On this Holy Mountain: Elizabeth Johnson

“On This Holy Mountain” LCWR & CMSM Assembly Denver, 8/2/2008
Elizabeth A. Johnson, CSJ
The Banquet of the Faith
It is a joy and a privilege to be with you, you courageous “fools for Christ” (1Cor 4:10)
who have
answered the call to the service of leadership in these demanding times. Past
assemblies of both LCWR and
CMSM have made it abundantly clear that in industrial nations with a secular culture,
such as the U.S. and
Canada. religious life is in an era of major transition with all the difficulties and turmoil
that attend such a
passage. Aging, diminishment, and death raise hard questions about the shape of
religious life in the future;
reconfiguring brings about strategic new institutional patterns of relationship; while
unexpected spiritual
experiences set loose fresh imagination and energies for mission. I have long been an
advocate of the
simple truth that we cannot chose when to be alive in history. We are born at a certain
moment, and have a
fleeting span of years to make our mark, for better or worse. So, stretched and strained
though it be, this
uncertain era is our time, the only time we will have. And it falls to you to lead!
To do this you need to be nourished, richly, at the very source of faith. For religious life is
grounded in relationship with the living God, anchored there so deeply that the
relationship sustains and
nurtures you despite all tribulation, and flows into strength for mission. The mountain
imagery that
inspires this assembly holds out the promise that the mountain will be a place for this
nourishment. As we
heard from the prophet Isaiah in our beautiful morning prayer: “On this holy mountain the
Lord of hosts
will make for all peoples a feast of rich food, a feast of wellaged
wines, of rich food filled with marrow,
and of wellaged
wines strained clear” (Isa 25:6). Here as elsewhere in scripture, a delicious meal that
nourishes the body serves as a metaphor for divine teaching that nourishes the spirit. In
this presentation, on
this holy mountain, I invite you to feast at the table of faith.
One key place to find a menu for this banquet is the creed, a brief summary of faith that
recite together in a spirit of prayer. There are several versions, undoubtedly the most
important being the
Nicene Creed, hammered out in the fourth century and widely used today ecumenically
across the divided
Christian churches. Parenthetically, all the world’s religions, both those that have gone
extinct and those
that exist today, tell stories about the world in the light of a sacred power that surrounds
and transcends
everything. This power, whether envisioned as personal or impersonal, singular or plural,
is the pivot
around which each story swings, grounding its meaningfulness and the way of life to
which it gives rise.
The Christian creed is such a story. Deeply rooted in the Jewish tradition of one creative,
liberating God, it
tells of Jesus the Christ (the Messiah, anointed one), who lived in firstcentury
Galilee, died on a cross
outside Jerusalem, and is present today through the power of the Spirit, the Lord and
Giver of life, who
works to bring all into unity toward the promised future: a world without tears. This is the
narrative about
God laid out in the creed, rich and wellaged,
filled with marrow and strained clear.
After a brief look at the opening words, we will reflect on each of the creed’s three
highlighting in each case two insights that emerge to enrich our minds and hearts.
Perhaps you might think
of this presentation as a banquet spread out before you, with the invitation to come and
eat, and be
nourished for the ministry of leadership.
Opening words
The creed’s opening words, “We believe,” signal that here we are engaged in act of faith.
This does
not mean primarily that we are giving intellectual assent to a series of truths. Rather,
saying “we believe”
means that we are also daring to base our lives on this story. Faith, in the biblical view,
is always a gift from
God that enables us to trust the One who has promised to be faithful. Martin Luther
(OSA!) put it this way:
faith is leaning your heart on God, who is the One on whom your heart depends,
inclines, relies, rests. At its
core, what does the creed make clear? That the indescribable mystery of the living God
is unimaginably
ear, pouring out merciful love in the midst of our darkness, injustice, sin, and death.
Faith means trusting
that this is true, leaning one’s heart on this Rock. In saying “We believe,” we are
reaching out to this Love
with our whole being, risking a relationship that has the power to transform our lives and
ministry. And we
are doing so together, as a community.
First Affirmation
The creed begins: “We believe in one God” … and goes on to affirm that the first
signature act of
this indescribable Holy One is to create all that exists, in heaven and on earth, whether
visible or invisible.
Just as people can see in an artistic work something of the artist who created it, so too
from biblical times
onward, people have noted that the beauty and power of the natural world can reveal the
glory of the unseen
God who made it. In the 13th century, the Franciscan theologian Bonaventure observed
this sharply:
“Whoever is not enlightened by the splendor of created things is blind; whoever is not
aroused by the sound
of their voice is deaf; whoever does not praise God for all these creatures is mute;
whoever after so much
evidence does not recognize the Maker of all things, is an idiot (stultus est ).” This
relationship of creation
sets up the sacramental principle, whereby God’s gracious presence is communicated
through visible
things. Sacramental theology has always taught that simple earthy things bread,
wine, water, oil, the
embodied, sexual relationship of marriage can
be bearers of divine grace. This is so to begin with because
the created world is the primordial sacrament, the primary vehicle of divine
blessing. “The world is
charged with the grandeur of God,” observed the poet Gerard Manley Hopkins, and the
creed begins by
affirming that God makes and loves the whole shebang.
This is traditional Catholic teaching. To it, contemporary scientific discovery is bringing a
edge with its awareness that the world was not made once for all in a static way, but has
evolved through a
dazzling array of changes to be the place we inhabit today. When seen with the eyes of
faith, this new
knowledge is brimming with insights about creation and its Maker. Consider:
Old .
About fourteen billion years ago a single numinous speck exploded in what is
called the Big Bang, an outpouring of matter and energy that is still going on. This matter
was lumpy,
spread out unevenly. Over time, this allowed gravity to pull particles together so that
their dense friction
ignited the stars. Galaxies formed; the lights went on in the universe. Five billion years
ago, some of those
stars got old, and died. They expired in great supernova explosions that cooked the
original hydrogen atoms
into heavier elements such as carbon and oxygen, spewing this debris into the cosmos.
Some of this cloud
of dust and gas reformed and reignited to become our sun, a second generation star.
Some of it coalesced
into chunks too small to catch fire, forming the planets of our solar system including
Earth. And then three
billion years ago on this planet, a new kind of explosion took place: life, creatures that
could replicate
The universe is old, and we humans have only recently arrived. In his book The Dragons
of Eden
Carl Sagan uses the year as a timetable for the coming to be of the earth. If the Big
Bang was on January 1st,
then our sun and planets came into existence September 10th. Human beings come on
the scene on
December 31 at ten minutes to midnight.
Large .
There are over 100 billion galaxies, each comprised of 100 billion stars, and no one
how many moons and planets, all of this visible matter being only a fraction of the total,
which includes
dark matter and dark energy in the universe. The earth is a small planet orbiting a
star toward
the edge of one spiral galaxy.
Dynamic .
Out of the Big Bang the stars; out of the stardust the Earth; out of the molecules of the
Earth, LIFE! Singlecelled
creatures at first, and then an advancing tide, fragile but unstoppable: creatures
that live in shells, fish, amphibians, insects, flowers, birds, reptiles, and mammals, from
among whom
emerged human beings, we primates whose brains are so richly textured that we
experience selfreflective
consciousness and freedom, or in classical terms, mind and will. Human thought and
love, we are learning,
are not something injected into the universe from without, but are the flowering, the
concentration, in us of
eeply cosmic energies. Matter, zesty with energy, evolves to life, then to
consciousness, then to spirit. We
human beings are earthlings, part and parcel of this planet, the part that has become
This makes
us human beings, in Abraham Heschel s beautiful phrase, the cantors of the universe,
those who can sing
praise and thanks in the name of all the rest.
As this cosmic history shows, everything is connected with everything else;
nothing conceivable is isolated. Why is our blood red? Scientist and theologian Arthur
Peacocke explains,
“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. Furthermore, the history of
evolution on
Earth makes evident that we all descend from those original living cells; we humans
share with all other
living creatures on our planet a common genetic ancestry. Bacteria, pine trees, horses,
the great gray whales
are all genetic kin in the great community of life.
When theology dialogues with this scientific story, at least two major insights emerge.
First, we see
that the Maker of heaven and earth is still in business. The stunning world opened up by
Big Bang
cosmology and evolutionary biology points to creation taking placed not just in the
beginning, but even
now, as the world takes shape into the future. God’s continuous creation operates not
just by sustaining the
world, but also by continuing to bring about what is new. How? When we query science
about how
evolution works, we learn that at every stage of the world’s history, randomness, chance,
plays a role. New
species emerge in ways that are intrinsically unpredictable. Things run along smoothly
until by chance
some slight change is introduced: a gene mutates due to bombardment by solar rays, or
a hurricane blows a
few birds off course to a new island, or the Earth is struck by an asteroid. This disrupts
smooth operations
almost to the point of breakdown. Then out of this disarray there emerges, from within
nature itself, a more
intricate order adapted to the new conditions.
Technically speaking, random events working within lawful regularities over eons of
deep time
have crafted the shape of the world that we inhabit today, and continue to do so. If there
were only law in
the universe, the situation would stagnate. If there were only chance, things would
become so chaotic that
no orderly structures could take shape. But chance working within nature’s laws disrupts
the usual pattern
while law holds it in check, and over millions of years their interplay allows the
emergence of genuinely
new forms of life.
This scientific knowledge implies that the Creator not only grounds nature’s regularities,
being the
source of law and order, but also empowers the interruptions of regularity that eventually
bring about what
is new. The Creator embraces the chanciness of random mutations, being the source
not just of order but of
the disruption that causes change to happen in the first place. Divine creativity is much
more closely allied
to disorder than our older theology ever imagined. In the emergent evolutionary
universe, we should not be
surprised to find divine creativity hovering very close to turbulence.
This story of continuous creative divine action leads to a second crucial realization. Far
from being
created merely as an instrument to serve human needs, the natural world enjoys its own
intrinsic value
before God. Theology in recent centuries has been very humancentered.
But ask yourself: what was God
doing for billions of years before we came along? Now we begin to realize that the world,
far from being
just a backdrop for our lives or a stage for our drama, is a beloved creation valued by
God for its own sake.
In our day human practices of consumption, pollution, and reproduction are wreaking
damage on our planet’s lifesustaining
systems of air, water, and soil, and the other creatures that form with
us one community of life. The picture darkens as we attend to the deepseated
connection between
ecological devastation and social injustice. Poor people suffer disproportionately from
damage; ravaging of people and ravaging of the land on which they depend go hand in
hand. Why, until
very recently, have we who confess that God created this world not risen up en masse in
defense of the
natural world? One reason is that through ancient theology’s engagement with Greek
philosophy, we have
3 inherited a
powerful dualism that splits all reality into spirit and matter, and then devalues
matter and the
body while prizing the spirit as closer to God. The task now is to develop a lifeaffirming
theology of the
earth/matter/bodies/, one that will do better justice to this world that God makes and so
In 1990, Pope John Paul II offered a strong principle to guide our behavior: “respect for
life and for
the dignity of the human person extends also to the rest of creation.” To Catholic ears, a
sentence that
begins with respect for life and the dignity of the human person most likely will end with
reference to the
life of the unborn. But this does not go far enough. We owe love and justice not only to
humankind but to
otherkind that shares our planet. Now the great commandment to love your neighbor as
yourself extends to
include all members of the life community. “Who is my neighbor?,” the lawyer asked
Jesus (Lk 10:29).
Riffing on the parable of the good Samaritan, our answer today needs to include not only
the human person
in need, the Samaritan, the outcast, the enemy all
of these, of course but
also the dolphin caught in tuna
nets, the polar bears on melting ice, the rain forest being slashed and burned. Our
neighbor is the entire
community of life, the entire universe. We must love it as our very self.
A flourishing humanity within a living Earth community in an evolving universe, all
together filled
with the glory of God: such is the vision that faith calls us to in this critical age of Earth’s
distress. To say
that we believe in the Maker of heaven and earth is to lean our heart on the Living One
who loves the whole
creation and, while reveling in its beauty, to assume responsibility for its life.
Second Affirmation
“We believe in one Lord Jesus Christ” … The banquet of faith does not finish with the
story of God
the Creator. In a totally surprising next course, the creed affirms that the Maker of
heaven and earth did not
rest content with simply creating, but at a given point in time also became personally a
child of Earth. The
creed recounts the story of Jesus’ coming into the world: born of Mary; suffered under
Pontius Pilate;
crucified, died, and buried; risen from the dead and promising to come again. This
historical narrative
receives its power from the insight that in this human being the transcendent God draws
radically near in
incarnation into human flesh, into earthly matter formed of stardust. A genuine member
of the human race,
he lived a real historical life from start to finish, “tempted in every respect as we are, yet
without sinning”
(Heb 4:15). One in being with us as to his humanity, Jesus is personally “one in being”
with the Father, the
divine Word expressed in finite terms. Here we are at the center of what is most
identifiably Christian about
Christian faith. The historical details, then, matter, for Jesus is God’s mercy in person.
What he does
discloses the character of God. Consider:
Jesus’ story starts out distressed. He was born into a poor family, laid in a manger, and
became a refugee fleeing into Egypt from a ruler’s murderous violence. In Gustavo
Gutierrez’s memorable
words, the advent of God in Christ is “an irruption smelling of the stable.” Thirty years
later Jesus sets the
theme of his ministry by quoting from the scroll of Isaiah: “The Spirit of the Lord is upon
me, because he
has anointed me to brings good news to the poor….” (Lk 4:16). What follows is indeed
good news in the
concrete as misery is met and transformed. Surrounded by his women and men
disciples, the Messiah heals
the sick, exorcizes those with demonic spirits, forgives sinners, gives assurances of
God’s care to those
whose lives are a heavy burden, and practices table companionship so inclusive that it
gives scandal. His
preaching in parables, centered on the reign of God, illuminates these actions. At the
heart of the disarming
love Jesus practiced and preached was his unswerving belief in the God of Israel, the
covenanting God of unrepentant, sheltering love, whom he called ‘abba .’ Together the
words and deeds of
his ministry destabilize the prevailing norm of who is first and who is last in God’s eyes,
beyond doubt divine solidarity with the widow, the orphan, the stranger, the vulnerable,
the weak and
neglected: those who struggle for life.
When theology dialogues with the gospel story of Jesus, at least two major insights
emerge. First,
the following of Jesus raises up a terrific countercultural challenge. In wealthy nations,
for example,
economically welloff
Christians engage in patterns of consumption that contribute to the destitution of
millions of poor people struggling for life around the world. Again, many privileged white
Christians act
counter to the dignity of people of color or immigrants from other countries. Again, the
church itself
continues to live by patriarchal values that, by any objective measure, relegate women to
governed by maledominated
structures, law, and ritual. The challenge of the gospel, made clear in Jesus’
own condemnation of patterns of domination/subordination, summons our consciences
to action on behalf
of justice that will transform exploitative structures, whether based on class, race,
ethnicity, gender, sexual
orientation, or any other marker by which we divide ourselves, in view of the coming
reign of God’s justice
and peace.
Divine predilection for history’s lowest and least does not mean that God opts only for
those who
are marginalized. Divine love is universal, not exclusive. But the story of Jesus leads us
to understand that
God has a particular care for those who are hurting. As Mary, the young Jewish woman
newly pregnant
with the Messiah, sings in her joyful canticle the Magnificat , God her Savior puts down
the mighty from
their thrones and lifts up the lowly; fills the hungry with good things but sends the
uncaring rich away
empty (Lk 1: 5253).
This is what is meant by a love that does justice, the kind of love that enacts God’s
mercy in a broken world.
This reading of the ministry of Jesus and its implications is giving rise in theology to a
insight regarding his death. One of the worst theological ideas to take hold about this
event is that God
needed and even wanted the sacrifice of Jesus’ death in order to forgive human sin. This
idea gained legs in
the 11th century when the theologian Anselm of Canterbury crafted the socalled
satisfaction theory to prove
the necessity of the cross. Basing his argument on feudalism as it was practiced in his
society, he meant it as
a demonstration of God’s mercy:
just as disobedience offends the honor of the lord of the manor, which the vassal must
restore by a suitable act of satisfaction, so too our sin offends the Lord of the universe.
there is nothing we can do to restore divine honor, because we are finite. So the infinite
God became a human being, and died, thereby paying back the debt which we owed. So
you see, God’s mercy is greater than we could have imagined.
In context, Anselm’s insight highlights divine mercy. In the hands of lesser preachers,
however, this soon
became a toxic idea, namely, that our sins have so offended God that he demands
death as recompense.
Aquinas, Scotus, and others criticized this theory and the necessity that is so woven into
it, but it won the
day for the next thousand years.
Today, criticisms of this idea that God required the death of Jesus in order to forgive sin
are many.
Among them: it makes it seem that the main purpose of Jesus’ coming was to die, thus
diminishing the
importance of his ministry and ignoring the resurrection. In terms of spirituality, it glorifies
suffering more
than joy as a path to God. Liberation theology criticizes how it makes people passive in
the face of unjust
suffering rather than inculcate the will to resist. Feminist theology criticizes how it
portrays a father
handing over his son to death, connecting this with the experience of domestic violence
and child abuse.
Perhaps worst of all is the picture of God that results, a monarch whose offended honor
needs to be placated
by suffering. Compare this to the idea of God present in the major parables of Jesus. It is
as if in the parable
of the Prodigal Son the father says to the returning prodigal: No, you may not come in
until you have repaid
what you took away; so the older brother says I will help you; and then he works himself
to the bone in the
fields, finally dying of exhaustion; at which point the father says, alright, you can come in
now. You can see
how flatly this contradicts what Jesus taught about the mercy of God.
From an historical perspective, Jesus’ cruel death on the cross is the price he paid for
his ministry.
The Roman governor in collusion with religious leaders found him to be a threat, which
they eliminated.
But here, precisely where one would not expect to find divinity ~ amid torture and bloody
execution by the
state ~ the gospel locates the presence of God. Ecce homo : behold the human being,
behold the suffering
face of Jesus, who died crying out in agony, “My God, My God, why have you forsaken
me?” (Mk 15:34).
How then shall we understand the cross? Not as a death required by God in repayment
for sin, but as an
event of divine love whereby the Creator of the world entered into most intimate union
with human
suffering, sinfulness, and death in order to heal, redeem, and liberate from within.
Henceforth even the most
godforsaken person is not separated from the lovingkindness
and fidelity of God, even if they experience it
as absence.
The New Testament makes this clear by using at least a dozen other metaphors besides
to interpret the death of Jesus. While it does use temple cultic metaphors such as ritual
sacrifice, it also uses
business metaphors such as buying back and redeeming; legal metaphors such as
justifying / declaring
someone not guilty; military metaphors such as liberation and victory over the enemy;
political metaphors
such as reconciling and making peace; medical metaphors such as healing; family
metaphors such as
adoption; and maternal metaphors such as giving birth (Jesus died so we could be born
of God and become
children of God: the most frequently used interpretation in the gospel and letters of
John). Note that the
church has never defined the saving “work” of Christ the way it did the “person” of Christ
in official
councils. The insight that emerges today is that Jesus did not come to die, but to live,
and to help others live
in the joy of divine love. To put it boldly, God is not a sadistic Father, nor was Jesus a
passive victim of
divine decree of murder. Rather, his suffering, freely borne in love, in fidelity to his
ministry and his Abba ,
is precisely the way the gracious God has chosen to enter into solidarity with all those
who suffer and are
lost in this violent world, thereby opening up the promise of new life.
And promise there is. Such darkness in the Christian story puts into high relief the power
of the
resurrection, restoring it to the pivotal role it had in early Christian preaching. God raised
him up. Herein
lies the saving power of this paschal event: death does not have the last word. The
crucified one is not
annihilated but brought to new life in the embrace of God, who opens up the future in an
unexpected way.
The Easter Alleluia pledges that there will be a blessed future for all the dead. Rather
than endorsing
apathetic indifference, such belief impels Christians to enter the list of those who
struggle against injustice
for the wellbeing
of those who suffer, including all the crucified peoples cast off as if their lives had no
meaning for this is where God in Christ is to be found, trying to bring about joy in the
beloved creation
even here, even now.
Third Affirmation
“We believe in the Holy Spirit” … The banquet of the creed continues as the actions of
the Spirit of
God are brought out to the table. She ~ female metaphors are used in the Bible and the
mystical tradition ~
gives life (vivificantem !), inspires prophets, upholds the one, holy, catholic, and apostolic
consecrates people through baptism and the forgiveness of sins, and ensures the
resurrection of the dead and
the life of the world to come. For all the importance of these activities, the Spirit has a
rather nebulous
identity in the Christian imagination, unlike God the Creator and God incarnate in Jesus
Christ. Theologians
today liken the Holy Spirit to Cinderella, working away in the kitchen while the other two
get to go to the
ball. But like a mother knitting new life together in her womb; like a midwife working to
bring a child to
birth; like a laundrywoman
washing out stains and renewing the earth; like a motherbird
sheltering her
chicks under her outstretched wings; like the power of the wind, the warmth of fire, the
refreshment of cool
water, the Spirit is not far from any of us, being, as Paul said to the Greeks in Athens,
the One in whom “we
live and move and have our being” (Acts 17:28).
When theology dialogues with this neglected tradition of the lifegiving
Spirit, many insights
emerge. We focus here on two, having to do with anger and grief. Regarding the first, to
zero in on our own
situation, I will focus on the church. The Spirit’s power to unify, to form community,
pervades the whole
world. The Holy Spirit creates the communion of all created things with God and with
one another. Amid
this manyfaceted
reality, the Spirit forms the church, one, holy, catholic, and apostolic, that particular
community of disciples who carry forward the presence and mission of Jesus through
history. In Edward
Schillebeeckx’s telling words, “the church is the only real reliquary of Jesus in the world,”
making the love
f God which was revealed through his life, death, and resurrection tangible in every
new era. As an
institution, the church’s main purpose is not the promotion of individual piety and moral
living, important
though these are. First and last, the church is the sacramental presence of the selfgift
of God to the world, a
gift that promises a healing, liberating future that from God’s side is already victorious in
Christ. When the
church as the people of God lives up to its calling and succeeds in witnessing this grace
to the world, it is
the work of the Spirit. Making a daring but true connection, Augustine once preached to
his congregation
about to receive the Eucharist: “Receive these well, and you yourselves become what
you receive;” that is,
you become the Body of Christ, a crumb of bread in the loaf and a drop of wine in the
cup, meant to nourish
the world.
The problem, of course, is that as a community of human beings the church is also
sinful, always in
need of reform. In our day the entrenched clerical system of patriarchal power, in
addition to creating
conditions in which the sex abuse scandal could occur, has also at times been deeply
suspicious of the
charism of religious life and where it would lead the church. I think of incidents involving
the Jesuits and
social justice, of the option of so many women’s religious orders for a collegial style of
leadership and
obedience, etc. In these instances, the Spirit’s power to form community shows its
effectiveness, as the
creed confesses, by empowering the grace of forgiveness which can open up the future.
Let me illustrate
with an incident from my own bailiwick.
Some years ago, my colleague at Catholic University, Charles Curran, was under
investigation for
his teaching that differed with the church’s position on birth control (Humanae Vitae).
Summoned to appear
in Rome for questioning by Cardinal Ratzinger, he came out of the meeting knowing that
he had failed to
convince. He would be condemned as a Catholic theologian and fired from his faculty
position: a public
humiliation, a personal disaster, and by implication also a rejection of the many
theologians and bishops
whose thinking was also critical of this noninfallible
teaching on artificial contraception. The next day was
Sunday. Bernard Haring, the influential moral theologian who taught in Rome and was
Curran’s old
professor and mentor, celebrated Mass in a chapel for Curran and his university
advisors. The gospel
happened to be the Prodigal Son. Looking at Charlie, Haring’s homily went something
like this: at this time,
the church is the prodigal son. It is taking your treasure ~ your training, talent, reputation,
contribution ~
and wasting it, feeding it to the pigs. The Spirit of Jesus calls you to be the father in this
parable, not
rejecting but welcoming back the prodigal. Do you forgive the church? Häring went from
person to person
and looked them in the eye with this question. The Mass could not continue until they
wrestled with their
anger and allowed the Spirit to move them to a different place.
Forgiving does not mean condoning harmful actions, or ceasing to criticize and resist
them. But it
does mean tapping into a wellspring of compassion that encompasses the hurt and
sucks the venom out, so
we can go forward making a positive contribution, without hatred. This is the work of the
Spirit, reconciling
at the deepest level, so that community coheres and witnesses in a gracefilled
A second insight from this course of the feast addresses our grief, grief at the loss of
persons, of personal energies, of cherished patterns of life. The creed affirms the
resurrection of the body
and the life of the world to come. There is a simple logic here, that begins with the Maker
who creates
heaven and earth and ends with the Giver of life who brings about something more after
death. In both
cases we begin with virtually nothing: no universe in the beginning; no future for the
dead at the end. In the
first instance, the Spirit hovers over the chaos to create the world. In the end, the Spirit
moves again in a
new act of creation that carries persons through their earthly perishing into new life.
According to this logic,
hope in eternal life for oneself, others, and the whole cosmos is not some curiosity
tacked on as an
appendage to faith, but is faith in the one living God brought to its radical conclusion . It is
faith in the
Creator that does not stop halfway but follows the road consistently to the end, trusting
that the God who
had the first word will have the last, and it is the same word: let there be life. Divine
purpose in creating the
world is not annihilation but transformation into new creation. All the biblical images of
the endtime
~ the
wedding feast, light, banquet, harvest, rest, singing, homecoming, reunion, tears wiped
away, seeing face to
face, and knowing as we are known ~ these all point to a living communion in God’s own
life. We die not
into nothingness but into the embrace of God. The Holy Spirit, Giver of Life grounds this
consolation even
when tears of grief are streaming down our cheeks.
Circling back to the beginning of the creed where we considered the evolving universe,
we can see
that our human hope for eternal life actually expresses the dynamism of the universe
itself. Billions of years
before our appearance in evolution, the cosmos was already seeded with promise,
pregnant with surprise.
Our religious hope embodies this cosmic yearning. Rather than being an imaginary ideal
projected onto an
indifferent universe, as much modern and postmodern thought maintains, our hope
faithfully carries onward
the universe’s own perennial movement toward the future, promised but unknown.
Bodies break down,
chaos and disintegration ensue; but the Spirit, Lord and Giver of Life, has something
unimaginably more in
To End
There is much more to feast on, but for now we will conclude. At the end of praying the
creed, the
community says “Amen,” which means yes, so be it. So be what? The ancient and still
vibrant creed lays
out a very nourishing answer. It feeds us with knowledge that the living God, Creator and
Lover of the
whole world, while remaining forever ineffable mystery, draws near in the historically
tangible reality of
Jesus Christ and in our own experience of grace. This living God is present and active
from the beginning,
throughout every minute, and unto the end, to heal, redeem, and liberate, even when we
and the world face
a dead end. Saying “Amen” expresses the conviction that this Love exists as a reality
greater than any other,
and commits us to live by its light.
Over many centuries our ancestors in the faith were nurtured by this story, and then like
carrying a torch in a relay race, they handed it on to the next generation. Today, we are
the runners. The
German theologian Karl Rahner had a wise insight when several decades ago he
wrote, “The devout
Christian of the future will either be a mystic, one who has experienced something, or he
[she] will cease to
be anything at all.” One who has experienced something : to be a Christian, and in an
intense way to be one
who lives religious life, means to experience the truth of this creed, tasting its goodness,
and letting its
nourishment pervade our hearts and minds. Then, strengthened by this banquet, you
can carry on the
journey of religious life and the ministry of leadership, not because you are compelled,
but because of its
moral beauty and spiritual grace. Then to say “We believe in one God,” to lean our
hearts on this God, is to
hear a call to adventure.
And let the people say: Amen .