I spent much of my life working in the woodlots of Northern New England. In the round of the seasons, you enter a kinship with the creatures you find there -- every morning, throughout a day, when light is failing. They have their regular chores, and each has its own, particular ways. Among my constant companions were carpenter ants. Being a carpenter myself, and not much more important than an ant, I was bound to take notice of them. They are not peripatetic creatures like the Crazy Yellow Ants or Argentine Ants here in Hawaii. Nor are they cogs in an ant machine marching mindlessly down the chemical trails of ant lines. No, they are individuals. Certainly, they cooperate with others in their colony, but most often you would see one wandering by himself, examining the possibilities about him, and even (it seemed) taking stock.
From time to time, I would sit on a stump, light a pipe, and put my hand down on the ground beside one. Having a certain dignity and courage, and scraping before no man, one would sometimes venture aboard, and I would watch him. Not being a sudden, nervous creature, he might just stand there and look around. He would turn his little head to the left and to the right. He might clean his antennae with his forearms, stroking them over and over until they were right. The movement of those little legs, the turning of that little head, the observations of this little creature. What I held before me in my own hand was nothing less than a miracle: life.
Life. We shall never understand it, though we describe its circumstances ad infinitum, and Heaven knows we shall never create it. Our only decisive power where life is concerned is to snuff it out, and that power is great indeed. In despair, Othello asks, "I know not where is that Promethean heat, that can thy life relume" after he has killed the only woman he has ever loved, the gentle and faithful Desdemona. Who really understands this divine gift, the fire of Prometheus given to mortals, the Greeks of Jesus' time believed. Where shall we find the flame to relume the candle once we have recklessly snuffed it out? Mary Shelley describes a New Prometheus as Dr. Frankenstein ignites the spark of life into his monster. But can we do this? Could we ever find or even really understand that elusive, animate, mysterious, spark that causes this sovereignty, this motion, this awareness, this identity, this ..... what can we call it? Life.
Surely, no scientist understands life. Life is axiomatic among scientists and scholars. That is, it is a posited first principle. We cannot explain it adequately, so we set about describing it and predicating other principles upon it. But humans cannot create it, nor do they really know what it is. As the Greeks averred, life is a gift from God. The original creation of humankind in Eden presents us with a wonder -- a luminous circle of divine energy teeming with life and, therefore, utterly unlike and remote from any hint of death. Do you see this? Life of its own nature and internal properties is eternal. Life's telos, its seed, its blueprint, its essence is life. And one more thing, life is intrinsically and intimately tied to God. God is life. And all that is not tied to God, we call death.
The inmost secret of Eden is not that Eve made covenant with one other than her husband or God though this was a tragedy, to be sure. The inmost secret of Eden is that Eve chose to separate herself from God and then presented Adam with a terrible choice: either me or God. And when they both chose to separate themselves from the God Who is life, they set upon a path whose telos or end is death. This is the most basic human teaching of all that can be taught, and it is the first sentence from one of the Early Church's oldest books, The Teachings of the Apostles: "Two ways there are: life and death." When humankind (both of them!) separated itself from God, the telos of every living thing flipped, from eternal life to eternal death. For eternal death is the world divorced from God.
You know, we have been taught all of our lives to think of the Advent of the Lord as Christ's entry into history in order to effect our redemption through His passion, death, and resurrection. And this, of course, is right and true. May I share a deeper and more detailed meditation on this from St. Athanasius in his great fourth-century work On the Incarnation? Athanasius wrote that before the Fall of humankind from grace, the telos, or fulfillment, of every created thing was life but after the fall, was death. Each living thing was inescapably bound to a path that ended in hideous, withering finitude. But the power of God's own person touching the creation with his soul and body and awesome force of life was so great, that the telos of every living thing was restored from death to life. St. Athanasius continued that all that remained for humankind was to embrace God in the person of Jesus Christ and to never let Him go, but always to walk with Him and love Him and honor Him in every expression of your thought and life.
Isaiah writes with grace and beauty of the effects of God's love and power returning to His people, as we read in out lections this morning:
Then the eyes of the blind shall be opened,
and the ears of the deaf unstopped;
then shall the lame man leap like a hart,
and the tongue of the dumb sing for joy.
For waters shall break forth in the wilderness,
and streams in the desert;
Lying in the filth of a prison and bound in heavy, rusting chains, St. John the Baptist is fastened upon the iron pole of death. He looks all around him at the culture of death: drunkenness for nightly recreation; promiscuous and perverted sex; and a brutish, indifferent people utterly and irreversibly divorced from God. And he wonders, "Is Jesus really the One? Is He the Holy One Who is coming into the world? The One for Whom the ages have long waited?" And word comes to Him at his barred window:
the blind receive their sight,
and the lame walk,
lepers are cleansed,
and the deaf hear,
and the dead are raised up,
and the poor have good news preached to them.