Please register to access this FREE content.
Before, I pointed out that the Church believes that every creature — even those we find irritating or inconsequential — mirrors the beauty of the divine Logos in our world.
Yet, even as every feature of the cosmos reflects its Creator, the Catholic tradition underscores something further in connection with this. As St. Gregory of Nyssa said in the fourth century, “all the fullness of nature together” in some way bears the image of God. But how, precisely, does the fabric of the universe as a whole manifest its divine Origin?
Bringing together the best of ancient and modern Christian thinkers, we will now explore how the entire cosmos images the Incarnate Lord through its character that may be described as cruciform (cross-shaped), paschal (configured according to the pattern of Christ’s suffering, death, and resurrection), or Trinitarian (modeled after the Triune God). To affirm that creation has this structure is to rejoice that God modeled the world after the Incarnation, with all the suffering and glory that it entails.
Some instances of the cross and resurrection in the natural order
Reflections of the Paschal Mystery in creation are so plentiful and significant that Jesus himself highlighted them. For instance, John’s gospel directs our attention to the paradoxical nature of pruning, where this seemingly harsh and counter-productive practice enhances the quantity of a vine’s yield (Jn 15:1–2). In this same work, the Beloved Disciple likewise records our Lord memorable proclamation, “Truly, truly, I say to you, unless a grain of wheat falls into the earth and dies, it remains alone; but if it dies, it bears much fruit” (Jn 12:24). As this theologically poignant passage hints, the irony of the grain of wheat seemingly disappearing only to rise again is both a natural phenomenon and a signpost to the mystery of the Word made flesh.
With these illustrations of creation’s paschal rhythm provided by our Lord himself, it is not a difficult task to follow suit and come up with tangible illustrations of our own. As a case in point, consider how the decomposition of living creatures is necessary for the formation of nutrient-rich compost and soil teeming with life. Or, if I may be allowed to get a little more visceral, think about animal excrement. It may not be inherently pleasant, but this substance plays an essential role in sustaining life on this planet by serving as the vehicle for dispersing and nurturing fruit seeds. Like the truth of the Gospel, the processes at work here are counterintuitive. Slow and unsightly at first, they are integral to the transformative process by which time, heat, and the activity of countless microbes combine to generate a magical and indispensable substance.
A similar dynamic is at play in some of Earth’s most intriguing creatures, like the caterpillar that must digest itself — dissolving all its tissues into protein soup — to emerge a beautiful butterfly. Like the seed that breaks apart in the bowels of the earth, a butterfly’s dramatic metamorphosis is an indicator — however analogical it may be — of the cruciform structure of creation and the pivotal role that death plays in the transmission of life. According to St. Teresa of Avila, the remarkable creature that emerges from a “fat and ugly” silkworm liquified in its own cocoon symbolizes the life of a disciple of Christ, wherein “there must be a cross while we live.” In this life, the saint added, we must learn to be “dead to the world” so as to rise from this vale of tears as a graceful white butterfly.
Creation’s cruciform dynamic is also evident on a larger and more dramatic scale.
Notably, we can consider the cataclysmic activity of volcanoes, earthquakes, meteorites, and flooding. With these regular occurrences, life is destroyed only to pave the way for new forms of it to emerge. At times, as in the case of our planet’s five mass extinction events over the last 500 million years, the loss of 75-95% of earth’s species has paved the way for new ones to emerge. In this context, we who bear God’s image may fruitfully ponder the providence of the catastrophic Permian-triassic extinction event 252 million years ago that eradicated more than 95% of all species yet created ecological opportunities for the ancestors of mammals to thrive. Further, we might wish to thank the Lord for the Cretaceous mass extinction event 66 million years ago, in which the extinction of all non-avian dinosaurs (yes, birds are descendants of the dinosaurs!) facilitated the flourishing of our mammalian ancestors.
And, on the grandest scale imaginable, we can reflect on how supernovae result both in the destruction of stars as well as the creation of the very elements that make life possible. In fact, as a Catholic priest discovered a century ago, the whole universe and all life within it began with an unfathomably violent yet productive “bang.”
The Incarnation embedded in creation: insights from the Catholic tradition
The notion that the incarnate Lord bears the meaning of creation within himself traces its roots back to Scripture itself. As the New Testament testifies, Jesus is the Alpha and Omega, the Word in whom and for whom all things were made (Rv 22:13; Jn 1:3; Col 1:15–16). Seeing as he is the exemplar of every creature, it stands to reason that his life, death, and resurrection should in some way be reflected in the created world modeled after him.
In this connection, the Fathers of the Church underscored that the universe’s natural cycle of life and death reveals a glimpse of the crucified and risen Lord Jesus. As St. Ephrem the Syrian captured in his characteristically lyrical prose, the fruit hanging on a tree prepared to scatter its seeds is imbued with “the fair mystery of the Cross,” while the living seed hidden in the earth “preaches the Resurrection.”
The Fathers held that the deepest enigmas of our cosmos are unlocked only in the light of Christ’s death and resurrection. St. Maximus the Confessor thus described the Incarnation as the key to understanding enigmatic passages in both of God’s “books.” Indeed, in the following text he goes so far as to affirm that the mystery of the cross and resurrection lies at the heart of all things:
The mystery of the Incarnation of the Logos is the key to all the arcane symbolism and typology of the Scriptures, and in addition gives us knowledge of created things, both visible and intelligible. He who apprehends the mystery of the cross and the burial apprehends the inward essences of created things; while he who is initiated into the inexpressible power of the resurrection apprehends the purpose for which God first established everything..
In his celebrated fourth-century Catechetical Lectures, St. Cyril of Jerusalem called attention to this same dynamic. This saint instructs us to contemplate the visible wonders around us and “from the analogy of nature” behold the mystery of Christ’s death and resurrection embedded in the cadence of the grain sown that rises again, the felled tree that blossoms anew, the transformation of decay into verdant growth, the winter freezes that make possible new life in spring, and even in the fact of human mortality that is the gateway to immortality.
These and other images often make an appearance in the the liturgy and traditional hymnody. As one marvelous Eastertide hymn has it, the green blade that “riseth from the buried grain / Wheat that in dark earth many days has been” is a tangible proclamation of Christ’s resurrection: the good news that “Love lives again, that with the dead has been / Love is come again like wheat that springeth green.” The final verse of this song goes on to proclaim that creation likewise points to the mystery of the believer’s life in Christ:
“When our hearts our wintry, grieving, or in pain / Jesus’ touch can bring us back to life again / Fields of our hearts that dead and bare have been / Love is come again like wheat that springeth green.”
In turn, these words allude to something further still: a foretaste of man’s Last End revealed in St. Paul’s vivid agricultural analogy where he teaches that our bodies must be “sown” into the ground perishable if they are to one day rise the dead imperishable (1 Cor 15:42–54).
More recent perspectives on creation and kenosis
Key figures in our own age have been engaged in the effort to reclaim these timeless insights and bring them to bear today in fresh new ways.
Building on the foundation laid in the Bible and Fathers, Ven. Fulton Sheen memorably described the cycle of life and death that runs through all nature as a fundamental law which he termed the “law of immolation.” Sheen described creation’s cadence as “catabolic,” in that it inevitably involves things breaking down to release energy. Yet, when a creature dies, the bishop explained, the being so consumed enjoys the privilege of being “transformed and elevated, reborn and ennobled in a higher life.”
Along the same lines, Hans Urs von Balthasar beheld creation in the light of Christ’s self-emptying or kenosis (Phil 2:7), which he saw as the historical expression of a “super-Kenosis” that exists analogously at an even more foundational level in the life of the Trinity. In turn, Balthasar spoke of each creature as an epiphany of divine love which “gives itself up” and “delivers itself to us” — unveiling something of the divine glory simply by presenting itself to our senses.
This perspective has resonated with a variety of ecologically conscious intellectuals presently at work in the Lord’s vineyard. In concert with what we now know concerning the long and winding road of life’s history on this planet, Christopher Thompson’s “Green Thomism” underscores that “the circle of life includes the cycle of death” and that the green movement “could just as accurately be described as the brown movement.” John Rolston for his part establishes a direct connection between this movement and the Paschal Mystery:
Every life is chastened and christened, straightened and baptized in struggle. Everywhere there is vicarious suffering…The story [of creation] is a passion play long before it reaches the Christ. Since the beginning, the myriad creatures have been giving up their lives as a ransom for many. In that sense, Jesus is not the exception to the natural order, but a chief exemplification of it.
Further insight into this dynamic can be found in Larry Chapp’s scholarly monograph on creation. According to Chapp, the Lamb slain before the foundation of the word (cf. Revelation 13:8) “marks the very identity of the form and life of the world,” to which he adds that the logic of nature is such that “in order to be itself an existing thing must sacrificially pour itself out into the world and allow itself to be taken up by that world and be placed in the broader narrative of life.”
This same law applies with regard to the life of man. From the dawn of our species, mankind has been deeply integrated into creation’s paschal rhythm, and the various pains and trials we experience therefore only make sense in this light. Yet, unfortunately, Chapp notes that it is easy to overlook the “profound teleology at work in the process of evolution” and that “the process of evolution is the product of a generous gift of real being from the Creator.” This is regrettable, for missing out on these integral facets of existence bars us from grasping something deeper about creation and the Trinitarian life after which it is patterned. As Fulton Sheen pointed out, a failure to grasp the stamp of the Trinity in the processes of nature also handicaps one’s ability to see how our suffering fits into the broader fabric of the universe, going so far as to suggest: “The tragedy of life is not what men suffer but how much they miss by refusing to follow the evolution of the universe.”
Joseph Ratzinger on God’s generosity in creation1
As we mark the first anniversary of his passing, it’s appropriate that we round out our discussion with some insights from Joseph Ratzinger/Pope Benedict XVI, for whom the Paschal Mystery’s presence in creation was a perennial subject of contemplation.
Already during his time in the academy, Professor Ratzinger reflected eloquently and often on the world’s cruciform shape. In his courses on creation, the young priest explained that suffering and death are “not peripheral” to life but rather belong among the “foundational principles upon which the whole interplay of the world is built.” During his tenure as cardinal, Ratzinger similarly said that “the paschal mystery, the mystery of the dying grain of wheat appears before us already among the ideas of creation.” This truth recognized by St. Thomas Aquinas seven centuries ago is today more evident than ever from a scientific standpoint: death and decay are core features of existence on this planet. They were integral to the universe’s thriving for billions of years before mankind’s entrance into the scene of history, and they remain so today.
ven as the role of suffering in nature serves a clear function, Pope Benedict would later underscore that this mystery cannot be fully circumscribed by reason alone. Indeed, this pontiff professed that it is only from the perspective of the Word made flesh who died and rose again that we can “manage to glimpse on the basis of a groping reconstruction of the fundamental reasons for nature.” In other words, the raison d’être of creation—its fundamental meaning and purpose—lies in the love of the Triune God. Ratzinger’s thought is perhaps nowhere better glimpsed than in these poignant words where he reflects on the “fundamental structure” of creation:
[G]enerosity is, at the same time, the divine trademark of creation: the miracle of Cana, the miracle of the multiplication of the loaves are signs of God’s superabundant generosity, which is the essential mark of his activity, of that activity that squanders millions of seeds in order to save one living thing; that activity that squanders a whole universe in order to prepare a place on earth for the mysterious creature that is man; that activity that, in a last unheard-of generosity, goes himself to save that “thinking reed,” man, and to lead him to his goal.
This theme held such significance for Benedict that he mentioned it in his final homily delivered in retirement. Even as the emeritus pontiff was losing the ability to speak aloud, he emphasized that death is an inherent feature of life here below and the prerequisite for resurrection: “Man seems to have been made to live forever. He wants to live forever, and at the same time he lives in a world structure where death is essential.”
Encapsulated elsewhere in the pontiff’s teaching that “[t]here can be no love without suffering,” this culminating insight aligns well with John Paul II’s affirmation that “[s]uffering is in the world in order to release love.” It also replicates almost verbatim St. Bernadette’s words, “Here below, love without suffering does not exist…for divine Love does not exist without suffering.” Yet, the suffering we are talking about here is not a misery that must be tolerated in sadness until death finally releases us from its grip. On the contrary, as Benedict saw it, death’s inevitability in this life is good news, because the resurrection for which it prepares us is not merely “a life that will begin again at some unknown moment in the future” but rather “a life that begins now.”
In this reflection, we’ve examined one particularly powerful and often underappreciated way by which creation mirrors the Logos, which is to say through the Paschal Mystery woven into the fabric of the universe. Having drawn wisdom from both of “God’s two books” and highlighted some tangible examples from nature, it is clear that suffering and death not only play a pivotal role in nature but moreover point to something deeper about God’s design by which we may be led to eternal life. While none of us desires death for its own sake, the Church nevertheless calls us to rejoice in the Paschal Mystery inscribed within the created order.
As I wrap up this essay with shooting nerve pain in my arm and in the aftermath of a virulent illness that recently swept through our household, I can testify that a critical part of our Christian metanoia involves coming to grips with this reality and aligning our lives with it.
1 For a more detailed treatment of Ratzinger’s thought on the Paschal Mystery in relation to creation, see my From the Dust of the Earth: Benedict XVI, the Bible, and the Theory of Evolution (Washington DC, Catholic University of America Press, 2022), especially chapters 9-10.