Choice plays a large role during the course of our lives, but it had nothing to do with our getting here in the first place. We didn’t choose to be born. We didn’t choose our parents and we didn’t choose the economic situation into which we were born, or our gender, or our sexual preference, or even our century. We did nothing to merit our being here: we are the innocent beneficiaries of God’s incredible design.
Think back for a moment. Think back to your parents and their generation and their struggles. Now think of your grandparents, and then back further, ten generations. Now twenty. Now one hundred, now one thousand generations. In fact, if human beings and our closest ancestors have been on this planet for a million years, we have to go back 400 to 500 thousand generations just to trace our human ancestry.
Now, although I am old in the eyes of some, I am not old enough to recall all of those generations. But, I know some of the things that happened during that vast expanse of time. Our parents and grandparents and an additional 500 thousand couples in our family tree survived infant mortality, the plague, numerous famines, centuries of war and privation and a myriad of other hardships simply to arrive at puberty and fall in love and make love to someone they loved more than anyone else. And every time they conceived another descendant, each and every time one sperm in a million made it to an egg, bearing within it the divine promise that is each one of us.
If we consider the odds, the fact that any one of us actually exists staggers the imagination. And when we take it back further, back to the beginning, back through a million species, back to microscopic life as paramecia, we find that we are genetically connected all the way back to the beginning, not of time, but of life. The universe was pregnant with us when it was born.
I find this far more amazing, more inspiring, than virtually every homily I’ve ever heard, my own included. And it is quite impossible to be blasé when reflecting deeply on our own place in creation. We’re not talking about mere physical matter here; we’re talking about an in-your- face kind of miracle! We don’t need something supernatural, like a virgin birth, to prove or test our faith. We need only a deeper appreciation of the natural Order, and for our own intimate and absolutely breathtaking connection with millions of our own ancestors and then, ultimately, with all that exists.
One of the great theologians of the past century was Rudolph Otto. He is one of the founding fathers, if you will, of the discipline of religious studies, and when I first read his works, as an undergrad, I fell in love with him. I knew that I had to pursue a degree in religious studies, no matter how impractical it seemed. Otto looked at the experience of religion and looked at its core, which he described as an experience of the Holy. He came to describe the “holy” as “mysterium tremens et fascinans”—an awe inspiring, completely captivating mystery. What we do here at Mass, as Catholics, is try to bring ourselves into the presence of this Presence, this awe inspiring, completely captivating mystery that we call God. And we find, to our surprise, that God is not something outside ourselves, it is not limited to the bread and wine we receive, it is also something within us.
I know for certain that untold millions of “accidents” occurred, all of which conspired to give each one of my ancestors an opportunity to live, a chance to make a difference in a universe that must have seemed precarious and cold sometimes. And because of their choices and actions, through a series of random steps, here I am where they once stood. I am still asking many of their questions. I experience many of the same hurts and disappointments. I achieve many of the same ecstasies and satisfactions. I have also been fortunate enough to have known some of them personally, and I know part of their stories. I know some of their choices, the good and the bad. I know something of their struggles to believe in the face of disaster and death; I know how faith in things bigger than themselves sustained them in the dark times. Knowing these details doesn’t make me doubt my own faith; it expands my faith, it makes it more rich. It makes me both more humble and more filled with awe and admiration for all those who have come before me. The tremendous and fascinating mystery of being alive and having to die doesn’t need to be trivialized into a Catholicism with easy answers for every question. Nor do we need to reject faith altogether simply because the God we were raised to believe in is too small. If, as Rudolph Otto suggests, the sustaining source of religion is awe, and if Jesus and many other great teachers are right when they say that the heart-beat of religion is love and compassion, we should all seek for a larger faith, a more open-minded, more open-hearted faith that connects us with one another in a way that at least approximates the sequential and improbable miracles that brought us here in the first place.
Over the past several weeks, people have been asking me for information on what it means to be Catholic, especially in the post-modern sense in which we live that faith at Holy Redeemer. To join a parish like ours is not about rejecting what others believe. It is to embrace something larger than ourselves, something both more mysterious and more real. Catholicism is not a denomination, it is an experience. It is the experience of God as passed down from generation to generation, untold billions of ancestors who have come before us, all of whom are, we believe, just as alive and present to us in our time as they were when they lived on earth. To be Catholic is to value our tradition, but not at the expense of valuing each other. It is to gaze in awe at the majesty of creation, to receive life as an improbable and, paradoxically, absolutely predetermined gift. We dare not take it for granted.
The Jewish, Christian, and Islamic traditions, all with their origins in the Hebrew scriptures, trace our inheritance back to the Garden of Eden, to Eve and Adam, the primordial parents, some six thousand years ago. As a myth, this story has the ring of truth for me on some level. Religious studies has taught me that myth does not mean a false story, rather, a myth is a story that tries to express the inexpressible, and therefore, myths can never possess more than a ring of truth. They are not completely true, they’re not true enough, they’re not broad enough to account for all the earth’s people, not to mention the cosmos and all it contains.
Ancestral lines are important to all of us, but as we have become less tribal, and more global, our connection to the past becomes a little more tenuous. Our blood lines connect us in an intimate way to the source of our being, but there are other ways to look at our interdependencies. Australian aboriginals are born not into one but two families. The first is their blood family, the second their dream family, the family that places them in a larger spiritual context. Each dream family has not a bloodline but a song line, one connected to the natural world, each with its own story, an ongoing myth that is a melody. When aboriginals go on what they call a walkabout – something like a retreat — they enter the outback and follow their song. Each hill and creek along their song line is part of the story, a story passed down for thousands of years within each family.
Along these song lines each family not only participates in an age-old mythic drama, but the relationship between people extends to an intimate relationship with the natural world, with creation itself. This is why the aborigines consider so much of their land to be sacred. If miners come and level the hills that make up part of the melody, the song line is broken.
In a way, the myths on which Catholicism is based are also song lines—melodies passed on from generation to generation. There has been a tendency to be overly analytical in our tradition, to abstract the song lines from the ground of our being. This has led to a division between creature and creation. One result of this is to relegate the world into a place needing domination and taming, without regard for environmental consequences. Another is to relegate this world to a troubling negative reality from which we must be saved. Perhaps we can learn something from aboriginals.
Perhaps it is time we began to think of our blood line as a song line, as an ancient, continuing journey leading from the beginning of time until now, every chance encounter over hundreds of millennia marking our destiny. Each blood-line, each melody, is passed on in our genes, to which each succeeding generation adds its harmonies and instrumentations, its rhythms and orchestrations, contributing to a world-wide symphony. The song has been raucous and violent at times, but under the influence of submission to God’s grace, the melody becomes harmonious and gentle.
As we come together tonight, remembering all those who have come before us, all those who survived insurmountable odds and who are with us still, we find that on some level, we remember our melody. We stand with those who have given us the faith, with those who have passed on their love, with those who have hurt us, with those who simply did the best they could manage. And here we are, in their place, moving forward to places they could not have imagined. We acknowledge countless miracles with awe, humility and compassion. We continue to speak of our redemptive work, of being part of that original community that surrounded Jesus during his earthly life. Our ancestors have shared their dreams and their melody plays within us still. We, in our turn, add our own interpretations in the ever-expanding dream of God. We pass the flame. We share the faith. We sing our song.