In A.D. 627, the monk Paulinus visited King Edwin in northern England to persuade him and his subjects to accept Christianity. The king consulted his advisers. One of them stood up and said, “Your majesty, in the winter when you sit at table with your lords and vassals, it happens of a sudden that a little bird flies into the hall, coming in at one door and flying out in another. It seems to me that the life of the human being is the same. We do not know what went before and we do not what follows. If the new doctrine can speak to us surely of these things, it is well for us to follow it.”
King Edwin and his followers found the answer they sought in the story of Jesus of Nazareth, whose baptism at the river Jordan we celebrate today. We also celebrate National Bible Sunday. We have to discover again in the Jesus story as told in the Bible the answers to the questions of existence and of the meaning of human life in our situation today, more than two thousand years after he walked this earth.
Human beings are essentially story-telling creatures, desperately seeking meaning and mystery to give themselves a sense of their place in the scheme of things. Stories are the way they make sense of their world, out of which comes their philosophy of life as a practical and meaningful worldview that shapes their values and guides their behavior.
The story about the world has moved from the mythic to the scientific, from a static to a more dynamic one (Gaudium et Spes 5). While our forefathers told the timeless story of Malakas and Maganda, we now have to view the universe and human history in terms of billions of years. We are told today that the universe began 13.7 billion years ago in a primordial cosmic explosion called the Big Bang. In that singularity, physical reality moved from chaos to cosmos in the most absolute silence one can imagine.
Our solar system orbits around the center of the Milky Way (our own galaxy with 100 billion stars) once every 200 million years at a speed of 800,000 kilometers per hour.
There are a hundred billion other galaxies in the immensity of space of our observable universe (80 billion light-years across).
We live in an expanding universe, with galaxies hurtling away from us at close to the speed of light at the edge (estimated to be a million billion billion kilometers away from earth). We are told that human beings are part of an evolutionary movement on this planet which started more than 4 billion years ago. We owe our existence to an extremely improbable chain of events in a vast, convergent cosmos.
Asking the fundamental questions
Nostra Aetate, the document in the Second Vatican Council about dialogue with other religions declared: “Men expect from the various religions answers to the unsolved riddles of the human condition, which today, even as in former times, deeply stir the hearts of men: What is man? What is the meaning, the aim of our life? What is moral good, what is sin? Whence suffering and what purpose does it serve?
Which is the road to true happiness? What are death, judgment and retribution after death? What, finally, is that ultimate inexpressible mystery which encompasses our existence: whence do we come, and where are we going?”
With our culture of the superficial and the globalization of indifference, we have to ask these questions that grab us by the throat in the light of this change of our view of the cosmos. That is the message of the Baptism of Jesus and of the whole Bible – the story is an entire way of looking at the world in a long-drawn narrative, a depiction of how human beings relate to the universe and to one another. It’s about the vertical link between God and human beings—the hermit clad in camel’s hair, the immersion into the water, the Creator stooping to enter his creation: “I need to be baptized by you and you are coming to me?” (Mt. 3:14)
But it is also about the horizontal relationships of society, because it locates transcendence in the ordinary, the commonplace, the lowly. Thomas Merton wrote that what is holy in our midst has something to do with the odor of dung on a stable in Bethlehem, the fruity taste of wine on the table at Cana and the smell of dried blood on the cross at Golgotha.
What is holy in our midst has something to do with the smell of rotting garbage in Smokey Mountain, the smell of rotting corpses in Tacloban, and the smell of rottenness in high political offices. The way we deal with these things as the universe keeps on evolving will be shaped by the way we answer the fundamental questions that all religions have been trying to answer since the human race crossed the threshold of consciousness. The way we look at the world shapes our values and guides our behavior.
Setting powerful intentions for 2014 is a good way to begin looking within, and immersing ourselves in the deepest questions around our purpose and who we came on earth to become. How can we reclaim the Jesus story in our own context as Filipinos? How is the carpenter from Galilee God’s beloved Son in the context of a quantum universe?
We have to ask the fundamental human questions over and over again and reclaim our story once more because as William Carlos Williams wrote:
“Without invention nothing is well spaced,
— unless there is
a new mind, there cannot be a new
line, the old will go on
repeating itself with recurring
deadliness . . .”