What are the bonds of love that uphold creation?
November is a month when our eyes are lifted to the heavens. I closed my reflection on Margaret’s last article by talking about the dawning of Advent at the end of the month. November begins, of course, with the two great feasts of All Saints and All Souls. In both of these feasts we think about the Christian community, transcending the bonds of death and time. In the first, we are shown the “crowd beyond number” before the throne of God; in the second we remember in prayer – as is our Catholic duty – those who are “on their way” to join that crowd, moving (as C S Lewis had it) “Farther in and higher up”.
The profound insight which Margaret gives us in the following article is that the covenant which binds us and all Christians together and to God is much wider than we might have thought. It is a Covenant of Love between God and his creation – and we ignore this at our peril.
The Spirit of God was fluttering over the waters, Genesis 1:2 (As translated by Margaret Barker)
The Holy Spirit has many aspects and roles; one of them is to bind all things together. St Paul wrote that Christians should be ‘eager to maintain the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace’ (Ephesians 4:3), and then explained what this meant in the context of a Christian community. But ‘the bond of peace’ was his way of saying in Greek what the Old Testament called the Covenant of Peace. This was also called the Eternal Covenant and it included all creation, not just human beings.
St Paul wrote of this Covenant of Peace when he said of the beloved Son: ‘He is before all things, and in him all things hold together’ (Colossians 1:17). We must broaden our vision and understanding of the Covenant to include all creation:
We in one covenant are joined
And one in Jesus are.
(Writer: Christian A. Bernstein, translated by John Swertner)
The Eternal Covenant or Covenant of Peace is first mentioned in the Bible in the story of Noah, when God reminded Noah that He had a covenant with every living creature – not just with human beings. ‘I will set my rainbow in the cloud, and it shall be a sign of the covenant between me and the earth’ (Genesis 9:13). People imagined this covenant as a web of bonds, like a protective net that held the creation and human society together.
Some early Christians saw a reference to this net in the story of creation. Origen, a biblical scholar who died in 253 AD, pronounced the first word of the Old Testament differently: the same letters, but a different meaning. ‘By means of the net, God created the heavens and the earth’. Orthodox Christians praise the LORD at Pentecost for ‘sending down [on the disciples] thy Holy Spirit, and thereby catching the universe in a net’. Perhaps we should see the stories of the disciples and their nets in a new light!
In the time of Jesus, the Covenant of Peace was known as the Covenant of Loving-kindness. The rule book for the community who preserved and then hid away the Dead Sea Scrolls vowed to uphold truth, righteousness and justice when they entered into the Covenant Loving-kindness. Jesus said this was the way to recognise his disciples too: ‘By this all people will know that you are my disciples, if you have love one for another’ (John 13:35).
Earthly rulers and powers have always tried to break these bonds of love, because other things such as money and power seem more important. The Psalmist, however, all those years ago, knew that such people did not triumph in the end:
The kings of the earth set themselves,
and the rulers take counsel together,
against the LORD and his Anointed, saying,
‘Let us burst their bonds asunder,
and cast their cords from us’ (Psalm 2:2-3 ESV).
The rules of the Covenant of Loving-kindness were irksome and limited what the powerful could do. They do not like to be reminded. St John wrote:
Do not wonder, brethren, that the world hates you. We know that we have passed from death into life because we love the brethren’ (1 John 3:13-14).
We saw in article 3 of this series what happens when the bonds of the Covenant are broken; the creation collapses.
The bonds of the Covenant cannot be renegotiated, and some of our man-made systems – moral, political, economic – will have to change since it is clear to everyone that the bonds of creation are breaking. The ecological crisis we face is one of the greatest questions of our times, and it challenges assumptions about the market, about industrialisation, and about the story that ‘liberated’ modern people have been telling themselves for three centuries: that somehow our human reason can triumph over the creation. God has been hidden.
Psalm 104 is a beautiful poem about the creation which explains that without the presence of the LORD and the Spirit, everything returns to dust:
When you hide your presence, they are troubled,
When you take away your Spirit they die,
And return to their dust (Psalm 104:29, my literal translation of the oldest Hebrew text)
When Adam was created, said the wise story-teller, he was just dust until the LORD God breathed into him the breath of life, and then he really came alive (Genesis 2:7). But alas, ‘Dust thou art and to dust thou shalt return’ (Genesis 3:19) originally a curse, is now the materialist picture of human life without the transforming power of the Spirit.
The Holy Spirit, manifested as loving kindness, is the bond that secures the creation. Can we imagine a love-based political or economic system? We get a glimpse of this in the earliest Church in Jerusalem in the Acts of the Apostles. We see, in the history of Christianity, groups trying to put it into practice in religious – and sometimes secular – communities. But it has always been hard to sustain from one generation to the next.
Do we have the vision to seek this?
‘Where there is no vision, the people come apart’ (Proverbs 29:18, my translation).
LORD thy word abideth,
and our footsteps guideth
Who its truth believeth’
Light and joy receiveth
O that we discerning,
Its most holy learning
LORD may love and fear thee,
Evermore be near thee.
(H. W. Baker)
Margaret shares with us the powerful image of the “net of creation”, and suggests that we might see the Gospel accounts of the fishermen in a new light.
We might take a further step and think not of “net” but “network” – an equally powerful image in the age of the internet.
If we like “imaginative exercises”, we might sit comfortably and allow our minds to range out from ourselves, imagining ourselves as a node (or “knot”) in a net or network. To whom are we connected? How far do we have to go along the strands of the net before we come into contact with the farmers who grow our food, the miners who search for the rare minerals that form our home electronics, even the people who keep our water running and remove our waste?
If we prefer to delve into books, we might look up the accounts in the gospels where fishing nets are mentioned. (Easier still to use an internet bible source, where we can search for the word “net”.) The miraculous catch of fish springs to mind, as does Jesus’ parable where the Kingdom of Heaven is likened to a “net that was thrown into the sea and gathered fish of every kind.” (Matthew 13:47)
If artistic work inspires our spirits more, we might draw a “network map” of our links to family and friends. In this Month of Holy Souls, let us not forget those who have died, and mark them in a special way.
This prayer, from the feast of All Souls, is appropriate for the whole month:
O God, who willed that your Only Begotten Son,
having conquered death,
should pass over into the realm of heaven,
grant, we pray, to your departed servants
that, with the mortality of this life overcome,
they may gaze eternally on you,
their Creator and Redeemer.
Through our Lord Jesus Christ, your Son,
who lives and reigns with you in the unity of the Holy Spirit,
God, for ever and ever.