One of the most haunting hymns of Advent begins, “Conditor alme siderum,” loosely translated as “Fair Creator of the stars.” The deeper meaning of “alma,” however, includes “nourishing, fondly cherishing and protecting.”
The word is often applied with sentimental nostalgia to the academic institution where one was intellectually formed and from which one graduated. It is a term of warm respect and mature appreciation.
To use the same term for the Creator of the universe, as does this hymn, is to confess belief in a God who cares deeply about each and every individual part of the galaxy and beyond. The hymn expresses awe, wonder and praise for the God who wants all of creation to flourish and to arrive at its respective perfection.
The Acts of the Apostles describes Paul standing on the Acropolis at Athens, surrounded by countless shrines and pagan idols … suddenly seeing one stone dedicated “to the unknown God” (Acts 17:23ff). At that moment, and in such a remarkable historic location, the apostle waxed eloquent as he invited his audience of philosophers to consider “the God who made the world and all that is in it … who needs nothing yet gives to everyone life and breath … who fixed the ordered seasons … in whom we live and move and have our being.” They were initially spellbound by his rhetoric and his conviction.
It was the God of Israel whom Paul proclaimed to the Athenians, a God who freely decided to create the world and to choose a people for his very own. Astonishingly, when one thinks about it, God made them as the first story of creation tells us, “according to his image and likeness” (Gn 1:26).
Over the centuries, saints and sages (not that they are necessarily two different groups of people …) have offered suggestions as to what precisely might make a human being of flesh and bones with a living spirit into an actual image of the Almighty and Eternal God.
Medieval scholastics decided that the likeness must be some remarkable share in God’s understanding and free will. To know something and to freely choose it, whether it is a piece of candy or a friend or a work of mercy, is an extraordinary divine action.
Those closer to the actual wording of the biblical witness suggested that human/divine likeness was rather to be found in an ability to put things in order like seven days and to reshape something even better from whatever might be at hand! To separate socks from shirts or forks from spoons requires a wee human share in God’s own understanding. Moreover, to experiment with the laws of physics or chemistry and to “create” new technology like microwaves or cell phones is truly astonishing. Is that not like the God who shaped human beings out of mud and a breath of fresh air?
Whatever the precise point of human likeness to God, and there are many when one stops to think about it, we human beings are extraordinary creatures. No wonder the psalmist sings the eternal question, “What is Adam … that you should care about him … made a little less than a god … crowned with glory and honor?” (Ps 8:5f)
Even the most secular agnostic scientist must stand in awe before the astonishing intricacies of the human body, so delicately balanced for physical health and emotional well-being. Believers and non-believes alike are summoned to respect the inherent dignity of every human being, no matter how small and frail or elderly and tired.
The Scriptures do not purport to unravel scientific mysteries, but to tell the truths which matter for salvation. Catholic Christians believe that each of us is freely and deliberately called into being by a God who wishes to call us partners in the transformation of the world. A God of evolution? Why not? As long as the theory includes the existence of a God who uses the laws of the universe for a divine purpose.
Sometimes I shake my head in sadness when I read a confirmation letter and learn that the candidate thinks evolution in itself is necessarily contrary to the teachings of the Catholic Church.
Every single person, whether an “untouchable” in the slums of Mumbai in India or an elite corporate officer in Paris or London, possesses the inherent dignity of a human being and is therefore worthy of respect, consideration and mutual support. That’s why Catholics are so deeply troubled by abortion.
What is each of us here for? Look at the talents, interests and opportunities of your life. See what is needed around you and what you are positioned to contribute. Take note of those whom we love and serve, meet and support, challenge and help.
Perhaps the final answer won’t be totally certain until the last moment when we claim the mystery of our own unique being in praise and gratitude. Called to share responsibility with God for the world is no small task. Nevertheless, God gives that privilege to all the beloved women and men of each generation.