This week I would like to share a reflection on a highly significant passage from St Paul’s Letter to the Romans, which was the second reading in last Sunday’s Mass. It is Romans 8:18-23, an inspiring text, which confirms the infinite value of God’s Creation, seen in its call to perfection when Christ comes again in glory.
Beginning with the future of human creation, Paul is clearly speaking to his fellow Christians in Rome, pointing out that their present suffering, “can never be compared to the glory, as yet unrevealed, which is waiting for us” (v.18). But straightaway Paul qualifies this assertion by pointing out, in most explicit terms, that: “The whole creation is eagerly waiting for God to reveal his sons (and daughters)” (v.19).
Paul stresses that the present condition of the whole creation, including humans, is one of extreme frustration because it is unable to fulfil its purpose, which is to serve God in perfect freedom (v.20). Human beings, of course, are the fundamental reason for this situation through the sin of Adam. But his sin has infected the rest of creation, as seen in the Genesis story of the Fall, where work becomes laborious and pregnancy painful.
We must note here the absolutely inextricable connection between human creatures and every other creature brought into being by God. And just as the whole of creation suffers because of sin, so, because of the saving work of Christ in His death and resurrection, all of creation will share in the glorious freedom of the children of God (v.21).
What is that glorious freedom which we possess as the first fruits but long for in the full harvest? What is it that we are groaning inwardly for, like a woman in labour? Paul tells us it is a matter of waiting for, “our bodies to be set free” (v.23). Set free from what, and for what? It is to be set free from the law of sin and death, and for participation in the eternal life of God, a life in Christ who has conquered death once and for all.
Earlier Paul spoke of creation being enslaved to decadence, which means death and decay. Death, after all, is the greatest instrument of enslavement we can experience. How free can you be when you know that your life and that of your loved ones can be taken away at any instant? How free are we when we can never plan ahead in our life for certain, given the possibility of our mortality?
So Paul wants us to know that true freedom is to be set free from death as members of the Kingdom of God, the glory that awaits us when we pass over into God’s life, seeing Him face to face. No more death, no more tears, no more fear, no loss, just blissful, timeless, perfect life. Free at last!
And then to realise this as something the Lord wants to give to our whole selves, not merely to our souls. Recall that St Paul does not speak of our souls being set free from our bodies, as the philosopher Plato would have it! No! It is our bodies that need this freedom from the power of death, which only God can give. It is not something we are entitled to, something natural, but something totally unexpected and unearned – pure grace!
Then to cap it all, we are assured that we will enjoy this magnificent climax to our mortal lives alongside the rest of creation in what is called the New Heaven and New Earth. For how can we live a human life without a body and without the earth, with all its beauty and truth and goodness? We are part of nature, and it is part of us.
The whole of creation is not to be destroyed, but to be transformed into the perfect integration of matter and spirit, soul, and body. The Book of Revelation uses a lovely image for this New Creation, viz. that of a marriage (Rev. 21:22). In a marriage, ideally, two distinct, different people come together and become one. So it is God’s plan to send his Christ back as the Great High Priest who will officiate at the greatest wedding of all time, that between earth and heaven.
It will be like a return to the Garden of Eden before the sin of Adam and Eve, where, following in the footsteps of Jesus, the obedient Son, we will be embraced by our loving God and experience the freedom we were created for, alongside every other creature.
Come Lord Jesus, set us free!