Proper 24: Year C
“There is…no inconsistency between creation and salvation”–so says St. Athanasius, the 4th Century Bishop of Alexandria. Athanasius was trying to articulate how it was that God could become incarnate in human flesh–a mind boggling reality as much in our day as it was in his. For him, the turning of the human will against God had not only resulted in a loss of communion, but also a kind of de-creation. As Athanasius put it, “Man who was created in God’s image…was disappearing, and the work of God was being undone.” Christ, being God’s Word present and active in creation from the beginning, had to come in human form so that he could re-create the world and show humankind how to be human in the face of the “dehumanizing of mankind.”
I thought of Athanasius, of the mixing of creation and salvation, when I read Jeremiah 31:27-34 in our lectionary for this Sunday. Here we have the people of God, Judah and Israel, very much in a state of de-creation–broken down, overthrown, destroyed. But against this, God is promising that the “days are surely coming…when I will sow the house of Israel and the house of Judah with the seed of humans and the seed of animals.” This seed isn’t for the same kind of humanity, the kind that turned and turned again against the grain of the universe. Instead this new humanity, saved and recreated, will have the laws of God on their heart–the ways of acting rightly in the world will be a part of their very nature.
Athanasius was influenced by, and Bishop to, many people who went out to the deserts of Egypt to seek Christ, people we now call the Desert Fathers and Mothers. For these proto-monastics the receiving of the law of God on the heart that Jeremiah had promised was now possible through Christ. It was the possibility of this recreation that drove them to strict disciplines of body and mind. Historian Peter Brown writes that the Desert Father and Mothers “imposed severe restrains on their bodies because they were convinced that they could sweep the body into a desperate venture…The eventual transformation of their own bodies on the day of the Resurrection.” The Desert Fathers and Mothers did not imagine that they could complete the action of re-creation before the final resurrection, but they very much saw their present work beginning the process of creating a new humanity.
So what are we to make of all of this? From our Jeremiah reading we need to understand that God wants to recreate us; God wants to change our very nature into one that lives into God’s reality, which is the only reality that matters. As those who live in the light of Christ, God’s coming in human flesh, we can follow Athanasius in understanding that the incarnation brought with it the path toward our recreation. Our disciplines need not be the same, but like the Desert Fathers and Mothers we need to create communities of practice that help us live into this re-creation.
De-creation is in fact all around us. The environmentalist Bill McKibben has said that our planet is becoming so radically different from the one known as “earth” that it needs a new name: “eaarth.” “The creation waits with eager longing for the revealing of the children of God,” Paul tells us (Rom. 8.19). This need for recreation is not some mere metaphor for a spiritual reality. We need the laws of God written on our hearts, we need the sowing of new selves, because without them we are doomed to an ecological disaster. So let us follow those first monastics to create new communities of discipline, centered on welcoming the renewal of our hearts and the recreation of the world. Without such communities of Christlikeness we will only continue the mad consumer drive for more things, more conveniently, more quickly that is turning our world into a strange and dark new planet.