The story of creation continues in today’s reading from Genesis 1:14-23. Everything is now almost ready for the appearance of human beings. I say “almost” because the “fifth day” of creation only brought into being the living creatures of the air and the waters. Land animals will appear on the sixth day, on the same “day” as humans!
Somewhere after the “fifth day” or in the middle of the “sixth day” God perhaps took a deep breath and contemplated the final act of creation. Will humans be a blessing or a curse upon the earth? The two other readings for today give us a preview of the answer to that question: Isaiah 1:19-2:3 and Proverbs 1:20-33. The picture in both readings is bleak. The “city” has failed (Isaiah 1:21); Wisdom cries out in the streets of the city (Proverbs 1:20), vainly looking for reason and faithfulness. The human domain has proven to be a failure! But God looks to a restoration, a return to “mountain” imagery rather than “city” landscape! Yes, it is the city Zion that “mountain of the Lord” refers to (Isaiah 2:2-3) and the terms are used interchangeably throughout the scriptures, but here in Isaiah the language serves also to emphasize the failure of the “city” and God’s preference for “mountain” language.
In Romans 8:19, we read: “For the creation waits with eager longing for the revealing of the sons and daughters of God…” We will discuss the fuller context of that statement in future reflections, but for now we can stop here at the fifth day of creation and imagine creation and God’s heavenly realm waiting in eager anticipation for the final act of God’s days of creation, and that will come in tomorrow’s reading from Genesis. The narrative is about to reach its climax. But it will be a climax that does not appear separately from what precedes it. God’s six days of creation are indeed one majestic symphonic movement.
I like what our Ecumenical Patriarch, Bartholomew, spoke at a symposium in 1997 at the Saint Barbara Greek Orthodox Church in California. It beautifully expresses the continuity of God’s creative action: “The Lord suffuses all of creation with His divine presence in one continuous legato from the substance of atoms to the Mind of God. Let us renew the harmony between heaven and Earth and transfigure every detail, every particle of life.” I love his use of the word legato, a musical term that describes the interpretive approach that avoids choppy, disconnected articulation and brings out the flow and continuity of musical phrases. It is an approach most masterfully employed by great conductors like Wilhelm Furtwängler.
Most of the hymnography this week is influenced by monastic negativity toward the body and its passions. Whereas the bleak pictures that Isaiah and Proverbs have presented to us concern failure to do justice and to know God, the church fell captive to monastic language of self-mortification – for example: “Let us keep the Fast not only by refraining from food, but by becoming strangers to all the bodily passions; that we who are enslaved by the tyranny of the flesh….” and so on, you get the drift. Nevertheless, the genuine gospel spirit survives in some of the hymnography: “Let us begin, O people, the pure Fast that is our soul’s salvation. Let us serve the Lord with fear: let us anoint our heads with the oil of charity, and let us wash our faces in the waters of purity. Let us not use vain repetitions in our prayers, but as we have been taught, let us say: Our Father, who art in heaven, forgive us our trespasses in your love for humankind.” One may wince at the idea that fasting is “our soul’s salvation” – clearly that is not the Lord’s teaching – but the rest of this and similar other hymns for this week clearly resonates with memories of Christ’s teaching in Matthew 6:1-18.
I’ve enjoyed reading a wonderful book, Moral Ground: Ethical Action for a Planet in Peril; edited by Kathleen Dean Morris and Michael P. Nelson (Trinity University Press, 2010) – a volume to which Patriarch Bartholomew and other religious and spiritual leaders have contributed. One of the “action” pages in this book (p. 163) provides a more creative way to look at fasting:
Say thank you before morning coffee, which is a gift of grace from the water and the soil, which owe you nothing.
Celebrate the season of harvest with feasting, the season of scarcity with fasting, the season of new life with dancing, and the season of ripeness with listening.
Now that’s what it means to understand the unity and “legato” of God’s creative work. And we share in that legato by harmonizing with the seasons. When you start each day with an attitude of thanksgiving, it is easier to understand how fasting has its place in the grand scheme of things. Perhaps, without consciously knowing it, the church instituted the season of the Fast out of a subconscious understanding of the “season of scarcity” which we call winter. Deep in our collective DNA there is a memory of life without supermarkets, packaged foods, GMOs, and global trade – when life depended on understanding the seasons and our indebtedness to the goodness of the earth. I’ve lived my entire life in cities and I love what the city provides, but perhaps we need some of that wild mountain language that God uses in Isaiah and elsewhere. Jesus himself preferred the desert and the mountains for his reflective moments and encounters. We need the world, this planet and all life on it. Without it we are incomplete; and without us the planet is incomplete. Can we appreciate that? The future depends on it.