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.
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.