What is the water of life?
“Restoring, renewing and preserving the Creation is fundamental to establishing the Kingdom on earth.” These opening words of Margaret Barker’s short article are written to make us sit up and pay attention. COP26 – whatever our opinion about its successes and failures – has passed into history. But the challenge to “Restore, renew and preserve” God’s creation should be a constant desire of Catholic Christians.
This is no new thing. Yes, Pope Francis spoke eloquently about it in Laudato Si. But so had Pope Benedict (Section 51 of Caritas in Veritate) and Pope John Paul (Section 80 of Veritatis Splendor). Margaret will show us how the renewal of creation is a theme which runs throughout the Scriptures. But the heart of that renewal is God placing himself into the heart of his Creation by being born in human flesh. Strictly speaking, of course, this starts at the Annunciation, when the Blessed Virgin Mary conceives in her heart and in her womb. But God’s presence is made manifest in the mystery of the Nativity. The one who makes all things new is the one who lay in the manger, the one who fed at Mary’s breast.
The One who sat upon the throne said ‘Behold, I make all things new’. Revelation 21:5 (NRSV)
Restoring, renewing and preserving the Creation is fundamental to establishing the Kingdom on earth.
The final scenes of St John’s great vision in the Book of Revelation show the creation renewed and restored. His vision has moved from the horrors of the sixth seal when the world was collapsing, and everyone was trying to escape from the signs of the broken covenant (Revelation 6:12-17). He saw the birth of the Messiah and the battle against the great deceiver of the whole world, who was thrown down with his angels but knew that his time was short (Revelation 12:1-12). He saw the Word of God coming from heaven with a sharp sword in his mouth, which is his teaching (Revelation 19:11-16), and finally he saw Him enthroned and proclaiming: ‘Behold I make all things new’.
In Hebrew, ‘new’ and ‘renew’ are the same word, and so we have a promise that in the Kingdom, all will be restored as it was in the beginning. Or perhaps it means that the Kingdom is the state when all is restored, when God will again see everything he has made, and behold, it will be very good (Genesis 1:31). St John’s vision shows us the Garden of Eden restored, just as Jesus had promised: ‘To everyone who conquers, I will give permission to eat of the tree of life, that is in the Paradise of God.’ (Revelation 2:7, NRSV)
Mine is the sunlight, mine is the morning
Born of the one light Eden saw play.
Praise with elation, praise every morning
God’s recreation of the new day.
(Writers: Cat Stevens and Eleanor Farjeon)
In the Garden of Eden there was the tree of life whose fruit gave wisdom, as we saw in number 7 of this Creation Commandments’ series. Wisdom joins all things together in harmony, and the great deceiver made the foolish Adam and Eve think that his tree of knowledge was just the same – or even better. The result was pain, toil and death; and the soil was cursed (Genesis 3:17). Wisdom and harmony were lost when human beings turned away from their Creator.
Let all things their Creator bless,
And worship him in humbleness
O praise him, Hallelujah.
(St Francis of Assisi, paraphrased by William H. Draper)
A river flowed from the Garden of Eden and watered all the known world. Genesis does not say that this was the river of water of life, but it was, and the Old Testament prophets knew that one day it would flow again from the temple and from Jerusalem. Ezekiel saw a great river coming from the temple to irrigate the whole land, and he saw trees of life growing on its banks, with leaves that would heal the nations (Ezekiel 47:1-14). Zechariah saw living waters flowing from Jerusalem on the day that the Lord became King (Zechariah 14:8-9).
The water of life represented teaching. St John described the Word of God coming from heaven with a sword in his mouth, but he also recorded Jesus’ teaching when he stood in the temple: ‘Whoever believes in me, as the Scripture has said, “Out of the believer’s heart [which means mind] shall flow rivers of living water”’ (John 7:38). (NRSV)
Jesus also said, ‘If anyone thirst, let him come to me and drink’ (John 7:37), because those who drink the waters of life are able themselves to become channels of the water that is wisdom. The One on the throne in John’s vision made the same offer: ‘To the thirsty I will give from the fountain of the water of life without payment’ (Revelation 21:6).
In wisdom let us grow,
As years and strength are given
That we may serve they Church below
And join thy saints in heaven
(John Hampden Gurney)
St John saw the new creation as a holy city which was a golden cube set with jewels. What he saw was the holy of holies in the temple, enlarged to a huge size. In Solomon’s temple, the holy of holies was a golden cube-shaped room in which was the golden throne of the Lord. It represented the place where He ruled and it was the place of His Presence. St John saw the holy city as the Kingdom coming to earth, to replace the wicked city that had ruled for so long.
St John heard the voice of a mighty angel proclaiming the destruction of Babylon, the wicked city: ‘a dwelling place of demons, a haunt of every foul spirit … and the merchants of the earth have grown rich on the wealth of her wantonness’ (Revelation 18:2,3). It was the merchants and money men who mourned the destruction: ‘Alas, alas, for the great city… In one hour all this wealth has been laid waste’ (Revelation 18:16, 17). The city had killed the prophets and the saints (Revelation 18:24).
In its place was the holy city, where the waters of life flowed from the throne of God and the Lamb, where the tree of life had leaves for healing the nations, and where the servants of the Lord stood in the light of His Presence, saw His face, and worshipped. (Revelation 22:1-5).
For Thee, my God, the living God,
My thirsty soul doth pine;
Oh when shall I behold thy face
Thou Majesty Divine.
(Hymn based on Psalm 42)
December is a busy time for many of us. The “Christmas Story”, with its familiar readings, hymns and carols, can easily wash over us. “It’s what we do at this time of year.”
But what if the gospel message of Christmas is not just “good news” for us men, women and children, but “good news” for all of creation?
As an action point, I’d like to suggest that we do something every time we hear the word “Immanuel”, as we shall no doubt repeatedly do during the later weeks of Advent and the Christmas season. We know that “Immanuel” means “God with us”. (The Hebrew is literally “imma-with, nu-us, el-God”).
Can I suggest that we stop for a moment and say, “Thank you, God, for not only coming to be with us, but with the whole of your creation.”
O holy Child of Bethlehem,
make all things new, we pray,
our world restore, we ask once more,
be born in us today!
We hear the Christmas angels
the great glad tidings tell.
O come to us, abide with us,
our Lord Immanuel.
Phillips Brooks (1868) amended by Fr Michael Hall (2021)
Main Image: Joseph Stella (1877–1946), The Crèche (1929-33), oil on canvas, 154.9 x 195.6 cm, Newark Museum, Newark, NJ. Source: Wikiart