The Infinite Value of the Human Face

The recent decision of the government to block the Lords’ amendment to allow just 3,000 unaccompanied children to find refuge in the UK, despite the shocking reality of children homeless throughout Europe, sexual violence and trafficking, has forced me to think about me what is, in some ways, the most extraordinary aspect of the Christian faith: our belief in the inherent dignity of every human person. Today, with some significant exceptions, the idea that persons have an inviolable dignity and certain basic rights is
enshrined in international law and human conscience, but the world into which Christ was born was not like this. This short blog post is an attempt to remember where this belief came from and to express it with a distinctively Christian character.

In our daily lives we meet dozens of people: those we love with all our hearts, those we tolerate, those who barely tolerate us and those we actively dislike. This is the reality of our fallenness, a deeply rooted feeling that our life, and the lives of those we like, are more important than the people we don’t like. But, in God’s sight, all this is turned upside down – to him, every human person is infinitely precious. Every human face is worth everything, every human face is worthy of the great gift of God’s own life and love. There are no exceptions to this rule, no matter how twisted in on ourselves in sin and pride God infinitely loves who you are; he knows you, longs to bring you to life and has loved you for all time, even to death. The infinite scope of God’s shameless and extravagant love makes a mockery of our petty daily judgements about people: that sense that some people are more valuable than others, those pathetic judgements that say that the more useful a person is the more valuable they are to society (a judgement at the heart of the current UK government) – all this is revealed as the sin that it is because, for God, every single being is supremely worthwhile, they are of immeasurable valuable.

For most of us, although it’s a struggle (and I speak as a sinner to sinners), this makes sense in a way – of course, just because I don’t like Michael very much doesn’t mean God loves him any less – but, what about the members of ISIS? What about those who make martyrs of Christ’s sisters and brothers every day? This is where things gets tough – but the witness of the Messiah walking to Calvary bearing the Cross still stands; every human life is worthy of this supreme gift. The Lord sees the face of every suicide bomber, every rapist, every person that ever hurt us and sees the face of a beloved child who has forgotten him and who he longs to return to the arms of his Love.

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The 21 Coptic Christian Martyrs – executed at the hands of ISIS last year.

We face difficult decisions in the world at this time: how many refugees can we provide homes for? How do we deal with the huge threats to our civilisation posed by ISIS and those like them? But, as disciples of Christ, all of these discussions are framed in the context of God’s infinite and costly love for every human face: to kill is always a tragedy and never a triumph.

The Qur’an has one of the most profound reflections on this reality in its second chapter:

And [mention, O Muhammad], when your Lord said to the angels, ‘Indeed, I will make upon the earth a successive authority.’ They said, ‘Will You place upon it one who causes corruption therein and sheds blood, while we declare Your praise and sanctify You?’ Allah said, ‘Indeed, I know that which you do not know.’

The angels protest to Allah at the creation of humanity – don’t you realise all the violence and corruption they will bring? We, the angels, praise and bless you, why on earth do you need these humans to be your ‘successive authority’, isn’t that just a terrible idea? And God replies, ‘I know that which you do not know’. There is an infinite glory to the human race, a beauty which the angels could not comprehend (in our tradition we have the same insight in the tradition that Satan falls because he refused to venerate Adam). Despite all the horror of the human race, there is such capacity of love and self-sacrifice, such a hidden strength and power to do good that God created us in an act of pure love. He did not need us, the life of the Trinity is entirely sufficient, but he created us for his glory – he created us to incarnate his love and to praise, through messy broken lives, the one who is Life and Truth and Love.

In this season of Easter, where we celebrate the victory of Christ over sin and death we are reminded that our God has taken the immense risk of human life and has defeated all the arrogance and violence of this world through the witness of his vulnerability and obedience – in his love which suffers for the world, he has swallowed up our pride and hatred and burst from the tomb in decisive victory. This reality ought to frighten us: the world has changed, there is a new creation, and we long for that perfect day when his Kingdom is manifest.

Come, Lord Jesus. Alleluia.

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St. Anselm and the Cross of Christ

This post is dedicated to my sisters and brothers in the Cymry’r Groes, Llanelwy – the Welsh People of the Cross in St. Asaph. A new group of dedicated young people in the diocese who are seeking to be faithful disciples in the way of the Cross. St. Anselm of Canterbury, Pray for us!

When talking to Christians in Cambridge, I’ve realised the prevalance of a truly regrettable interpretation of the Cross and, on this great feast of St. Anselm (whose book Cur Deus Homo provides an alternative reading of the Cross), it seems an appropriate time to (briefly) blog about it here. The view I often hear is relatively simple: the bloody sacrifice of the Son on the cross was “satisfying” to the Father, it was an appeasement to a God infinitely angry at sinful humanity. In this theology, the crucified Jesus is like an innocent c1crucifx.jpghild thrown into the fiery mouth of a pagan divinity in order to assuage its fierce wrath.

‘God so loved the world, that he sent his only Son, that all who believe in him might have eternal life.’

But what ultimately refutes this twisted theology is the oft quoted passage from St. John’s Gospel: ‘God so loved the world, that he sent his only Son, that all who believe in him might have eternal life.’ St. John definitively reveals that it is not out of anger or vengeance or in a desire for retribution that the Father sends the Son, but precisely out of love. God the Father is not some pathetic pagan divinity whose bruised personal honour needs to be restored; rather God is a loving Father who burns with compassion for his children who have wandered away from him and into danger.

Does the Father hate sinners? No, but he hates sin. Does God harbour indignation and wrath toward the unjust? No, but God despises injustice. Thus God sends his Son, not hoping to see him suffer to satisfy to his anger, but compassionately to set creation right, to recreate us.

St. Anselm, the great medieval theologian whose feast day is today, who is often unfairly blamed for this cruel theology of satisfaction, was perfectly clear that this was not what he meant! We sinful humans are like diamonds that have fallen into the mud. Made in the image of God, we have soiled ourselves through violence and hatred. God, claimed Anselm, could have simply pronounced a word of forgiveness from heaven, but this would not truly have solved the problem. It would not have restored these precious diamonds to their original brilliance. Instead, in his passion to recreate the beauty of creation, God entered into the mud of sin and death, brought the diamonds up, and polished them to their original radiance.

To do this of course, God had to get dirty. This sinking into the dirt—this divine solidarity with the lost—is the “sacrifice” which the Son makes to the infinite pleasure of the Father. It is the sacrifice expressive, not of anger or vengeance, but of unimaginable compassion.

Jesus said that any disciple of his must be willing to take up his cross and follow the Master. If God is self-forgetting love even to the point of death, then we must be such love. If God is willing to break open his own heart, then we must be willing to break open our hearts for others. The Cross, in short, must become the very structure of our Christian life.

We glory in your cross, O Lord,
and praise and glorify your holy resurrection:
for by virtue of the cross,
joy has come to the whole world.

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Good Shepherd Sunday (2016)

The Gospel reading for this Sunday:
‘At that time the festival of the Dedication took place in Jerusalem. It was winter, and Jesus was walking in the temple, in the portico of Solomon. So the Jews gathered around him and said to him, ‘How long will you keep us in suspense? If you are the Messiah, tell us plainly.’ Jesus answered, ‘I have told you, and you do not believe. The works that I do in my Father’s name testify to me; but you do not believe, because you do not belong to my sheep. My sheep hear my voice. I know them, and they follow me. I give them eternal life, and they will never perish. No one will snatch them out of my hand. What my Father has given me is greater than all else, and no one can snatch it out of the Father’s hand. The Father and I are one.’’ – John 10.22-30

This Sunday is known as Good Shepherd Sunday, a chance to reflect on this great teaching of Christ in St. John’s Gospel. For early Christians, long before depictions of the Crucifixion became common, it was the image of Christ the Good Shepherd which was most ubiquitous. In this homily, I am going to focus especially on those beautiful words, ‘my sheep hear my voice. I know them, and they follow me.’ Cardinal Newman once said that, although writing and arguments can leave us cool, ‘a voice can melt us’ and he’s

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Christ the Good Shepherd from the Catacombs in Rome

right. While an article or book can leave us unmoved, the sound of someone’s voice, even saying similar things, can make our hearts catch fire! My grandpa is a Frank Sinatra fan, a man known simply as ‘the Voice’ – even in old age, his voice would so move people that the orchestra would put down their instruments to hear him speak or sing. Voices are important to all of us, even now I can hear the voice of my nana (probably reading this post) telling stories to us as children – sometimes, when I’m reading, I hear them in her story-telling voice. Voice’s matter to us, they stir our hearts and kindle our imaginations.

It is, in many ways, the great mystery of Christianity that our faith is not a set of propositions that we all agree to, nor is it simply a philosophy of life, it is, deep down in its heart, a relationship with someone; someone who has voice. Our faith didn’t begin with the reasoned speculation of a social theorist or the musings of a philosopher, but when a group of women and men sat at the feet of Yeshua of Nazareth and he set their hearts on fire with his teaching. Paul evocatively tells us that ‘faith comes from hearing’ and I’m sure the first disciples would agree. I often wonder, especially when I’m on retreat and find myself with some time to spare, wondering what he sounded like. What was his voice like? Did his eyes twinkle when he spoke of his Father’s kingdom? Did his passion frighten the disciples? I am sure those first disciples never forgot the sound of voice, it was, I imagine, what sustained them even as they suffered so much for the sake of his name.

“Our faith began when a group of women and men sat at the feet of Yeshua of Nazareth and he set their hearts on fire”

After his resurrection, when Christ appeared to his disciples he told them, ‘I am with you always’ and echoed his promise that ‘whenever two or three are gathered together in my name, then I will be with them.’ We too hear his voice. We hear him when the Gospel is proclaimed in the Eucharist. It is our great privilege not just to read the Bible alone (which is, of course, a wonderful thing to do) but to hear it proclaimed to us: to glimpse the voice of Jesus when the Scriptures are carried into the heart of the congregation and proclaimed to us. We also hear the voice of Jesus in the preaching of the Church – this is his living voice, especially in the bishops and priests who Christ ordains to preach the Gospel. Through the Church, despite everything, the living voice of Christ rings out and the truth of the Gospel is preached in every generation.

As I said in my last post, we here the voice of Christ in our conscience, the primal sanctuary of our hearts. We call the pull of our conscience a ‘voice,’ because it speaks us to more powerfully than any other feeling. We have begin to attune ourselves to hear the voice of Christ in our own hearts. The voice of Christ comes to us from other places, especially in the words of good spiritual friends – our parish priests, our friends at dinner, our families – those voices which comfort and challenge us, which call us to higher ideals and refuse to let us get comfortable where we are but urge us on to a more meaningful relationship with Christ. Our spiritual friends, in persona Christi, pick us up when we fall and form part of that ‘great cloud of witnesses’ which urges us on.

One thing the first hearers of this teaching knew instinctively, but we have to be reminded, is that sheep respond only to the voice of their own shepherd and no one else. Sheep, however dumb, know their shepherd and follow him. For us, the sheep of Christ’s flock, this means trying to discern the voice of Christ in the midst of the cacophony of voices which surround us everyday. Politicians, authors, cultural leaders, our friends, and so many other voices are always leading us in different directions. How do we know whom to follow? How do you listen for the voice of Christ amongst so much competing noise? Those who are formed in the Christian life begin to recognise Jesus’ voice amidst the noise. Those who are fed by Christ’s body and blood in the Mass, who hear and meditate on his words in Scripture and remember that he has chosen to identify himself with the poor and the unloved begin to recognise the voice of the Shepherd. Like musicians who can pick out the right tune in a host of competing noises, so the disciple of Christ can recognise the Master’s voice and follow.

But why do we follow Yeshua? Why is this Jesus, born as he was 2016 years ago, raised in the backwater town of Nazareth and, like so many others, meeting a violent end on the Cross of the Roman authorities? Jesus gives us the answer here, ‘I give them eternal life, and they will never perish.’ We don’t listen to Christ to become more ethically upright, to be more charitable people or to orientate ourselves more towards social justice (although, these will follow from faithful discipleship!), any spiritual guru or even a good politician can teach you to do this. We endeavour with all our hearts to follow Christ because he leads us to eternal life. Jesus leads his sheep to the life of heaven where we shall never perish – where we will see God face to face and rejoice to dance with all the saints before the tabernacle of God for ever.

The eternal life to which we are drawn is a supernatural reality, it is our citizenship with the blessed in the eternal feast of heaven but it also transforms our life today. The Good Shepherd laid down his life for us that we might ‘have life and have it abundantly’ – that we might live in the glory and joy of his Risen Life now! Everything you and I do should bring us closer to this end – nothing, no one can separate you from the flock of the Shepherd who knows you and holds you save in his hand. Learn to hear his voice, meditate on his words in your heart, tune your ears to the voice which calls you to life and stay firm in the hope that he has set before you.

‘Now may the God of peace, who brought again from the dead our Lord Jesus,
the great shepherd of the sheep, by the blood of the eternal covenant,
make you perfect in every good deed to do his will,
working among us that which is well pleasing in his sight,
through Jesus Christ,to whom be the glory for ever and ever. Amen.’
– Hebrews 13.20-21

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With the Help of God: Conscience and Amoris Laetitia

Very hastily written thoughts on human conscience

‘Teach me to do what pleases you, for you are my God’ – Psalm 143.10

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Francis, Pope of Mercy

Pope Francis’ Amoris Laetitia (The Joy of Love) has rightly received much attention in both the Christian and secular press: it represents both a restatement of the extravagant and beautiful Christian doctrine of marriage and family life but also a significant shift in the pastoral focus of the Catholic Church. The Pope, fittingly in this Year of Mercy, encourages the pastors of the Church to meet people where they are and walk with those whose situation falls short of the demands of Christian marriage – especially the divorced and remarried. As one would expect, it retains an absolute condemnation of homosexuality (although, as I am arguing in an essay at the moment, there is a not insubstantial change in this teaching) but, this aside, I wanted to briefly discuss a central focus of Pope Francis’ apostolic exhortation and one I think is worth holding in mind in the midst of current Anglican disputes over the recognition of same-sex marriage: the role of conscience.

 

The Pope’s exhortation repeatedly asserts the sovereignty of human conscience as ‘man’s most secret core, and his sanctuary,’ the place where the voice of God ‘echoes in his depths’ and the heart communes with God and seeks His will in our lives (quoted by Pope Francis from Gaudiem et Spes, §16). In the Christian conscience, God directs our hearts to what is right and helps us to make the demands of the Gospel our own as we journey as Christ’s disciples. Of course, we often act against our consciences, but God’s still, small voice always draws us back to the Way of Christ. It is for this reason, claims Amoris Laetitia, that the Church is ‘called to form consciences, not replace them’ [§37].

How does God’s voice make itself known in our conscience? In a myriad of beautiful, profound and often surprising ways! God deals with us as individuals and speaks to us as beloved children, there is no ‘one size fits all’ with the God who notices even a sparrow falling to the ground. In some people, God’s activity manifests as a sharp pang of conscience, reminding them that what they are doing is wrong. In others, it is an irresistible invitation to a new and fuller life. In other it is a comforting feeling of consolation which follows making a good decision. Sometimes it is a vivid feeling of closeness to the divine that comes to us in the midst of prayer. We cannot sum up the countless, varied and manifold ways in which God reaches into the lives of his people and stirs our hearts. Emotions, desires, insights, memories, feelings – all of these are ways God works through our hearts.

This may seem wishy-washy and critics of faith may dismiss all of this as pious-claptrap. But it is nothing of the sort. Thomas Aquinas famously said that ‘all that is against conscience is sin’ (Summa II.i.19.5) and even the teachings of spiritual hierarchs are to be ignored if they contradict our conscience. Of course, as Francis also affirms, we are not referring to our merely human understanding of right and wrong but to a formed conscience, which knows the Gospel and is shaped by a loving relationship with Jesus Christ in the sacraments of the Church, private prayer and the reading of Scripture. But, for those engaged in this lifelong process, the voice of our conscience is a powerful, God-given thing, calling us onwards in our discipleship and shaping us into Christ likeness.

‘What we do know is this: when he is revealed, we will be like him, for we will see him as he is.’ (1 John 3.2)

We ought to remember this when we discuss the difficult moral questions of our time, whether it be abortion, same-sex marriage or all those whose lives fall short of the ideal taught by the Church. In his always revolutionary tone, Francis reminds us: ‘A pastor cannot feel that it is enough simply to apply moral laws to those living in ‘irregular’ situations, as if they were stones to throw at people’s lives.’ [305]

All of this stems from the striking fact of Christian spirituality – that God works in all our lives, to bring us fullness of life and direct us. In the beloved words the Lord spoke to Jeremiah: ‘for surely I know the plans I have for you, says the Lord, plans for your welfare and not for harm, to give you a future with hope.’ To every single person, Pope or prisoner, gay, lesbian or straight, faithful or faithless, God can speak these words and, as he forms our conscience in the ways of Christ, he continues to help, guide and comfort each one of us. Which is, I would argue, something the Church ought to remember as it ‘lays down the law’ on same-sex marriage.

What a friend we have in Jesus, 
all our sins and griefs to bear! 
What a privilege to carry 
everything to God in prayer! 
O what peace we often forfeit, 
O what needless pain we bear, 
all because we do not carry 
everything to God in prayer. 

Have we trials and temptations? 
Is there trouble anywhere? 
We should never be discouraged; 
take it to the Lord in prayer. 
Can we find a friend so faithful 
who will all our sorrows share? 
Jesus knows our every weakness; 
take it to the Lord in prayer. 

Read Amoris Laetitia in full here.

The Church in Acts and Beyond

These are unformed thoughts following the consulation today over the possibility of unifying Mission Areas (like CofE Deaneries) into large single parishes… 

Peter and the apostles answered, ‘We must obey God rather than any human authority. The God of our ancestors raised up Jesus, whom you had killed by hanging him on a tree. God exalted him at his right hand as Leader and Saviour, so that he might give repentance to Israel and forgiveness of sins. And we are witnesses to these things, and so is the Holy Spirit’ – Acts 5, set for today.

This Sunday in St. Mary’s, Mold we held our Annual Vestry Meeting, at which was discussed, amongst other things, the future pattern of ministry in the Diocese of St. Asaph. We were consulted on the possibility of converting Mission Areas into (effectively) very large parishes, with a priest leading a large team across as many as 15+ churches. I expressed my serious concerns about this move in the meeting, but thought it was interesting to bring all this to bear on ecclesiology (the theology of the Church). Fittingly, the reading for this Sunday included Acts 5.27-32, which I will use as the basis of my discussion.

The Acts of the Apostles is, I think, one of the least well understood books of the New Testament, it is quite long and appears to be a jumble of stories about the early days of the Church with little to unify its narrative. However, to begin to find “the message of Acts,” one must understand it as complimenting and extending the Gospel of St. Luke, clearly written by the same person, and thus its purpose is to testify to the lasting effects of the resurrection of Jesus Christ. The resurrection of Christ, proclaims the Acts of the Apostles, is an event with real world consequences – the resurrection changes people’s lives and it changes the world. The Book of Acts reminds us of the transforming power of the resurrection, which continues to gain momentum in history in the life of the Church. The Church, as Acts understands it, is much more than an institution or social club – the Church, quite literally, is the power of Christ’s resurrection unleashed into the world. Acts presents the Church with a straightforward mission statement: to imbue the world with the divine life, known in the presence of the risen Lord Jesus.

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Pentecost: the sending of the Holy Spirit to give power to the Church.

Today’s reading from Acts 5 is making this exact point. Note how the  apostles are descried as continuing to do the kind of wonderful and miraculous things which Christ himself did. In other words, the Church continues the mission of Christ in the world – what he did, his disciples must do. Acting in Jesus’ name, a common theme in Acts, means acting like Jesus himself.

This Biblical vision of the Church, proclaimed in this reading at the Eucharist today, challenges the status quo which sadly seems to prevail amongst many, that the Church is merely an institution that is expected to provide faith based services to its members. In this false (but common) construal of the Church, being a Christian is reduced to being a passive recipient of services provided by the employees of a religious corporation. In this institutional pseudo-Church, no divine life is necessary and the power of the resurrection is effectively absent.

This is not the Church, in fact it is really an anti-church. The true Church, in communion with the apostles, is one where the disciples of Jesus are willing to take the great risks that come when you seek to continue the mission of the Crucified Christ – there is much danger, but also true joy, in seeking to accomplish in our own place and times the very things that Christ accomplished in first century Palestine.

The Christian faith professes that Christ really and truly died and that he is now really and truly alive. The resurrection is categorically not a metaphor or a symbol, it is not a feeling or an idea, it is a real, historic event – an event that changes history and gives us hope that, despite the awful mess that the world is often in, God is working his purpose out. God in Christ has the power to set things right and that despite the fear-filled shadow of death into which we must walk, he is a light that is cast into the dark. The power of Christ is revealed in his resurrection and the Church which springs from this great moment.

So, what does this have to do with the way the Church in Wales is structured in 2016? In short, everything.

The Church, if it is to be true to its history as it is shown to us in the Acts of the Apostles and beyond, must be a place where the power of Christ’s resurrection is experienced and given concrete expression. A place where the things Christ did are repeated: where God is worshipped; bread is broken; new life is experienced; and the world healed: the Church must be a place where the sick find peace, the sinner finds pardon, the marginalised finds home. If it cannot do this, it is not the Church of Christ.

My fear for a system in which a single priest is called to administer a vast number of parishes is that the life-giving power of Christ will not be known – we will be a Church where the Eucharist, the source and summit of the resurrection life, is not celebrated and churches are left fighting just to keep the roof on and have no time/energy to continue Christ’s work of ministry in the world. I believe that the existing model of a parish gathered around the celebration of the Eucharist, led and encouraged by their parish priest, has the potential not only to save the Church institution but also to transform the world.

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The ordination of Fr. Sam Erlandson to the priesthood by Bishop Gregory of St. Asaph

By having a stipendiary priest in every parish (even if that means multiple churches) is not about the parish priest doing everything and everyone else just receiving her ministry – it means that the parish priest can minister to the congregation, celebrating the Mass and preaching the Gospel, so that people are inspired to go out and minister to the world. The congregation, encouraged and equipped by the priest, can do the things our Lord did: visiting the sick, reading and studying the scriptures, praying for all people and working to build the Kingdom in our communities and the world. This is the ancient pattern of the Church: the Bishop, successor to the apostles, ordains and sends out priests to celebrate the sacraments, preach the gospel and encourage the diverse congregations of his/her diocese and these priests encourage others to go out and minister to the world around. This is the ecclesiology of Acts and remains the wisdom of the Church throughout the ages.

I fear that the alternative is a bland and admin-focussed order of priests, who are not called to equip or inspire but principally to make sure the multitude of churches in his care are able to get by another year. Where is the glorious power of the resurrection? Where is the bold and faithful proclamation of the Gospel? Who is the priest called to be in this context?

The Church does not need to be fearful of the future – we have the great hope of the resurrection – we are Christ’s body in the world and we must do the things we saw him do and obey no human authority. Our authority is Christ, who commands us to love and serve the world, announcing the forgiveness of sins and the coming of a new age.

The Lord is God; he has given us light
link the pilgrims with cords
right to the horns of the altar.
You are my God and I will thank you
you are my God and I will exalt you. – Psalm 148, set for today. 

‘Let all corners of the earth be glad…’

Be glad, let earth be glad, as glory floods her,
ablaze with light from her eternal King,
let all corners of the earth be glad,
knowing an end to gloom and darkness. – The Exsultet (Easter Proclamation)

The highlight of the liturgy of the Easter Vigil is the Exslutet, the great proclamation of Easter, sung in the light of the new Paschal Candle. The Exsultet proclaims the resurrection of Christ, calling on the Angels to sound the trumpet of salvation; the Church to resound with praise and the whole of creation to be glad – ‘ablaze with light from her eternal king.’ Creation, then, forms the ancient heart of this greatest hymn of praise. In our own day concerns about ecology are rising; climate change, pollution, and the unnatural extinction of plants and animals is causing us to question the way we treat the natural world. I firmly believe that the Christian response ought to be a return to the doctrine of creation, the centrality of which can hardly be overemphasised. The doctrine of creation is simple: all things were created by God, who saw it was ‘very good’ (Gen. 1.31) and affirms its value in his own eyes. We human beings are created in the divine image, as part of this community of life, in order to till and care for it, not to destroy it (Gen. 2.15).

The Exsultet proclaims that creation, gladdened by the joy of the resurrection, is intimately bound up with the life of Jesus of Nazareth, the Word incarnate through whom and for whom all things were made (Romans 11.36). At the core of our faith is the truth that in Jesus Christ God became a human being in order to redeem us, in the words of the Christmas Gospel – ‘the Word was made flesh and dwelt among us’ (John 1.14). The Word is the second person of the Trinity, God’s own self-communication, uttered from all eternity and flesh refers to what is material, vulnerable, invite and what is not divine. This is the radical claim of our faith: God became what is not God, he became material in order to save us.

While, of course, the writers of the Exslutet would have been aware of the related doctrines of creation and incarnation, they could not have predicted how modern scientific discovery would enhance and colour this doctrine in the last two centuries. We now know that our human flesh is part of the great chain of evolution on earth, which in turn is part of one solar system within trillions, which in turn came into being as part of a long cosmic history.

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The prevailing scientific theory is that everything that exists comes from a single blazing instant around 13.7 billion years ago; a single speck explodes in what is (inelegantly) known as the Big Bang – an immeasurable outpouring of matter and energy which continues to this day. As this material expanded, its lumpy unevenness allowed swirling galaxies to form as the force of gravity pulled particles together and their dense friction ignited the stars. Roughly five billion years ago some of these ageing stars died. They exploded into great supernovas, which fused basic hydrogen into more complex elements. Out of these clouds of dust and gas, some material reformed and re-ignited to become our Sun, a second-generation star. Some coalesced into chunks too small to catch fire these formed the planets of our solar system—including Earth.

Three and a half billion years ago on this planet (and, almost certainly on others) there began another momentous change – molecules coalesced to form living cells. Over aeons these developed into creatures that could ‘be fruitful and multiply’ and life is born. So, out of the Big Bang comes stars; from stardust comes the Earth; out of the raw matter of the Earth comes life. This life burst forth from the life and death of single-celled creatures into an advancing tide: trilobites, fish, amphibians, insects, flowers, birds, reptiles, and mammals, among whom came human beings—mammals with brains so complex that we experience self-conscious intelligence and freedom.

This scientific story, teaches us that everything is connected to everything else. In the famous words of Arthur Peacocke (scientist and theologian), ‘every atom of iron in our blood would not be there had it not been produced in some galactic explosion billions of years ago and eventually condensed to form the iron in the crust of the Earth from which we have emerged.’ Quite literally human beings are made of stardust. And, more than that, we share with all other living creatures a common genetic ancestry in the great community of life.

While the human capacity for thought and love are unique, they are not something injected into the universe from outside. Rather, they are the flowering in us of deeply cosmic energies. In the human species nature becomes conscious of itself and open to fulfilment in grace and glory. In the words of the Jewish philosopher Abraham Heschel, this makes human beings the “cantors of the universe,” able to sing praise and thanks in the name of all the rest.

When we understand the human species in these terms, as an intrinsic part of cosmic matter, this hugely enriches the way we understand the incarnation. From this perspective, the human flesh that the Word became is part of the vast body of the cosmos. This is called by theologians “deep incarnation,” as it expresses this radical divine reach into the very tissue of all biological existence and the wider system of the cosmos. Like all human beings, Jesus carried within himself the traces of supernovas and the whole history of life on earth. The genetic structure of his cells made him part of the whole community of life that descended from common ancestors in the ancient seas. The flesh that the Word became thus reaches beyond Jesus and other human beings to encompass the whole biological world of living creatures and the cosmic dust of which we are composed.

This “deep” way of reflecting on the incarnation provides an important insight. By becoming flesh the Word of God confers blessing on the whole of earthly reality in its material dimension, and beyond that, on the cosmos in which the Earth exists. Rather than being a barrier that distances us from the divine, this material world becomes a sacrament that can reveal divine presence. Christians must turn away from anything that is world-denying – instead, far from spiritual contempt for the world, we are to ally ourselves with the living God by loving the whole natural world, which is all part of the flesh that the Word became. Again, in the words of the Exsultet:

O truly blessed night,
when things of heaven are wed to those of earth,
and divine to the human.

This perspective is radical, it calls each one of us to the upmost respect for creation because ‘the whole creation waits with eager longing for the revealing of the children of God’ (Romans 8.9). This world, created by the same God who entered into this incredible story two thousand years ago in Nazareth, is precious and beloved – it yearns in every atom for salvation. This perspective encompasses not only life on earth, but the life of every planet in the universe, for it is from stardust that all is made. From the Cross, Jesus spoke a word translated into Greek as τετέλεσται, ‘it is finished.’ In meditating on this we
remember that, on the Cross, Christ enters into the depth of our fragile creation – he experiences the reality common to all creatures; death. He accomplishes his great work of Recreation and forever charges the universe with his power and presence. In this perspective, it is no surprise that the Resurrection happened in a garden, for every budding flower and ancient tree cries out in triumph as our stardust is redeemed and all creation is charged with resurrection glory. Alleluia.

Now the green blade rises from the buried grain,
Wheat that in the dark earth many years has lain;
Love lives again, that with the dead has been:
Love is come again, like wheat that springs up green.mp5345web-900x900.png