THE NEW HUMAN BEING
The theory of evolution was once a burning coal. Darwin’s Descent of Man (1871), like his earlier book On the Origin of Species (1859), caused consternation in his time. The idea that all living things, including human beings, had evolved by natural processes seemed to place humanity on a par with the animals.
That burning coal has cooled down considerably. Practically all Christians now feel that God's providence over us is not less for our being part of the immense family of living beings. Besides, from the time of Aristotle (whose thought for about seven centuries had a commanding position in Catholic theology) the human being has been described as “a rational animal.” In reality we have less reason to worry about what we are descended from, and more reason to worry about what we have descended to! As human greed and aggression are seen to exceed by far that of any other creature, we are less ashamed of our kinship with the animals.
What counts now is the upward journey: not where we have come from but where we are going - the ascent of humanity. Every year on the feast of Christ's birth, we are given a vision of what we truly are, and where our destiny lies. That vision has no need to deny our kinship with the animals, because it shows us our kinship with God, who is the Father of all creation. Christ was born among the animals, and the first announcement of his birth was to shepherds minding their sheep on the hillside. The Christmas story - especially as elaborated in folklore - is full of animals. We don’t go forward alone, our world rises and falls with us, because it is part of us, and we are part of it. “From the beginning till now,” wrote St Paul, “the entire creation, as we know, has been groaning in one great act of giving birth” (Romans 8:22). The agonising labour of the ages has not been in vain: the Christ Child is born into our world.
Some time ago I spent a week in a Cistercian monastery and joined the monks seven times a day in the chanting of the Hours and the Liturgy. One of those Offices (not the first!) began at 6 a.m., another at midday and another again at 6 p.m. - Angelus times. When the Angelus bell rang the monks would stand in silence in the choir, facing the altar. No words…. It was deeply impressive - more so for the silence and stillness. Those silent figures, some of them weighed down with years, had an extraordinary dignity. That scene seemed to say: “Here stands the new human being, the ‘new creation in Christ’ (2 Cor 5:17); the billions of years that our planet has seen have not been in vain; in these men, Christ is standing on the earth.”
Later in the guesthouse I got to know a young couple with their child. It was the same mystery, the same dignity. The simplicity, the non-grasping presence of people, the silence of a monastery: if the whole world knew these, what a revolution it would bring about!
The Word became flesh, wrote St Irenaeus in the 2nd century, “in order to accustom human beings to dwell in God and to accustom God to dwell in human beings.”
Several centuries before Irenaeus (as many as six or seven), in the Book of Job, from the depths of his misery Job spoke the undying words: “I know that my Redeemer lives, and that at last he will stand upon the earth” (Job 19:25). From that great distance he glimpsed the pinnacle to which the human race is ascending.
The matter of our descent is of great interest in itself, but our ascent is even more fascinating. “What you really are,” someone said to me once, perhaps quoting, “is where you are going, not where you come from.”
Donagh O'Shea OP