Lent and Nature II: From Creation to the Cross

This year Pope Benedict XVI launched Lent with a homily for Ash Wednesday that offered several insights into the Catholic view of creation and the environment. His homily centered on the “ashes”, the central symbol for Ash Wednesday and an important one for the Lenten season. Following the trajectory of ashes from creation, through sin to reconciliation, the Pope gives a masterful teaching about the mystery of evil, suffering, hope and the right place of matter. Initially, the human person was a unity made of “matter and divine breath”, where matter was part of the wonderful creation of God. Matter becomes corrupted through sin, where man must suffer and labor the earth, and return to it eventually as he decay’s. But God himself became “dust” too, and assuming our material condition as well, He elevated it in Christ: body, mind and spirit. The entire human person is redeemed and reconciled. Below the central passages:

First of all, ashes are one of those material signs that bring the cosmos into the liturgy. The principal signs are of course those of the sacraments: water, oil, bread and wine, which become true and proper sacramental material through which the grace of Christ reaches us. 

This is why the sign of ashes brings us back to the vast canvas depicting creation, in which it issaid that the human being is a singular unity of matter and divine breath, as suggested by the image of the dust formed by God and the divine breath breathed into the nostrils of the new creature. We can see how in the account of Genesis the symbol of dust undergoes a negative transformation because of sin. While before the fall the soil is a potentiality that is completely good, fed by a spring of water (Genesis 2:6) and able, by God’s handiwork, to bring forth “every sort of tree, fair to behold and pleasant to eat of” (Genesis 2:9), after the fall and the consequent divine malediction, it produces “thorns and thistles” and only through “toil” and “sweat of the brow” gives up its fruits to man (cf. Genesis 3:17-18). The dust of the earth no longer reminds us only of God’s creative gesture, wholly open to life, but becomes

a sign of an inescapable destiny of death: “You are dust and to dust you shall return” (Genesis 3:19). This cursing of the soil has a medicinal purpose for man, who must from the earth’s “resistance” be helped to keep himself within his limits and recognize his nature…. 

Therefore, in the punishment, and also in the malediction of the soil, there remains a good intention that comes from God. When he says to man, “You are dust and to dust you shall return!” together with the just punishment he also intends to announce a path of salvation, which will travel through the earth, through that “dust,” that “flesh” that will be assumed by the Word. 

Ash Wednesday liturgy: as an invitation to penance, to humility and to an awareness of our mortal condition, but not to end up in desperation, but rather to welcome, precisely in this mortality of ours, God’s unthinkable nearness, which, beyond death, opens the passage to the resurrection, to paradise finally rediscovered.

Yet the theme of the value of matter for Christians, was reiterated by Pope Benedict in a lectio divina delivered to Seminarians. Here the Pope reflected on the letter of St. Paul to the Romans, and I’d like to highlight 3 key reflections based on this passage:

“And so, I beg you, brothers, by the mercy of God, that you offer your bodies as a living sacrifice, holy and pleasing to God, with the subservience of your mind. And do not choose to be conformed to this age, but instead choose to be reformed in the newness of your mind, so that you may demonstrate what is the will of God: what is good, and what is well-pleasing, and what is perfect.” (12, 1-2)

1. Liturgy: We are called to present ourselves, with our bodies, as a living liturgy, a prayer to God. Our body and materiality, united to Christ, becomes the glory of God. As CS Lewis said, “God loves matter, He invented it.” This matter, especially our matter has as its goal the glorification of God.

“Present your bodies”: he speaks of the liturgy, he speaks of God, of the priority of God but he does not speak of the liturgy as a ceremony, he speaks of the liturgy as life. We ourselves, our body; we in our body and as a body must be liturgy. This is the newness of the New Testament, and we shall see it again later: Christ offers himself and thereby replaces all the other sacrifices. And he wants “to draw” us into the communion of his Body. Our body, with his, becomes God’s glory, becomes liturgy.

2. Incarnation: Christ became man so that we can be like God. God is Logos, and this creative reason of God chose to embody itself, just dignifying and elevating bodily things. As members of his Body, we participate in God himself.

The same happens in the world of Greek philosophy. Here too one understands increasingly that it is not possible to glorify God with these things — animals or offerings — but that only the “logos” of man, his reason having become the glory of God is really worship, and the idea is that man must come out of himself and unite with the “Logos”, with the great Reason of the world and thus truly be worship. However, here there is something missing: man, according to this philosophy, must — so to speak — leave his body, he must be spiritualized; only the spirit would be adoration. Christianity, on the contrary, is not simply spiritualization or moralization: it is incarnation, that is, Christ is the “Logos” he is the incarnate Word and he gathers all of us so that in him and with him, in his Body, as members of this Body, we really become a glorification of God.

3. Creation and Sin: The world in a biblical sense can signify different things. One is God’s wonderful creation, and the other is the embodiment of sin itself, the world that corrupts. The first world, is necessarily affected by sin, and becomes the second world. Here comes Paul’s final invitation: “renew your minds” in order not to be conformed to the world of sin. This renewal is possible from the Cross of Christ, who gives us access to the Truth and to the mind of God.

the word “world” has two meanings and thus points to the problem and to the reality concerned. On one side is the “world” created by God, loved by God, to the point that he gives himself and his Son for this world; the world is a creature of God, God loves it and wants to give himself so that it may really be a creation and respond to his love. But there is also the other conception of the “world” kosmos houtos: the world that is in evil, that is in the power of evil, that reflects original sin. We see this power of evil today, for example, in two great powers which are useful and good in themselves but can easily be abused: the power of finance and the power of the media. Both are necessary, because they can be useful, but are so easy to abuse that they frequently convey the opposite of their true intentions.

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