The stones will shout outPaul McPartlan
- 31 March 2007
Christ's death opened the way to a new heaven and a new earth. He liberated not just humanity but the whole of Creation, as his words on Palm Sunday indicate
As Jesus entered Jerusalem on Palm Sunday, his disciples exultantly hailed his arrival: "Blessings on the King who comes in the name of the Lord! Peace in heaven and glory in the highest heavens!" St Luke's Gospel tells us that some Pharisees told him to check his disciples, and Jesus replied: "I tell you, if these were silent, the stones would shout out" (Luke 19:38-40).
These words are full of meaning for a truly Christian understanding of Creation and of the salvation won by Christ. Jesus implies that the stones themselves are thrilled at his arrival, that the very earth responds to his presence. Moreover he implies that what is keeping Creation silent is the fact that human beings are voicing its praise. Were they to fall silent, the earth would not be able to contain itself any longer and would shout out in acclamation as best it could. We are reminded that "The earth is the Lord's and all that is in it" (Psalm 24:1), and that when God saw all that he had made he found it "very good" (Genesis 1:31). We are reminded also that humanity has a special place in the ordered totality that God made and loves, a unique role and responsibility. Humanity marvels at the harmony of God's Creation (Psalm 103), and lifts its praise to God: "... sun and moon ... Bless the Lord, stars of heaven, Bless the Lord ... all rain and dew, Bless the Lord ... all you winds, O bless the Lord ..." (Daniel 3:62-90).
It is worth dwelling on these two aspects of Jesus' words, because they summarise the scriptural teaching on ecological matters and can guide our catechesis in this increasingly vital area. First of all, the Scriptures teach us to hope for "the new heavens and new earth". That is what Jesus himself "promised" (2 Peter 3:13), but it is also what Isaiah prophesied (Isaiah 65:17; 66:22). The God who is recorded in the first book of the Bible as making all things "very good", pronounces in the very last book: "I am making all things new" (Revelation 21:5). What has unfolded in the vast drama in between has been not simply the salvation of humanity, but the salvation of Creation as a whole. The covenant that God made with Noah and his descendants after the Flood was explicitly made "and with every living creature that is with you, the birds, the domestic animals and every animal of the earth with you, as many as came out of the ark" (Genesis 9:10). And the new and everlasting covenant was eventually sealed in the blood of Christ, who is "the image of the unseen God and the firstborn of all Creation", in whom, through whom and for whom all things were created, the one in whom "all things hold together" (Colossians 1:15-17). It is, and always was, a cosmic covenant, and God delights in his Creation in ways we will never fully fathom.
Secondly, nevertheless, humanity has a unique role to play in the covenant, and the idea of the "image of God" points the way to that role. The one and only true image of the unseen God is Jesus, as we just heard from Paul. But this is Jesus the new Adam, finally fulfilling the place and task that humanity was already given at the very outset. Adam and Eve were made in God's image (Genesis 1:27), and moreover were given dominion over Creation: "Have dominion over the fish of the sea and over the birds of the air and over every living thing that moves upon the earth" (Genesis 1:28). The fact that this verse, which is viewed so suspiciously by those who would blame the Judaeo-Christian tradition for fostering an exploitative attitude to Creation, immediately follows the "image of God" verse clearly shows that the dominion being conferred is meant to be a reflection of God's own rule, and therefore the very opposite of destructive and uncaring. It is a kingship, humanity is God's viceroy (cf. Psalm 8:5-6; "with glory and honour you crowned him, gave him power over the works of your hand"), and the Bible is ultra-clear about the criteria for good kingship under God. "Give the king your justice, O God, and your righteousness to a king's son. May he judge your people with righteousness and your poor with justice." In such a reign the earth will be fruitful: "may there be abundance of grain ... may it wave on the tops of the mountains" (Psalm 72:1; 72:16).
Bad kings, like Ahab, not only led the people astray, they brought drought upon the land (1 Kings: 17). The link was already clear after the sin of Adam and Eve: "Accursed be the ground because of you" (Genesis 3:17). The Bible understands there to be a connectedness between all that God has made, with humanity in a decisive position, such that when humans sin it is not only they who suffer the consequences; the whole Creation suffers, or, as St Paul famously put it, the whole Creation groans. The connectedness is most apparent in his letter to the Romans, where he makes it plain that Creation itself retains the hope of being freed from slavery: "obtain the freedom of the glory of the children of God" (Romans 8:21) - so salvation is indeed cosmic - but also that what frustrates that hope is human sin. We can tell this from the fact that "For the Creation waits with eager longing for the revealing of the children of God" (verse 19). It was the behaviour of wayward children that enslaved it, and only true children of God will give it freedom. Thus we understand the stones on Palm Sunday, all but breaking into their own song of freedom and joy as Jesus, the true Son of God, appears.
However, Creation's true joy at his coming was most fully expressed a little later that week, at the Last Supper, when Jesus took bread and wine, and instead of simply breaking, distributing, eating and drinking, first of all lifted them up, giving thanks to God, as all the Last Supper accounts tell us. Adam and Eve, in the story that is emblematic of humanity's defiance and disobedience, took and ate what God had forbidden. There was no shred of thanksgiving in their act. In complete contrast, the whole spirit of Jesus' action is one of thanksgiving, Eucharist, and thanksgiving for Creation remains at the heart of the Church's understanding of the Eucharist, though this fact is rarely if ever heeded. "In the eucharistic sacrifice, the whole of Creation loved by God is presented to the Father by means of the death and resurrection of Christ" (Catechism of the Catholic Church, n. 1359).
So fulfilled was Creation at the hands of Jesus that it was actually transformed in his hands, which lifted up bread and wine with thanksgiving. It was made new (cf. Jesus' own reference to the "new wine", Matthew 26:29; Mark 14:25), the first fruits of the making new of all things, the new heavens and new earth, by the Cross and Resurrection of Christ. How significant that in its newness it was the body and blood of Christ, the very self of him in whom, through whom and for whom all things were made. It wasn't just the disciples who had a foretaste of their own fulfilment in the heavenly banquet at that moment, which is all that we normally think of whenever we do reflect on the Eucharist as a foretaste. The Creation itself foretasted its fulfilment, and if we see things aright we realise that the two foretastes go together. The Creation attains its final freedom when in the hands of human beings tasting their own final freedom, all of which only happens in Christ, the true Son and image of God, who treated Creation as humanity always should have done, but from the start never did.
Surely all the miracles of Jesus arise from the same fact. The countless healings show broken minds and bodies and faulty limbs and organs taking their proper form at his touch. The very storms and seas are calmed (Matthew 8:23-27) and earth finds peace. At last, a true child of God, indeed the only Son, walks the earth (and even on the sea! Matthew 14:25-33). Little wonder the stones could barely contain themselves that first Palm Sunday. But let us finally reiterate why they did: because human beings were voicing their praise. "Do this in memory of me," said Jesus. There is never any repetition of what he did, nor any substitution of his role. He and he alone is our priest and the priest of Creation, in whom everyone and everything is lifted up to God. But all of humanity is called to image that priesthood in its treatment of Creation with respect and thanksgiving. The whole Church is a priestly people, and that priesthood embraces Creation and should care for it and speak up for it. The ordained priesthood images Christ gathering up the praise and thanksgiving of all humanity and all Creation in his own single offering on the Cross, crowned by God in the Resurrection.
As we enter into that core mystery of our faith at the climax of the coming week, let us be aware of its true dimensions: the way is being opened to the new heavens and new earth. Let us heed not only the palms this Sunday, but also the stones.