The heavens are telling the glory of God; and the firmament proclaims God’s handiwork.
Day to day pours forth speech, and night to night declares knowledge.
There is no speech, nor are there words; their voice is not heard;
yet their voice goes out through all the earth, and their words to the end of the world.
Brú na Bóinne is a World Heritage Site in County Meath, Ireland. Covering approximately 2,000 acres (3 sq. mi), it is the largest and one of the most important complexes of Megalithic sites in Europe, dating back to the Neolithic period. The site is comprised of Neolithic mounds, chamber tombs, standing stones, henges, and other prehistoric enclosures, some of them going back over 5,000 years, predating both Stonehenge and the Egyptian pyramids. The most famous structure is Newgrange, a mound constructed in about 3,200 BCE. The exact purpose of Newgrange is unclear. What we do know is that if you stand inside Newgrange at sunrise on the winter solstice, the rising sun floods the chamber with light piercing clear to the center of the mound. Similar sites have been found throughout Ireland.
The pre-Celtic and Celtic peoples paid attention to the heavens. The Celtic cross, in fact, depicts the sun being held in its arms. As John Phillip Newell notes, among the Celtic Christians of the Western Isles, there was a belief that “love of the lights of the skies, like a love of any aspect of creation, brought with it a type of grace of God.” Celtic Christians believed that the mystery at the heart of creation is Love. “To be in love with the gift of nature,” therefore, is “to be well within oneself.” A Celtic blessing goes like this:
Grace of the love of the skies be thine,
Grace of the love of the stars be thine,
Grace of the love of the moon be thine,
Grace of the love of the sun be thine.
Celtic Christians were accused at times of drawing heavily on their pagan Celtic roots when it came to their appreciation of nature. And to be sure, there is some overlap between pagan and Celtic Christian understandings. However, much of this overlap is the result of the Celts taking Christianity’s Jewish roots seriously, not simply their pagan ones.
Like the Celts, the ancient Jewish people believed that spirit and matter are woven from whole cloth. The Hebrew words for spirit and breath, we’ve noted before, are the same (ruach). So are the words for body and soul (nephesh). Like the Celts, the Hebrews believed that “matter matters.” If Creation had anything to do with God’s will and intention, then matter must matter.
We know this intuitively. Some people have special pieces of heirloom furniture in their homes that were built by their ancestors—a chair or dresser perhaps, or a desk, that may go back several generations. Some of our ancestors were master craftspeople, adding fine detail and inlaid patterns that are hard to match in today’s mass-produced pieces. Yet while you may own an heirloom piece or two, you don’t just do whatever you want with it. “Grandpa Elliot made that oak chair,” you object, to anyone who might want to move it from its prized place in the living room. Imagine the kind of respect you’d have if Grandpa Elliot also lovingly fashioned the very atoms from which the chair is made, and the evolutionary processes that led to the emergence of oak trees? If Grandpa Elliot did all that, we might not dare to even sit in it! But perhaps if we knew Grandpa Elliot to be a generous spirited sort who would clearly want us using his master craft rather than just reverencing it, we would dare to keep it in use, but only with utmost respect and care. To sit in Grandpa Elliot’s chair would be to feel the embrace of Grandpa Elliot’s arms.
As much as I believe in the natural, evolutionary processes that shape our world – and believe it is both necessary and helpful for Christianity to embrace evolutionary theory – sometimes I get concerned that our embrace of evolution has led us to view nature as if it were simply the product of some random set of accidents with no preciousness or intrinsic value at all. There may be random processes in nature, but if a loving God is behind those processes, then there is every bit as much intentionality behind them as if God had simply spoken them into existence. Perhaps more intentionality, even. It would be a shame to grasp evolution but let go of the insight that there is a purpose, an intelligence, and a Great Love behind Creation. Just as a chair fashioned by Grandpa Elliot reflects his desire that people be able to sit comfortably and delight in its artistic design, so each part of God’s Creation reveals something of God’s will and intent. As 9th C Celtic theologian John Scotus Eriugena once observed, every part of Creation is a theophany (self-revelation) of God.
The ancient Hebrews would have agreed wholeheartedly with creation being God’s theophany. Every part of the Creation story in the opening chapters of Genesis is meant to tell us something about our relationship with God, each other, and the earth. With respect to this week’s subject – the creation of the sun, moon, and stars (Gen 1:14-19)– Genesis asserts that God created these luminaries not as random accidents but to divide our experience of life into days, seasons and years, and to provide “signs” concerning how we should be spending our days, seasons, and years.
Naturally, the Hebrews possessed no modern scientific knowledge of the evolution of the universe. Yet I doubt that an ancient Hebrew rabbi would have traded his Bible for a Periodic Table, given the chance. The rabbi probably would have respected and admired the scientist’s work, but he also would have insisted that the scientist is asking very different questions of Creation than he is asking. The scientist asks, “Where did these luminaries come from and how were they formed?” The rabbi asks the “why” questions – as in, what is the significance of the fact that they exist at all? If the scientist were to insist that only her work was important, the rabbi might push back, asking, “Do you experience times when life seems out of control, like you’re caught up in a raging river and no amount of swimming against the flow is going to stave you against the power of the current? Or do you ever feel like you’re running as fast as you can but getting nowhere, like a hamster on a wheel? Do you experience times when you should be happy but instead feel sad, or you should feel peaceful but instead you feel nervous and agitated?”
If the scientist were to answer “Yes,” the rabbi would hand her his Bible saying, “Then you ought to read what Genesis has to say about the sun, moon, and stars.”
This is our question today: How does our passage from Genesis address these life issues? Well, first, we find that in Genesis, day begins at the exact opposite time we expect it to. This is more significant than it may seem. We in the modern world (who aren’t Jewish) get up in the morning and decide the Day starts when we do. The Day revolves around us, doesn’t it? The fact that we start counting our day when we first become aware of it deeply ingrains a pattern of thought that tells us that what matters is what we’re up to, what we want to do with it, where we’re going, and so on. We have an anthropocentric definition of “day.” The Hebrews, on the other hand, did not. They had a theocentric (God-centered) view. In Genesis – and throughout the Jewish tradition down to the present– day starts with night, at sundown, not sunrise.
In other words, in the Hebrew conception reflected in Genesis 1, our days start by ceasing our labors and going to sleep. By the time we get up in the morning, the day is half over! This suggests that when we get up in the morning we’d best ask ourselves, “What has God and the world been up to while I was sleeping?” Instead of deciding what we will do with our day, we should be asking how we can we continue what God has already begun.
Imagine the manager of a furniture factory going to work one morning to find that the night shift has half-assembled a hundred chairs to fulfill a work order, but then deciding he’s in the mood to build a hundred chandeliers instead. To a Jewish rabbi, this is as crazy as getting up in the morning without praying. We should pray in order to step into a flow that has already begun rather than initiate one that we decide upon without consultation.
Are you feeling like you’re caught up in a raging river and no amount of swimming against the flow is going to stave you against the power of the current? Then you may want to ask yourself why you are swimming against it in the first place. Or who put you in the river? Or why you feel you must swim against the current?
Do you feel like you’re running as fast as you can but are getting nowhere, like a hamster on a wheel? Then you may want to ask if you’re running in the right direction, or how you got on the hamster wheel to begin with.
Do you experience times when you should be happy but instead feel sad, or you should feel peaceful but instead you feel nervous and agitated? Then you may want to ask what unfinished business there is within you that has been waiting for you to address and is getting increasingly frustrated about your ignoring it (and letting you know it!).
Another way to see the same thing is to acknowledge that our consciousness is comprised of Night and Day aspects. Some parts of ourselves we know very well and are consciously aware of, as though seen through daylight. Other parts of ourselves are a mystery, unknown to us as though hidden in the night’s darkness. This becomes clear when anyone asks you to really describe who you are. Do you know? Most of us are like icebergs. Part of us is visible above the waterline, but much of us isn’t. We can describe who we are using “Day” language, by what we do, who our family is, what flavor of ice cream we like, and so on. But when we ask other questions, the view goes dark quite fast – questions like: What is your life’s purpose? What is the central conversation you are trying to have with life? What brings you most fully alive in this world? The most important questions are those we struggle hardest to answer.
Answers to such questions tend not to come from a realm that is beyond words. We can feel our responses more than articulate them. We explore such questions by following hunches and intuitions more than logic and strategy. We make our way into them “as if through a glass darkly,” says the apostle Paul, not in the bright sunlight. To speak in broad generalizations, the Daytime side of ourselves is most closely associated with Mind. The Nighttime side is most closely associated with Soul.
Public Safety officers tell us that if someone approaches us on the street and something feels wrong about our interaction that we can’t describe, we should trust our gut feeling because it is usually right. The “Night” side of ourselves may be hard to see and describe, but it’s highly intelligent and aware. It’s also perfectly capable of communicating to us. Its message is brought into the “Daytime” part of ourselves – our conscious awareness – through non-verbal feelings, hunches and emotions.
Sometimes we get this sense that all is not right with the world. Perhaps we are overcome with sadness. The “Daytime” part of ourselves – the part ruled by the Sun of our ego – may tell us, “Stop feeling sad! You need to cheer up!” We may respond by grabbing a pint of ice cream or turning on the television. But such Daytime responses to our Nighttime messages rarely help matters. A more helpful response would be ask why we’re feeling sad to begin with. And until we’ve figured it out, we’d best not block the feeling lest we lose the scent of their origins.
If you haven’t faced your fear, then you may miss entirely that which can set you free of your fears. If you haven’t faced your anger, you may miss what brings you peace. If you feel trapped and don’t get to the source of why you’re feeling trapped, then how will you know to grasp the hand that will free you?
Seen from another angle, if we haven’t examined the origins of what brings us our greatest joy, we are likely to fritter our energies away on that which only brings partial happiness. If we haven’t discovered the foundations of peace, we are likely to miss all kinds of opportunities that will bring us peace. When we get in touch with our souls we become more soulful.
Discovering the contours of our Night selves is difficult work, but not impossible. It’s speaking to us all the time, through most of the non-verbal cues we experience in life – through our emotions and intuitions, through our responses to art and music, through our hopes, fears, and dreams – and through meditation and prayer.
Why do you suppose that Jesus found it necessary to pray so much? Couldn’t he just figure out what he was supposed to do based on reason, logic, and strategy? No, he knew that at least half of what it means to hear God’s voice is to pay attention to that which is beyond words – the “night” side of ourselves which we call “night” not because it is dark but because it is shaped without our direct control. Jesus knew that prayer and meditation opens us up to a hugely important side of life – a side that can potentially destroy us if ignored but blesses us when we pay attention.
In the film, The Way, Emilio Estevez plays the part of a 40-yr old who is going to Spain to walk the 500-mile pilgrim route called the Camino de Santiago or “Way of St. James” in Spain. As he’s being driven to the airport by his father, a successful ophthalmologist played by Martin Sheen, his father accosts him for taking the time to do such a silly thing as go for a long walk in Spain when there are so many other, more productive things to be doing that could further his career. The father asserts, “My life here might not seem like much to you, but it’s the life I choose.” The son responds, “You don’t choose a life, Dad, you live one.”
Living life fully means paying attention both to our “daytime” logic and our “night time” intuitions and inner voices. It means honoring the fact that God is at work inside you, whispering to you, both at conscious levels and unconscious ones. It means that life has a flow that is beyond our ability to control but very much within our ability to enter and thrive within.