Professor Kate Bulinski is a paeleontologist at Bellarmine University in America. I wanted to share her guest blog at the Vatican Observatory website, as it challenges us to face up to our responsibilities to observe God’s Creation and our part in it – and to start to restore, renew and revive what we have unwittingly damaged. Here is a short sample from her post. Click on her name above to read it in full. A good Advent read. Let’s pray for the enthusiasm to carry on despite the odds, like these children, digging at Aberdaron beach, despite the rain.
I sometimes ask my students to contemplate what the fossil record of the 21st century would look like. Would we have layers of sediment embedded with plastic debris and electronic waste? … What would future humans (or our evolutionary descendants!) have to say about this era of Earth history? And perhaps more importantly, what would God say about how we responded to the charge to care for creation and how we responded once we realized the mistakes we were making?
Our Victorian forebears were rather taken with the language of flowers and could semaphore their feelings through a careful choice of blooms in a posy. Hence the pansy, or pensée in French, signalled, ‘you are in my thoughts.’
Mrs T and I visited Chartham village with Abel. After he had played on the roundabouts at the village green, we wandered into the churchyard for lunch under the trees.
Our Victorian forebears, if they could afford it, erected finely carved stones over their loved-one’s graves. Without much effort at all we found these three carved with passionflowers which represent the saving death of Jesus. There are ten petals for the ten apostles who did not deny him – leaving out Peter and Judas. There are five stamens representing the five wounds; three stigma for the nails, and the fringe of filaments around the flower stands for the crown of thorns.
All this suffering somehow mirrored in a beautiful flower. And by carving this flower over their dear ones’ graves, the three families were proclaiming belief that the dead would rise again with Christ. A good thought and prayer for November and All Souls.
When you see a passionflower let it remind you that Jesus is real, his death was real, as indeed will ours be – but so, too, will our rising. And when you see a passionflower on a gravestone, send us a picture to put in the blog!
The evil in unredeemed desire is far deeper than the law could engender – which is why we are told that anger = murder and lust = adultery. The way evil cannot touch is forgiveness. We need to learn to desire without the need to compete, blame or measure ourselves against. We need to be free to relish good wherever it is found – but who decides what is good?
God gave a prohibition for our protection – which we have consistently ignored – not to eat of the tree whose fruit is knowledge of good and evil. But seeing something withheld led to rivalry and envy – we’ll show him – we’ll do it our way. Paul tells us that the Law is not sinful – Romans 7.7. – I was once alive apart from the Law, but when the command came sin sprang into life and I died. Paul sees the Serpent not as the Devil but as sin. Desire is a gift of God, but not when disfigured by envy. We have victimised the Law making it an instrument of redemptive violence, and locking ourselves within the shadow of death.
Desire turned to envy made what should have been the irenic way to life into the sphere of rivalry, envy and exclusion. Now all life is infected [universality of OS] by such distorted desire – they saw that they were naked – all this through ignoring that prohibition that was there to ensure our well-being.
It is my awareness of me as “I” that results from knowing other than me. Paul insists that it is Faith that allows us access to desire redemption, to desire in ways that owe nothing to envious rivalry. Sin means my “I” is not in control but is itself controlled by distorted desire. What is needed is the way of living that Paul describes as: It is no longer I but Christ living in me [controlling my “I”] – Gal.2.20.
Jesus shows that Original Sin is not of our essence, it is simply evidence of a faulty foundational principle [way of life]. Paradoxically, what Jesus was founding was subversion of the notion founding – in the sense of achieving identity by comparison over against others. It is totally gratuitous in every way… something that existed long before our capacity for distorting desire ever happened. Before Original Sin there is Original Grace.
The tragedy of Original Sin is not that it is universal, but in the universality of the new people we discover what is possible for “I” – to become enabled to move from the universal to the particular; whereas conversion requires recognition of our equality as the foundation of human dignity; unity in diversity, equal but not the same. Original Sin is what we are leaving behind when we take new life seriously. We realise the reality of Original Sin through those who have been set free from it. As Jesus told Nicodemus – we must be born into a new way – not going back and starting again. – Jn.3.3. Death was seen as an extrinsic punishment for sin – we all sin, we all die! Death and sin are connected – distorted desire cannot bring life, since only God is life!
Many flowers have English names that speak of the faith of those who named them. We saw these resplendent Michaelmas Daisies in Folkestone, next to Saint Eanswythe’s Pool which we have visited before on this blog. It’s where the saint brought clean water for the townspeople and her sisters.
But today we remember Michael the Archangel, whose name means ‘Who is like God?’
Who indeed? Passing through Tonbridge I saw another fine clump of Michaelmas Daisies, where a seed must have taken root alongside the line. Too much reflection from the window to grab a snap, but maybe more people see them than St Eanswythe’s.
Let’s hope hearts at both ends of Kent are lifted at the sight.
It’s worth recalling that Michaelmas daisies are officially ‘asters’ or stars, and stars can guide the wise.
By the very right of your senses you enjoy the World. Is not the beauty of the Hemisphere
present to your eye? Doth not the glory of the Sun pay tribute to your sight? Is not the vision of the World an amiable thing? Do not the stars shed influences to perfect the Air? Is not that a marvellous body to breathe in? To visit the lungs: repair the spirits, revive the senses, cool the blood, fill the empty spaces between the Earth and Heavens; and yet give liberty to all objects?
Prize these first: and you shall enjoy the residue: Glory, Dominion, Power, Wisdom; Honour, Angels, Souls, Kingdoms, Ages. Be faithful in a little, and you shall be master over much. If you be not faithful in esteeming these; who shall put into your hands the true Treasures? If you be negligent in prizing these, you will be negligent in prizing all. For there is a disease in him who despiseth present mercies, which till it be cured, he can never be happy. He esteemeth nothing that he hath, but is ever gaping after more: which when he hath he despiseth in like manner.
Insatiableness is good, but not ingratitude.
Looking back, I realise that my teacher Miss ‘Killer’ was an ignorant woman. She ridiculed children who had not been baptised with what she considered to be appropriate saints’ names. ‘There’s never been a Saint June!’ she once spat, instead of saying, ‘You could stick with Saint Jane or Saint Joan.’ As for ‘Royston’! ‘What kind of a name is that?’ Life was miserable if you were on the wrong side of her, as a good 75% of us regularly were. I’m glad she did not pick up on the idea that Saint Maurice did not exist; it would have been another stick to beat me with. And I mean beat.
The theory was that since there were no contemporary accounts of Maurice and his companions, they were more likely a group of saints invented to make sense of a mass grave found in Switzerland in 383 AD, said to have been Christian legionaries executed for refusing an immoral order.
Donald O’Reilly in Lost Legion Rediscovered settles the Question to his and my satisfaction: there was a Christian Theban legion – from the Egyptian Thebes, not the Greek one – and in the late 3rd Century civil war its members were killed in great numbers for disobeying an immoral order, and this happened not only in Switzerland’s town that bears his name but across North West Europe.
O’Reilly’s detective work is well worth reading, giving insight into Roman civil and military life of the time, and into Christian attitudes to military service. Yes, St Maurice did exist, an African in Europe, which is why his town is now the focus for the annual African pilgrimage to the saints of Africa every June.
Here is part of a speech attributed to Maurice by a later writer (p121 of O’Reilly’s book).
Our right hands know how to fight against wicked men and enemies; they do not know how to cut into pieces innocent men and fellow citizens. We remember we took up arms on behalf of citizens rather than against citizens. We have always fought on behalf of justice, on behalf of the safety of the innocent; up to the present time this has been the reward of our dangers. We have fought on behalf of the faith; and how are we to keep our faith towards you – the words are addressed to the emperor – if we do not show forth faith to God?
Donald O’Reilly, Lost Legion Rediscovered, Barnsley, Pen and Sword, 2011.
Joan was a loving wife, mother and grandmother, and a friend to many in Saint Thomas’ parish, On her birthday we share the remembrance card her family gave out to those attending her funeral. It is a passage from the Pilgrim’s Progress, where, facing death, Mr Valiant-for-truth says:
I am going to my Father’s, and tho’ with great difficulty I am got hither, yet now I do not repent me of all the Trouble I have been at to arrive where I am. My Sword I give to him that shall succeed me in my Pilgrimage, and my Courage and Skill to him that can get it. My Marks and Scars I carry with me, to be a witness for me that I have fought his Battles who now will be my Rewarder.
The passage concludes:
So he passed over, and all the Trumpets sounded for him on the other side.
As, in sure and certain hope, we can say they did for Joan.
Mary Mother from Hales Place Jesuit Chapel, Canterbury
Yet another discovery when I was looking for something else!
The web led me to an article by Peter Hebblethwaite in which he touches on Saint John XXIII Roncalli and today’s feast of the Assumption. The Assumption is not to do with a high and remote Madonna, but a flesh and blood woman who lived on this earth and died, as we all must. It is about hope.
Roncalli’s meditation on the Assumption was deeply Christological. Mary is clearly with us. She is the first of disciples and a leader in faith, and so she can be of some use to us. Roncalli concludes his meditation:
The mystery of the Assumption brings home the thought of death,
of our death,
and it diffuses within us a mood of peaceful abandonment;
it familiarizes us with and reconciles us to the idea
that the Lord will be present in our death agony,
to gather up into his hands our immortal soul.
~ John XXIII wrote that when he had only another eighteen months to live.
We are imago Dei not in some external, visible way but in the depth of our experience when we look in on ourselves and share ourselves with others. To think of Jesus as the hollow shell of a man with a divine inside we would miss the real channel of divine revelation – the human inside.
Jesus experienced a gradual consciousness of himself, his ordinary human feelings about friendship and loneliness, loyalty and betrayal, life and death and sharing a common destiny for all. Jesus learned to speak, think and pray and to figure out the will of the Father from the Hebrew Scriptures, from the faith of those around him and from what was happening in the larger world. He exercised his prophetic mission in different ways and by trial and error, followed through with those that best served his purpose.
He knew there was a price to pay for this: he would be arrested and got rid of. He freely chose to stand his ground and continue his mission; through prayer and reflection he came to see his coming death as an innocent sacrifice for the lives of others.
How could his consciousness be that of God and man at the same time? God does not think conceptually, nor does God know the way we know, when we speak of God as a person we are using analogy. God is mystery, we have no idea of knowing how God knows. When we speak of Jesus as human we know what we mean, when we speak of Jesus as divine we do not know what we mean. We know we do not mean a simple equation like Mrs Jones is the former Susan Smith because God is more beyond personhood than simply person.
Photo from Monica Tobon
We can see in the Nicene Creed two kinds of information. Jesus born of Mary, executed by crucifixion and buried. This account comes from observation. But the facts are set within a different recital, which says: before the beginning of time Jesus was born as the only Son of God; at a point in time he became incarnate. It is only in recent times we have asked if religious statements were literally true – verifiable by observation. Our technology minded age is in danger of thinking that such verification is the only criterion of truth. As a result, new questions are being asked. One item in the Nicene Creed’s account of Jesus causes a special problem. It is not self-evident that and on the third day he rose again belongs to the first or second account. Saint Paul says if Christ is not risen then our hopes are in vain. We do not know whether Paul was thinking of the resurrection in the first or second recital.
We know that everywhere in Scripture, where we have testimonies of the risen Christ, mystery language is used – dazzling light, white garments, sudden appearances, ecstatic joy. No unbelievers had seen Jesus, and the guards told a different story. In effect, it doesn’t matter whether the resurrection belongs to the first or second recital, because the important issue is that it does hold the two recitals together. The apostles spoke from a faith experience, Jesus alive and present to them: something that changed everything for them. The evidence they gave was their own lives; alive in hope, joy and freedom – no longer cringing in that locked upper room – they were now living as a community of love and trust. Because they never asked was the Resurrection true as an observable fact, it never occurred to them to answer the question, and because they never asked or answered, we shall never know.
How could Jesus be truly human? Theology is never the study of God, but the study of man and his experience of God, because this is the only experience open to us. Focussing on Jesus is on a man in whose existence we have glimpsed the invisible God whose only image is man. In the experience of the man Jesus, especially in the way he met his death and his triumph over death, we have met the image of God who gives life and gives himself in a shocking and unique way, once and for all.