The readings for this Sunday focus on the theme of death, and God’s power over it. They discuss God’s relationship with, and intentions for, the natural world: topics that resonate with Pope Francis’ encyclical on the environment Laudato Si. Since my reflections on the Sunday Readings for Year B are now all available in book form here, I’ll just give some comments on the First Reading below:
God did not make death,
nor does he rejoice in the destruction of the living.
For he fashioned all things that they might have being;
and the creatures of the world are wholesome,
and there is not a destructive drug among them
nor any domain of the netherworld on earth,
for justice is undying.
For God formed man to be imperishable;
the image of his own nature he made him.
But by the envy of the devil, death entered the world,
and they who belong to his company experience it.
The modern person, of course, will immediately object that natural history seems to indicate that death was always a part of nature. Plus, there are poisonous plants and animals, and isn’t nature “red in tooth and claw,” etc.
First of all, death is not a “thing,” it is a privation, a lack, an absence of life. So God did not “make” it, because it does not have existence.
Second, although its true that there are carnivorous creatures, etc. in nature, the concept of “nature red in tooth and claw” is overblown. Modern study of ecology has impressed upon us the truth that an entire ecosystem is a living thing, and marvelously balanced to promote life and vitality. So in previous generations we looked upon wolves, for example, as “unwholesome” and shot them nearly to extinction. But now we realize that wolves were an important part of the vitality of the entire ecosystem, and we make great efforts to nurture their numbers and reintroduce them to wilderness areas. So in a profound sense, modern ecology has supported the ancient wisdom of the Old Testament: properly understood, every creature is “wholesome” and has its proper place in the ecosystem.
This reminds us of a glowing passage from Pope Francis’ encyclical:
§ 77 “By the word of the Lord the heavens were made” (Ps 33:6). This tells us that the world came about as the result of a decision, not from chaos or chance, and this exalts it all the more. The creating word expresses a free choice. The universe did not emerge as the result of arbitrary omnipotence, a show of force or a desire for self-assertion. Creation is of the order of love. God’s love is the fundamental moving force in all created things: “For you love all things that exist, and detest none of the things that you have made; for you would not have made anything if you had hated it” (Wis 11:24). Every creature is thus the object of the Father’s tenderness, who gives it its place in the world. Even the fleeting life of the least of beings is the object of his love, and in its few seconds of existence, God enfolds it with his affection. Saint Basil the Great described the Creator as “goodness without measure,” while Dante Alighieri spoke of “the love which moves the sun and the stars.” Consequently, we can ascend from created things “to the greatness of God and to his loving mercy.”
Of course, the Sunday homily is not the place for lectures on ecology. But the point is theological: the natural world is marvelously designed for life. Cosmologists, in fact, talk about the “anthropic priniciple”: the incredible balance of the mathematical values of the natural constants which seem contrived specifically to permit human life to exist and flourish. (see here for a quick summary of this argument). On both a natural and supernatural level, God designed creation for life. I point these facts out in my book, Yes! There is a God!, as part of the opening argument that the cosmos points clearly to a creator.
God is not a force, nor is God a set of laws. Nor did he set up the universe according to some laws and then sit back passively and watch it develop. God is intimately engaged in his universe, and when he acts in it, it is not “interference with natural laws,” as if the Creator “interferes” with his own creation. The universe is always open to “input” from it’s maker, just as a piano keyboard is open to the input of the player or a computer keyboard is open to the input of the programmer. When, in the Gospel, Jesus “breaks the laws of nature” by raising the little girl from the dead, he is not “interfering” with creation but healing it and perfecting it.