IS IT TIME WE CELEBRATED THE COMPLETE LIFE OF JESUS?
Important things can be hidden in plain sight. Even if one has 20/20 vision. It often happens because one is not looking for the thing in question. Perhaps something of this nature is at play in regard to the precious life of Jesus Christ. What seems almost unperceived, and worthy of little interest or commentary, is the fact that he spent ninety per cent of his short life working. It was just too normal. Admittedly, the remaining three years were so dramatic that they totally stole the limelight. Even so, should Jesus’ ‘hidden life’ be so completely passed over, so relatively ignored? Once again this liturgical year, the one-week leap from the Epiphany to the Baptism of Christ felt far too abrupt, and not a word was said about how Jesus spent most of his actual life.
Yes, you don’t see what you’re not looking for, and the Church seems not that interested in the fact that Jesus may have made something like thirty-eight tables, fifty-three stools, twenty-nine beds, fifty doors, forty cupboards… compose your own figures for a strong young man working in a carpenter’s shop from the age of twelve to thirty. Jesus made his first contribution to our world not with his words, but with his hands. He took seriously his human task of building up the world, doing a good job for an honest wage.
Imagine Jesus at work. Did he put his heart into it? Was he skilful? Was he creative? Did he enjoy it? Was he just putting in time? Was he in it for the money? Was it a route to power? Above all, was he building God’s Kingdom?
One thing is for sure, he did a good job. How much designing, measuring, marking, sawing, hammering, joining, testing, smoothing, varnishing…! Imagine a piece of his furniture in your home, – sitting at a table made by him, or rocking a cradle of his! Making life better for you, fulfilling a need.
Yet all of this has attracted relatively little attention from theologians and those who give homilies. WHY? Is it because he was too like the rest of us in those years, and there wasn’t anything particularly religious or spiritual about it? He was just working, doing a job, earning a living. And yet, it was most of his life! The remaining three years passed in a flash and he was gone (though remaining mystically in Eucharist). In today’s optic we might even say ‘the hidden years’ were the ‘secular’ part of his life.
However, surely there is monumental meaning to be drawn from those precious working years of the Human God? Are they not a divine endorsement of the worth and dignity of the human task, both individual and collective, of building up the world? Are they not a lesson in what it means to be human? To be holy? Has the Church not missed out here in failing to celebrate it, and hold it up as model behaviour?
A MISLEADING SPLIT
Sacred and secular, body and soul, matter and spirit, this life and the next life, earth and heaven… for the past twenty centuries Christianity has operated in a dualistic mindset, and this created the myopia that prevented us valuing the entire life of the Human God, and taking in its spirituality. Dualism always saw a superior and inferior aspect in whatever it touched, – which was everything. You were to focus on the superior aspect (spiritual), of course, and put up with the inferior (material) as best you could.
This splitting of reality into material and spiritual did not happen within Judaism, but came from the Greek and Roman (pagan) philosophers, whose approach was adopted by Christian theologians in the early centuries, as they struggled to order, codify and explain the Christian faith to the ever-increasing numbers attracted to it.
And yet, it is to this crack, this radical split in our perception of reality, that Pierre Teilhard de Chardin (1881-1955) attributed the gradual turning away from the Christian faith that began in the West with the dawn of modernity in the seventeenth century. That was when science rose for the first time to challenge the Church’s interpretation of reality, specifically when Copernicus and Galileo between them proved that Earth and ourselves were not, after all, located at the centre of the universe, with everything revolving around us. The rest is history… until, now, the waves of the science-based view of reality are threatening to shipwreck the Christian faith entirely, just because science seems more real. Dinosaurs and galaxies have more power over children’s imaginations today than the image of Christ. It has got too hard to transmit faith to the younger generations!
Teilhard puts his finger on the problem: thanks to this unfortunate split in our perception, the official Church is presenting ‘too small a Christ’ to people who from the cradle are aware of the almost infinite dimensions of space-time which have invaded today’s culture. “What is Christian and what is human no longer appear to coincide. Hence the great schism that threatens the Church,” he wrote, -a schism of the Church inadvertently splitting off from mainstream western culture. There was an urgent evolution to be made! The Church must reinterpret the role and image of Christ for the new culture.
Now, a Christ who extended to only a part of the Universe, a Christ who did not in some way gather up the world in himself, would seem to me a Christ smaller than the Real… The God of our Faith would appear to me less grand, less imposing, than the Universe of our experience!
‘I often think that if our humanity is really to become more adult today than it was two thousand years ago it somehow needs a ‘rebirth’ of Christ- Christ reincarnating himself for our intelligence and heart in the new dimensions of experimental reality. Our Christ must be able to reach across and light up these near-unlimited advances.”
Yet such a ‘rebirth’ is not yet happening in the version of Christ presented by the official Church, more than sixty years after Teilhard’s death. In young minds “God” is being eclipsed by the universe. The Christ we meet on Sunday mornings at Church is one concerned for our individual salvation, to forgive sin, to heal our inner selves and bring us to heaven. He doesn’t seem concerned with what we’re doing, and that we would do a good job at it. He’s not insisting that as Christians we should transform this world to reflect his values and make his Kingdom come. All the emphasis still seems to fall on spiritual over material concerns, and on the individual more than the collective. For many this approach is not relevant, not concrete enough, and going to Mass has become a minority pursuit.
A PERSONAL AND COLLECTIVE PROBLEM
This very duality of the worldviews of science and faith was Teilhard’s own personal problem as a passionate priest and passionate scientist. His life’s work as a paleontologist was finding, excavating, analysing and classifying ancient life forms, in the course of which, as a geologist, he helped to discover and catalogue the geological composition of China. What was the meaning of all this work? – his own, and that of his colleagues as they pieced together the story of life and the formation of the earth beneath their feet. What did it all have to do with Christ, the love of his life? How could Teilhard unify this great split in himself, for which the current version of the Christian faith was frankly providing no answers?
Judging by my own case, I would say that the great temptation of this [20th] century (and of the present moment) is (and will increasingly be) that we find the World of nature, of life and of humankind greater, closer, more mysterious, more alive, than the God of Scripture.
If there were any valid answers, it was up to Teilhard himself to find them. Not only for himself but for the ‘gentiles’ of the modern world who had turned away in droves from the Christian faith precisely because it did not seem to value the human vocation to build the earth. It did not particularly value work. Work was secular, in some ways punishing and seen as an unfortunate consequence of The Fall. It was needed to survive but did not contribute as such to the Kingdom of God.
To resolve this dualism became the quest of Teilhard’s entire life, a tension that began in early childhood as he became a lover of iron, rock and concrete reality, and yet equally a lover of the spiritual, learning from his mother to love the Child Jesus. It took a lifetime of seventy-four years to resolve this tension and interpret reality in a way that unified his scientific and spiritual sides. In so doing he was finally able to become whole.
Teilhard has opened up a deeper understanding of reality, of Christ’s role in it, and in consequence has revealed a path for modern Christians to become whole, to find their entire existence meaningful, not just the overtly ‘spiritual’ or ‘religious’ part. Below a certain depth these are false categories, that alienate us from our calling to become truly human and to fulfill our vocation in this world. For a Christian there should be no ‘secular’ sphere of life. Every activity, both individual and collective, is called to be ‘holy’. ‘By virtue of Creation, and still more the Incarnation, nothing here below is profane for those who know how to see.’
What key concepts enabled Teilhard to overcome the dualism that hobbled Christianity for so long in making its full contribution to the world?
First: the scientific concept of universal evolution, in which everything emerges out of everything else and is related to everything else. This gave him the unified view of reality that he sought. Each thing exists as part of the whole, and the whole embraces the entire universe of space-time.
Second: the discovery that time is a constituent of everything. The evolutionary story is a dynamic reality. It is continuing in the human sphere right now, as our minds unite and combine in ever more awesome ways. And it is going somewhere. What could its destination be?
Third: the discovery by Einstein that matter and energy are actually the same thing, but in different forms. This collapsed dualism from within. E=MC 2 was a transformative insight. There was a oneness even in the basic structure of reality.
A NEW SYNTHESIS
What do you get when you apply this science-based worldview to the Christian faith? A whole new cosmic vision of what the Incarnation of Christ means!
“Marvellous coincidence, indeed, of the data of faith with the processes of reason itself! What at first seemed a threat, instead turns out to be a splendid confirmation!
Far from opposing Christian dogma, the vastly increased importance gained by humanity in nature results …in traditional Christology becoming relevant and vital in a wholly new way.”
Matter itself, the stuff of the world, is no longer inferior to the spirit but one with it. ‘There is neither spirit nor matter in the world; the stuff of the universe is spirit-matter.’
Teilhard is convinced that “the most traditional Christianity can be interpreted to embrace all that is best in the aspirations of our times.”
The role of Christ in this space-time universe is all cut out for him:
If we want to unite faith in God and faith in the world, the best possible thing for us to do is to highlight… in the person of Christ, the cosmic aspect and the cosmic function which make him organically the principle and controlling force, the very soul of evolution.”
In this view, the Christian story of the Incarnation of the Divine Being who took on not only living flesh, but the matter that becomes Eucharist, can be seen as the story that gradually draws the universe to its evolutionary completion, in a united humanity, redeemed and perfected in holiness. The meaning of the Incarnation, to be completed in each generation, has expanded to the dimensions of the universe! The risen Christ is the omega point, the destiny to which humanity is called to evolve through following Christ’s way of love. He incorporates us into his mystical body, a body destined for future resurrection. This is the meaning of the Parousia, Christ’s return in glory, where heaven and earth will unite in a single whole and death will be no more.
With Teilhard’s faith-science vision, we can say without hesitation, YES, Christ the Worker was building God’s Kingdom during the long hours at his carpenter’s bench! Everything we do as a whole activity, with a pure heart focused on God, makes its contribution, however small, to building the Kingdom, the Whole. We are to be fully whole and fully human even as we are fully God’s. There is no split, no duality, no sacred versus profane. Think of the transformative power for the world of this holistic spirituality! Both individually and collectively, we are here to do a good job!
 My Universe, in The Heart of Matter, p 201, A Harvest Book, Harcourt, Inc, San Diego, New York, London
 From a letter 4 Feb 1934, quoted in the biography by Claude Cuénot, p 209. Burns and Oates,1965, London.
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