And the Lord said unto Noah, Come thou and all thy house into the ark; for thee have I seen righteous before me in this generation.
I was quite fortunate to have excellent Biblical professors at the Angelicum in Rome, though they might not have seemed as flashy as the Gregorian’s profs — 🙂 — and I recall studying Biblical apocalyptic literature. You see, the Book of Revelation is not a hapax (a single, unique instance of something that is otherwise without broader interpretive context) in ancient sacred texts. There were all sorts of similar texts written according to the same stylistic rules and using the very same imagery. In our day, we understand that cookbooks and IKEA manuals are not written in the same way as young adult fiction or romance novels or news journalism. How odd it would be if they were!
So also it is with sacred texts. Ancient Christians — like their Jewish, Syrian, and Greek contemporaries — understood the differences among sacred histories, didactic and instructional letters, religious poetry, and apocalyptic allegory. While the Book of Revelation is useful to the world even today — that’s why it made the cut when the books of the Christian New Testament were chosen in the Third and Fourth Centuries — it tells the story of what Christians in the Late First and Early Second Centuries were experiencing when the text was being created. It was the time of the great persecutions, the era of those countless martyrs I used to read about in the Roman Martyrology back in seminary days. It was a moment when truly it seemed as though there was no hope for this spiritual family. Despite the repeated and insistent declarations throughout the New Testament that Jesus having ascended was soon to return the world, He didn’t come back — at least not as we expected. Those first Christians, my spiritual ancestors, could see no hope of salvation from the endless darkness of the pit, but like Hananiah (חֲנַנְיָה), Mishael (מִישָׁאֵל), and Azariah (עֲזַרְיָה) my spiritual ancestors were delivered from the fires of torture — so also may it be in our day to those who suffer for the sake of faith and Family.
Pretiosa in conspectu Domini
Mors Sanctorum eius
The God of the Apocalypse appears to be a vengeful god of war, a deity who never bothered to learn the lessons of love and patience that you and I find scattered throughout the Bible. Or perhaps we have been thinking of the end of the world in the wrong way all along.
It is curious that after visiting upon the Earth a terrible cataclysmic event of annihilation, God beholds the ugliness of his destructive action and repents.
And the Lord smelled a sweet savour; and the Lord said in his heart, I will not again curse the ground any more for man’s sake; for the imagination of man’s heart is evil from his youth; neither will I again smite any more every thing living, as I have done. (Genesis 8:21)
Now, why is it that never in my entire life has anyone — whether teacher, preacher, or colleague — declared how utterly out of sorts the so-called apocalypse from the Book of Revelation is with the humility, tenderness, and love of God expressed in the story of Noah? Should we not hold God to His word? Or do we not in the secret of our hearts doubt His faithfulness?
We don’t read cookbooks and university history tomes (which are always obscenely overpriced!) and geographic maps and musical notation and children’s fairy stories with the same habitus mentis. (How many times will we ignore the clarion call of Blessed Pope Paul VI who possessed the vision of a coming world in which a novus habitus mentis would mean the difference between death and life?) Why would we read Biblical literature in a single, univocal manner that is sure to be bound by the limitations of our assumptions and prejudices?
Immediately following upon God’s repentance of his act of annihilation, God blessed Noah and his Family and then issued the command:
Be fruitful, and multiply, and replenish the earth. (Genesis 9:1)
God saw what a world devoid of life would be like and He changed His mind. If the prospect of a world without life so moved God, who are we to stand with arms crossed, cursing the heavens, and choosing to do nothing? Love for us compelled God to ensure that where life had disappeared it might return and grow and endure.
Let those who have eyes to see and ears to hear understand the mystery that even in this moment stands before them!
Somewhere I noted that it seems almost certain that life can arise throughout the Universe quite easily. But for life to continue and grow, for life to endure, the requisite circumstances and the needed relationships among natural realities are specific, rare, and easily set out of place. In other words, it’s easy for life to arise. It is incredibily difficult to keep life going.
You have heard it said: Be fruitful, and multiply, and replenish the earth.
But I say this to you: Be fruitful, and multiply, and vouchsafe throughout the Universe the gift of life that you have received.
Life itself is the pearl of great price that Jesus spoke of in a parable:
Again, the kingdom of heaven is like unto a merchant man, seeking goodly pearls: Who, when he had found one pearl of great price, went and sold all that he had, and bought it. (Matthew 13:45-46)
There is no sacrifice, no difficulty, no danger, no obstacle that is more important than the sacred duty we have only recently come to understand. We must be stewards of God’s creation. We must realize the potential we have as creatures made in God’s image. For too long each of us has chosen to read sacred words without touching their transcendent meaning. We have settled with a lazy engagement of sacred texts and thereby rendered them a dead word.
But the Word is not dead. It is ever-living and dwelling in the heart of every human being. In your heart and in mine. And in the hearts of all beings like us, wherever they dwell and whatever material forms they take. It is the same Word that manifested itself to me in the tender love of the grandmother whose death 25 years ago I commemorate today.
Perhaps upon dwelling with the history of the last century you have, as I have, perceived that the very same people, the Chosen Sons and Daughters of Israel, whom the Nazifascists reviled and despised, they themselves imitated — at least in the mistaken and perverted image that they had created. You see, the purpose of any people becoming a chosen people is not that they might close themselves off to the world hiding their light beneath a bushel-basket, but that they might transform and teach the world the wondrous things that every human being — Jew, Nazi, atheist, grandfather, and even a pope — is able to manifest to the world and to the Universe when they come together as a Family and begin to love one another.
If only our hearts were not imprisoned behind walls that make us slaves even as they promise us safety. Rather, where there is an empty place, infinite possibilities arise.
Somewhere I wrote:
In the place of the empty heart
An unfailing light will arise
Can you not see that the dawn is upon us? Awake, ye sleepers! Together let us greet the Lord — to paraphrase that venerable hymn of a venerable people.
One final thought: I cannot help but wonder if our world might yet have helpers who would gladly attend to us in moments of supreme trial. In the ancient sacred texts we read of angels — heavenly beings — sent by the Lord to guide, enlighten, and protect His people. The world has not yet understood the precariousness of all that we hold dear for we are closer to an apocalypse than we care to know. Perhaps we’ve been waiting for God to give us helper angels. Or maybe it’s time for us to show the world and the Universe what we human beings of Earth can do when we unite as the Family.
[Just imagine the possibilities for the Universe if we humans of Earth were to join together with heavenly angels, those strange, beautiful, benevolent beings I once wrote about!]
November 23, 2017
[at the commemoration of Grandma Carol’s passing]