It is so shockingly physical, isn’t it? As we reflected last week, the resurrection is profoundly, and intimately, about bodies. These bodies however are not just human but of all kinds. Even fish bodies. Imagine. Imagine the sounds of the crackling fire, and the sight and feel of the fish, and not least its smell and taste. It is deeply visceral, isn’t it? And it is so evocative of all the other times in which Jesus has been with others, with fish as central: and not least all those fishing trips, and feeding of the thousands. We are used to thinking of sacraments as visible signs and vehicles of God’s grace and presence. We think, not least of bread and wine, water and light. However fish are also key: creatures in many cultures as vital as bread and wine for sustenance and survival; fluid seekers and expressions of water and light...
For legends of great fishes abound, don’t they? Biblically speaking, we are reminded not least of the resurrection story of Jonah, to which Jesus significantly referred. We do not have to be actual fisherfolk either, to admire leaping fish. Are they not in their way images of resurrection? My spiritual director for instance has a striking painting on his walls of a gorgeous powerful salmon leaping out of the waves. When asked, he says it is a gift and memorial to a fellow Catholic priest who died at an early age, and an affirmation of the resurrection faith by which he lived. God indeed speaks through fish, in the stories of Bible and world.
So what difference would it have made to the development of Christianity, do you think, if the fish, rather than the cross, had remained central in Christian iconography, reflection and worship? Might we have focused more on the life of the whole of creation rather the tragic sins of humanity? Might we have nurtured food and flourishing and ecological connection rather than human sacrifice and violence? We shall never know. Yet we can look again with fresh eyes and tell our spiritual stories afresh. This is part of the emerging eco-theologies and faith practices of our times.
Among the many emerging strands is an increasing interest in learning from the first peoples of the earth. For so long their spiritualities were designated by others as mere, or crude, ‘animism’, and treated as primitive, and sometimes even demonic. Today, if we become more humble, we have much to learn. One relatively recent example of more open and loving Christian engagement is Mark Wallace’s approach in his provocatively titled book When God was a Bird: Christianity, Animism and the Re-enchantment of the World. Beautifully, vivaciously, and lovingly written, this is a plea to rediscover and value the nature-based portrayals of God in the Bible and earliest Christian traditions. In doing so, he suggests, Christians and other people can walk more closely with the first peoples of the Earth as we address the scandalous misconstructions and destructions of our sacred world.
The de-sacralising of God’s Creation is surely at the epistemological heart of today’s ecological crisis, together with associated false human power relationships. Thomas Berry’s famous words (in the Dream of the Earth) are still to be clearly heard and acted upon: ‘the universe is composed of subjects to be communed with, not a collection of objects to be used.’ Dolphins, as the Hitchhikers Guide indicated, understand that better than humans. Until we see God again in the fish, and other creatures, of our world, we will not really see God at all, and we will certainly struggle. So, as Mark Wallace and other eco-theologians suggest, to re-enchant our world it is necessary to re-examine our inherited wisdom traditions. Old tools and expressions need to be re-cast. The significance of the Resurrection stories are part of this.
Last week, I indicated how bodies and material existence were not at all incidental to resurrection faith, but core to it. Today’s Gospel reaffirms this, but, in reminding us of God’s revelation in fish, helps us extend our Resurrection understanding far beyond human bodies to other animal bodies, and indeed the body of God in the planet as a whole. Note well how the Bible frequently speaks of the promise of a ‘new heaven and a new earth’, so much more than a new place for certain human spirits after death. At times, this soars into powerful visions of planetary, and even cosmic, harmony. Remember Isaiah’s vivid picture of a world in which the lion lies down with the lamb? What extraordinary anticipations of the resurrection of God’s body as a whole!
There is a deep irony in much of classical Christian doctrine. In their emergence, many affirmations were often designed to safeguard Jesus’ and his first followers understanding of God in all of Creation, in human and other-than-human bodies. Like last week’s story of Thomas, today’s story is so physical because it was partly intended to ward off what was long ago called Docetism. This was the original heresy about Jesus. For ancient people were used to thinking of this world, its bodies and materiality as problematic and of little ultimate value. All real value, said ancient philosophical convention, lay in the world above or beyond this one. Our minds and thoughts were worth something, as shadows of this true reality. However nothing truly good could be of the earth itself. So when Jesus came along, clearly sharing the life of God, they had a problem. How could Jesus be human, with a body, created out of the earth? Their answer was that he only ‘seemed’ to be human. In that context, do we then see how radically different the resurrection stories are?
Like the Virgin Birth, the Resurrection stories were difficult for many people in the ancient world to accept, but for very different reasons that people today sometimes struggle with them. Today, with our developed explorations into biology and anthropology, we may have other questions. We want, for example, perhaps first and foremost, to affirm the humanity of Jesus. To the ancient world however, it was hard to understand how Jesus could be born in earthly form, even less in a woman’s body. It was similarly hard to comprehend how the resurrection was about the redemption of bodies and earthly aspects of Creation, rather than escaping from them.
Well, we have had too many decades of fruitless battles between liberals and conservatives over physical aspects of the birth and resurrection of Jesus. That is the legacy of the historical period we know as Modernity, beginning with the Enlightenment. More significant today, I think, is the difference between those who see the world as sacred in some way, and those who see it as merely for human use – between those for whom, as Thomas Berry said, the world is a communion of subjects, and those for whom it is a collection of objects. For, sadly, although the European Enlightenment and Modernity dispelled much ancient superstition and rightly valued scientific advance, it distanced so many of us from the mystery of Creation in all its diverse, fish-like and other, forms. So perhaps the heart of much Christian endeavour today, is to recover the sacral significance of the whole body of the planet in God’s resurrection purpose – in fish and other creatures, as well as new life for human souls and bodies.
I leave you therefore with a powerful vibrant image from our first peoples, many of whom still have a sense of the profound communion of subjects which form our land, planet and universe. It is but one expression of what the great Buddhist sage Thich Nhat Hanh has called ‘interbeing’ and which emerging theology and spirituality is rediscovering. It is for me another picture of the life of resurrection in our intimately interconnected human and wider existence…
The image (see above) is a painting by Judy Watson, from Waanyi Country in what today we call north-west Queensland, and it is currently on exhibition in the National Gallery in Canberra. Judy’s community is known as ‘running water’ people, and the movement of water is a recurring theme in her art. Her painting canyon thus reflects the intimate, and inextricable, relationship of human beings and water. It was inspired by a trip Judy took in Bell’s Gorge, north of Sydney, and her experience of being swept along the water. Not being fish, ‘we were floating on lilos’, she says, ‘through a canyon and beautiful light was pooling down upon us… it was that feeling of going into this space full of water and then full of light… it is like a channel of light within Bell’s Gorge… it could also be seen as a channel of light within the body.’
…and, perhaps, one captivating image of resurrection of the whole body of animals, fish, vegetation, and even humans too, in this sacred land?
In the light shining in the faces and places of God’s whole body of Creation, Amen.
Josephine Inkpin, for Easter 3 Year B, Sunday 18 April 2021