The earth is the better part of 4.5 billion years older than humanity. It took just about that amount of time for her to get ready for us and to give birth to us. Since our bodies are made of various elements of the earth, no wonder we call her “mother earth.”
All of the science which explains the wonder of how the earth was formed shows us how God created our beautiful world. He painstakingly put in place all the building blocks that would prepare the earth for the highpoint of creation: little us, the human race.
Is the story of creation in the book of Genesis cancelled by scientific discovery? No, for the book of Genesis was not a scientific work. It is a work of faith in the Creator. Its authorship is attributed to Moses whose point was, by using this parable, to trace creation back to God and to show that humanity was created by God, not in a bubble, not in a vacuum, but in relation to the rest of creation. Adam is given power to name the animals; he is told to till the earth and care for it. He is the steward of creation under God.
Before Moses recounts the creation, though, he says first that the earth was a formless or chaotic void and that the Spirit hovered over the deep. The sense of this phrase is that of a mother-bird fluttering lovingly over her chicks. Moses wants us to understand that the seven days of creation (the number seven symbolises completeness) are the work of the Spirit whom God breathes forth when He speaks and what He says is created. For example, “God said, ‘let there be light’, and there was light.” That breath of that word spoken by God is the Spirit who brings the light into existence.
The core message of Moses is that God’s work of creation is one of love and therefore one of communion and order between all things on the earth. Whenever we hear that word communion we should immediately think of the presence and action of the Holy Spirit. He is the communion between the Father and the Son, and therefore the communion between humanity and creation, humanity and God.
But the communion was broken by the Fall of Adam and Eve. Interestingly, Moses depicts original sin as a taking of a fruit of the earth which had been forbidden. Adam stepped over a limit in his relationship with creation. It was an assertion of selfish domination over creation which broke the bond and order between humanity and creation, between humanity and God.
And when God curses Adam for that act of rebellion, he also curses the soil because of what Adam had done. This is logical because necessary. The word for man and for soil in Genesis is the same: “adamah”, hence the name Adam. As Adam (man) comes from the soil (adamah) and God breathes life into his nostrils, so, when Adam loses that life through sin, he returns to the dust (adamah) from which he came. Before the Fall, Adam was to till and care for the soil. After it, the soil would yield him brambles and thorns and he would have to sweat to get food.
With these simple images, the Word of God teaches us that the destiny of creation is tied in with the destiny of humanity. When mankind loses the grace of the Holy Spirit of communion, sanctifying grace, then creation itself loses that Spirit of order and growth. As the Spirit had brought beauty and order out of the original chaos of the deep, the loss of the Spirit by man meant that the created world would return to disorder and ugliness, like man himself. The spiritual death of man in sin would ricochet throughout the entire world.
With Christ, however, the new Adam, the redeemer of man, the restorer of the Spirit, the old heavens and earth could now hope for renewal. As it did for Christ, so for us who are redeemed, this new birth in the Spirit will come only through suffering. Much like you sweat out a cold, mankind and the created world must “suffer out” and “die out” sin, corruption and death.
This is why St. Paul speaks of creation like ourselves, suffering and groaning in one great act of giving birth. Just as a woman is said to forget her pain when a child is born, so the sufferings of this present time, says Paul, are not worth comparing with the glory that shall be ours and in which creation itself will share. That glory will be once again to experience the life and communion of the Holy Spirit in the entirety of our bodies and in creation itself. Such is the splendour of the promise Christ makes us: we ourselves, the earth and the whole universe will be made alive in the divine life.
For those of us who have already received the first-fruits of the Spirit, it is not too much to say that the rest of creation depends on us from generation to generation to do all we can to restore the correct rapport between humanity and the earth. Vatican II, and all the Popes since, urge the international community to heed not only the groans of the poor, the weak, the unborn and the persecuted, but also the groans of the earth. Our inhumanity to one another is not limited in its effects to ourselves, as if that were not enough. The murkier our human and moral environment is, the murkier will the earth’s environment become.
We get it wrong, though, if we expend all our time and energies on trying to get the earth cleaner and the ecosystem back into its natural equilibrium if we do not give priority to the cleansing of our moral and spiritual lives. There is also a moral ecosystem. It is one which everyone can, and most have, recognised, across cultures and religions: the ten commandments.
Our efforts to save the planet demand equal if not greater efforts to save humanity from moral implosion. As both the book of Genesis and the letter to the Romans make clear, and as Pope Francis also makes clear in his important encyclical Laudato Si’, the health of the earth will prosper or decay in direct proportion to the moral health of humanity. So, if the environment is getting sicker, then in some way it is the result of the decaying moral health of humanity.
And so we should not damage the earth, the sea or the sky just because we want to respect them in themselves, but primarily because to do so is to break the commandments of God, such as obedience to His will for us to care for the earth, or the seventh commandment which forbids us from stealing, or the tenth commandment which forbids us from coveting our neighbour’s goods, and so on.
Our care and activism in favour of the planet will be all the more effective and credible, and even salvific, if we do it from within the Spirit of God who seeks once more to bring order out of chaos both in our moral and spiritual lives and, as a result, in the beautiful yet suffering world around us.
Our planet will not be healed and freed without our being healed and freed. Once again, this brings us back to the Cross by which the sins of those who repent are forgiven and healed. The healing of the environment won’t happen without the Cross. From upon it, Christ breathed forth as He died the Holy Spirit of divine charity to flutter lovingly once again over the chaos in the human heart and in creation.
May that same Spirit restore us more and more each day to the beauty and order he desires to instil in our hearts so that we can become Spirit-filled apostles bringing the Gospel of healing to all creation.