here”. Or “those people are really popular and beautiful and funny and brilliant at everything”. Or “everyone else has made lots of friends and I’m the only one who hasn’t, and it’s almost a fortnight since we got here”.
No. You all belong here. You would be amazed at how many people in fact feel just like you even if it doesn’t look to you as if they’re feeling just like that. It’s *normal* to be having some doubts and anxieties about who you are, who they are, how you are fitting in. Even Senior Members feel like that sometimes (if not frequently).
As a popular text, Desiderata, puts it:
If you compare yourself with others,
you may become vain or bitter,
for always there will be greater and lesser persons than yourself.
It can be tempting – especially for those formerly big fish in small seas – to think that we should be or we have to be top in our year (even if we don’t say that out loud); to be the best; to be the greatest in whatever it is we’re doing.
That’s human. Look how the disciples came to Jesus in our second reading.
"Who is the greatest in the kingdom of heaven?"
Look how Jesus bats away the question… This passage in Mark’s Gospel can always remind us to avoid comparing yourselves (but equally not to beat yourselves up if you find yourselves doing just that and can’t stop it!).
The earliest scholars of our University – and, for that matter, Oxford too – would have thought about comparisons too. They knew what they were doing when they called this term “Michaelmas”. Because St. Michael whose feast day is at the end of September, the same St. Michael of St. Mike’s, his name literally means “Who is like God?” in Hebrew. Mi – who? Ch – like; and El – an ancient name for God. Who is like God?
How helpful is that as a question? It helps us remember ourselves: Our relative smallness. Our fragility. That we can’t control everything. Contrasting ourselves with the divine Eternal Other reminds us of our limitedness. We end up relating ourselves to the eternal Divine Other.
Who *is* like God anyway?
Attentive Choir members will have noticed they sang those words. [Note to choir: while I’m here, it’ll always be good to notice and think about the Psalm. Because I do Psalms. And there’s much to enjoy about them…
Anyway] v. 5 of tonight’s Psalm: “Who is like the LORD our God?” No one else, is the Psalmist’s argument. Therefore, we sing praises.
In our first reading, the ancient prophet Isaiah declares God’s words: “Who is like me?” Therefore, do not be anxious, but see how great and reliable your divine helper can be.
Now in a terrifyingly-high-achieving-establishment like Cambridge, we may all want to be godlike. On the rugby pitch, to be a goddess. To reach godlike status on the river (especially if you’re M1). On the dancefloor, to be divine. To sing – like an angel.
What kinds of gods do we actually want to be like? What is the greatest divinity we strive to copy? What are the elements of “godlikeness” that really matter to you?
The divine words in our first reading today give a few potential godlike qualities. Someone who knows all times, all seasons, and who therefore can’t be surprised by moments in life that don’t go to plan. Someone who is steadfast, Rocklike. Someone who can and does save people, bring them out of difficulty, supporting them and drawing them to safety. Someone who commands great forces for good (after all, the name “The LORD God of Hosts” is literally in Hebrew “The LORD God of Armies”, so think of the power of that metaphor). Someone who brings water where there is thirst. Someone we want to belong to. Someone who helps.
That “help” word is particularly eye-catching. In Isaiah 44:2:
Thus says the LORD who made you, who formed you in the womb and will help you: “Do not fear…”
The word “one who helps you” is the same word as the companion God creates for the Adam-person in the book of Genesis in the Hebrew Bible/ Old Testament. The story back then was that God was concerned that the prototype human – or, Adam-person – should have a helper, so the helper was brought into being in the form of another Adam-person. The two of them, the primeval human couple, are only given their names much later. Even then their names are Adam-person (literally “ground, humus”-person) and Eve-person (literally “life/being”-person). Instead of thinking “Adam and Eve”, think “human” and “life”. But I digress: ask me more about Hebrew and gender later if you want.
The point is, the primeval human needed help; the God of Creation in Genesis created human partnership, a means of help. And in Isaiah, God himself takes on that partnership, the role of “helper” to humanity.
What’s more, this is totally the same message as Ps. 113. In the verse after “Who is like God?” we hear not only of a God that “has his throne so high” but then in v. 6 of a God who stoops, bends down, humbles himself, to see things from a human viewpoint, to be amongst humanity. God in Ps. 113 isn’t looking down upon humanity, but coming alongside to look with humanity. God manning down, as it were.
Which brings me to Jesus Christ, and the message of the Incarnation. This is proclaimed in the foundation of this Chapel, dedicated to the Annunciation – the message given to Mary about the God-man son she will bear in Jesus. God’s-manning-down is built into the very stones and mortar at the heart of this College.
This Chapel has been, will continue to be, a place of welcome for all. A place which welcomes those who are low as well as those who are lofty. Welcome here are not just the highbrow, the proper, the excellent, the godlike; but the human, the fragile, the delicate, the vulnerable. As in the second reading from Matthew this evening: the childlike.
I invite you not to be childish, but childlike. For us all to think, to dream daily: “What do I want to be when I grow up?” Humanity has does have choices about what we are becoming. We can’t entirely reinvent ourselves, we are necessarily limited, we are not godlike, we do need helpers; but we can listen to our deepest longings and answer as truly as we possibly can:
Who or what do you want to be like?
 Max Ehrmann