Posted July 15, 2015
‘Blessed be God who has blessed us.’ So begins the Epistle to the Ephesians, as we heard in today’s second Reading. The first three chapters of this epistle are about the wonderful blessings God has bestowed upon us.
The author describes these blessings in the most superlative language. In fact, his language strains so hard to be superlative that it often falls over itself and leaves us wondering what on earth he is saying. But that’s just the point. He is not saying anything on earth ‒ his viewpoint is heaven: God choosing us in Christ before the world was created; God removing the barrier of sin to bring us into an intimate relationship with himself in Christ; God planning for us an eternal future with him in heaven. In other words, the blessings that the author describes are all to do with God’s work of Redemption; they are all what you might call religious blessings, not the blessings of creation, as such. Now that is not a peculiarity of Ephesians. It’s the same in all the New Testament writings ‒ they focus on God as Saviour and Redeemer. They get excited about the beauty and wonder of grace, and say little about the beauty and wonder of the created world.
This contrasts very strikingly with the Old Testament, which often gets really lyrical about the blessings of creation. It is, of course, true that for the Old Testament also, God is Saviour and Redeemer. Hence there is a lot in the Old Testament about Exodus, and covenant, and sacrifice and expiation for sin ‒ in a word, about ‘religion’, if that’s what you want to call it. Yet the Old Testament never forgets that God is first and foremost the Creator, who brings into being the wonder and variety of the natural order: ‘The heavens declare the glory of God; the skies proclaim the work of his hands.’ ‘Let the earth put forth vegetation, plants yielding seed, and fruit trees bearing fruit in which is their seed, each according to its kind, upon the earth.’ The Old Testament loves wine, and bumper harvests, and companionship, and dancing: it cherishes the rain, and food and feasting and friendship and fig-trees; and ‒ if we are to go by the Song of Songs ‒ it cherishes also erotic love, for the Song of Songs is about two young lovers cooing at each other and delighting in each other’s company (and by implication, of course, delighting in the God who has made it all possible). And to judge from the Book of Job, the Old Testament even delights in hippopotamuses, for a magnificent hippopotamus is introduced at the climax of the book which apparently solves all Job’s problems, or at least stops him moaning about them.
By contrast, reading the New Testament you might be forgiven for thinking that Christianity forgot that God is the Creator who ‘looked upon all that he had made and found it to be very good’. The New Testament can seem rather negative about the created world. (It is ‘subject to futility’, St Paul reminds us, and is in ‘bondage to decay’.) All the more reason, therefore, to remind ourselves that the Old Testament too is part of our Bible; it is the inspired word of God; it is always new and vital; it is for us. Our Redeemer is our Creator. Therefore, when we count our blessings ‒ when we ‘bless God who has blessed us’ ‒ we should also think of God our creator who, precisely as our creator and the creator of the universe, has blessed us with really wonderful things.
Do you bless God for the wonderful blessings you enjoy as his creature, living in the world that he has created? Even the simple fact that we belong to the created universe should keep us blessing God for eternity. By ‘belonging’, I mean not just being physically part of it, but possessing a mind that has access to its mystery and complexity, such that we are personally in tune with this mighty work of God, capable of dialogue with it. You see, there is no logical reason why the created universe should make sense to us, any more than my computer makes sense to my cat. But miracle of miracles, our minds were made to understand the language of the created universe and to comprehend its behaviour; and our senses were made to interact with it and be perfectly at home in it. Do we bless God for sight, and hearing, and touch and taste and smell; for our health and the intricate wonder of our bodies? Oh, I know that sometimes it can go wrong, and the world is imperfect, there are natural disasters and suffering and disease, and it’s all very fragile. But with all its fragility, it is still an effective mirror of God’s splendour, still enough for us to praise him and bless him for letting us in on it all: for declaring to us his glory.
Then, do we bless God for our human relationships? For affection and love? For the persons he has given us, so that we may love them and be loved by them? And the particular blessings that God has given to each of us individually, the things in life which each of us has to thank him for: the joys, the victories, the cherished memories, good health, one hopes, for most of the time, wonderful consolations, bad times suddenly turned good?
The author of Ephesians does not expressly include these among the blessings he blesses God for, but confines himself instead to the supernatural, heavenly blessings which God has lavished upon us in Christ. But he does not exclude the blessings of nature and the joys of human life – far from it. A few verses later he explains that the ultimate purpose of these spiritual, heavenly blessings in God’s plan is ‘to unite all things in Christ, things in heaven and things on earth’, or – to translate more precisely – to ‘recapitulate all things in Christ’: to bring all things together under Christ as head, so that they find all their meaning in him. It’s especially that phrase ‘all things’ that grabs me. By ‘all things’, the author of course means all the heavenly blessings that come from our sharing in the divine life; but he also means all the blessings of nature: he means both nature and grace, both creation and redemption, both this world and the next: the totality of everything that has ever proceeded from God. It is God’s ultimate plan that Christ should encompass all created things in his own person and bring them to perfection.
In other words, God’s purpose is not just to draw us into his divine life, but also to purify, perfect and make eternal all the wonderful experiences we are blessed with in this life: so that the beauty of creation will no longer be spoiled by any kind of imperfection, neither disease nor pain nor deprivation; and the joy of human affection will no longer be intermingled with tears and the pain of separation. As St Paul puts it in Romans, the created universe itself will be ‘set free into the freedom of the glory of the children of God’.
‘Blessed be God who has blessed us!’ That is a wonderful summary of what we are about to do in this Eucharist. For the Eucharistic Lord both recapitulates all God’s blessings and becomes the means of offering them back to God in perfect thanksgiving on our behalf. May we make this wonderful exchange our own, and may it bring new vision and a new commitment to our daily lives.
Fr Tom Deidun