Before the Flood: A Christmas Meditation

Yves De Maeseneer

Bosch in Before the Flood.png

On the First Day of the Second Week of the Spiritual Exercises Saint Ignatius invites us to contemplate the mystery of the incarnation by imagining what it is like to look down at the world from God’s viewpoint. I was struck by the analogy between this exercise and the experience of astronaut Piers Sellers when he first saw our planet from outside. In one of the last months of his life, he gave a moving testimony in Before the Flood (2016). In this National Geographic documentary Leonardo di Caprio took as his point of departure a meditation upon Hieronymous Bosch’ Garden of Earthly Delights to discuss climate change. Imagining the disaster of an ecological hell and the call for change, di Caprio talks with major political and economic players, Pope Francis, voices from the Global South (Sunita Nairan and Farwiza Farhan) and scientists like Sellers:

“When you go up there and see it with your own eye, how thin the world's atmosphere is, tiny little onion skin around the earth. That's all the oxygen that we breathe, that's the CO2, everything we burn goes into it. It's an astonishingly fragile film. I knew intellectually how the earth's system works, because that's what I've been doing for 20 years. To see how the atmosphere and the ocean, all the elements in the system work together. So I understood it intellectually. But it's like being an ant trying to understand what an elephant looks like by crawling all over the elephant. But when you're up there in orbit, and you can see 1200 miles in any direction. It's kind of a revelation. Seeing all the cities at night, millions of people all working away, doing something. Come around the day side of the world, seeing the natural systems. The hurricanes, huge, great big wheels, over the oceans. Saw the Amazon River go between my feet. Just beautiful, all the way out to the sea. And there was the sun coming up over the Amazon, the whole forest waking up, and doing what it does every day. Breathing in and breathing out. So at the end of all that I became immensely fond, more fond of the planet. Which I never thought about when I actually just live on the surface. I'm also kind of fond of the people on there, too. It's like being taken away from your family and coming back. And I wish it all well. Just before Christmas I got told I got pancreatic cancer. … So that's really motivated me to think about what's important to do, and what can I contribute in the time I have left.”

Screen shot before the flood.png

“You know, the facts are crystal clear. The ice is melting, the earth is warming, the sea level is rising. Those are facts. Rather than feeling, oh my God it's hopeless, say, okay, this is the problem. Let's be realistic. Let's find a way out of it. And there are ways out of it. If we stopped burning fossil fuel right now, the planet would still keep warming for a little while before cooling off again. … So there really is a possibility to repair. I'm basically an optimistic kind of person. I have faith in people. I really do have faith in people. And I think that once people come out of the fog of confusion or an issue, or initial uncertainty on an issue, and realistically appreciate it at some level, the threat, and they're informed of what the best action is to deal with it, they got on and did it. And what seemed like almost impossible to deal with, became possible.” (Italics mine.)

Screen shot before the flood earth.png


PS: In the academic year 2017-2018, our blog will take a sabbatical rest, anticipating new horizons for Anthropos. We highly recommend that you have a look at the archive of our 2016 conference blog: Relation, Vulnerability, Love: Theological anthropology in the 21st Century, which offers an explorative multimedia view of what Anthropos has been about in its first six years of existence (est. 2010), introducing key players in contemporary theological anthropology.

When Mother became Mary

As part of the series on Laudato Si, this blog is meant as a theological-artistic exploration of the themes of pregnancy and incarnation, themes that suit the time of the year, the advent period. For his drawing, Sander Vloebergs was inspired by the classical icons of Mary and child and the dynamic movement of Nature spiraling around the moment of incarnation. He was inspired by blogs previously written by Julia Meszaros and Patrick Ryan Cooper. This blog is a continuation of the line of thought that started with the previous blogpost on Laudato Si : This sister now cries out to us.

Body and incarnation

Mary, blessed above all women, Queen of the heavens. Sometimes we forget that the Holy Mother is a mother just like us: blessed with the gift of life, a woman between women. She is a created being, transformed by the Life that grows in her, never to be the same as before. She becomes the Image of what creation could be, Mother Nature pregnant of the divine, a material body of Love. More than a celestial appearance, she is a fleshly manifestation of endless love and devotion, an erotic human longing to be completed.

We seem to neglect the materiality of the gift of life when we watch the beautiful icons of Mother and Son. That is why I wanted to visualize the growing life inside Mary’s womb with this drawing. In my creative world the iconic Mary becomes first of all a mother; with a pregnant vulnerable body, spinning around the source of Life. We should not forget that pregnancy and deliverance are first of all bodily phenomena that have a deep existential significance. A child grows in a body. It is this radically transforming body that interrupts the human life, it demands a play of identity as the ‘I’ transforms into a ‘we’. In a way, the bodily creation of new life goes hand in hand with an encounter with death itself as the ego dies in order to resurrect as a mother. The beauty of the tree of life is intertwined with the fragility of human existence as revealed by the crucified body. While life is cherished in the womb, humans become vulnerable, capable of being wounded in a bodily and existential way. The gift of life is a gift of death, a chance to spiritual growth.

Julia Meszaros writes beautifully in her blog on the mysticism of natural childbirth about this spiritual journey. She writes: “ For natural childbirth can serve as a metaphor (and hence a training ground) for the spiritual life, as the great mystics of the Christian tradition have described it. The natural birth of a child ‘undoes’ us; it gives us a glimpse of the meaning of human suffering; and, by driving home to us our creatureliness, it places us before God”. In her blog she puts special emphasis on the pains of labor and the thin line between life and death as this pain makes us aware that our lives hang on a golden thread. The birth pains reveal the fragile nature of human existence and the presence of life in the most vulnerable bodies. Yet those bodies show the most potential to live an authentic human life: open to be wounded and touched by the divine.

Mother of mothers

So we come to the Mother of mothers, Mary who responded with unrestricted love to the presence of God. She accepted the transformative movement of Nature (the natural pregnancy) to harmonize with the wounding Love of God in a way that changed the course of history. Yet we can’t forget that she is a creature of matter, a human body, a Mother Nature in her brightest form. About the necessity of her humanity, Patrick Ryan Cooper writes: “Without the Theotokos, the Incarnate Word would have been merely "similar to us but would not have been perfectly consubstantial" and thus the "God-man would not be my brother". Mary gives Jesus his body and offers him the gift of death and suffering that is existentially intertwined with Life itself.

She is the example par excellence of how a spiritual erotic longing for the Love of God can transform the body and how the pregnant body can change the existence of men. Mary is both active in her seductive devotion and passive in the receiving of the divine. The active dynamics that seduce the God of Love are driven by the praying openness of all humans who carry in them the gift of life. Mary is part of this cosmic movement, she is its crown jewel. In her, the prayer of the earth gets answered, and she, first of all mankind, becomes a temple where creation and Creator can touch.  Mother Mary reveals what Mother Nature can become, what every human could become. She is the mother who became Mary, Queen of Heavens.





Oscar Romero’s Faith: A Persistent Challenge for Theologians (A blog at the occasion of his beatification, San Salvador, May 23rd, 2015)

Liberation theologians have acknowledged their debt to Monseñor Oscar Romero, and particularly with respect to the seriousness with which he took his Christian faith. Ignacio Ellacuría, a Jesuit theologian working in El Salvador who was murdered in 1989, mentions three specific things he learned from the way Romero lived out his Christian faith: (i) how to “historicize” the gospel (ii) the need for the oppressed to become the “guiding center” of praxis, and (iii) the need for “Christian transcendence.” These three commitments Ellacuría learned from Romero—historicization, the oppressed as guiding center, and Christian transcendence—are all present in Romero’s understanding of incarnation, which he put forth in his address in Leuven shortly before he was killed. Whereas Romero presented incarnation as a call for the church in this speech, Ellacuría subsequently indicates how this call challenges the theologian. This challenge remains important today.

Romero took Christian faith claims seriously by historicizing them: “to flesh out those beautiful declarations from the standpoint of my own situation,” as Romero declared in Leuven. He understood incarnation as an existential situation of being affected by the world of the poor, as a movement of taking “the world of the poor upon ourselves.” Romero discovered a concrete reality that had always existed yet by which he did not initially allow himself to be confronted. Through the process of historicization, he allowed this historical situation to define faith realities. Ellacuría describes Romero as “fully realizing” his ecclesial function in this movement into the world of the poor. With Ellacuría, I see Romero to challenge theologians to more fully realize what it means to do theology through this process of historicization. This requires using (theological) concepts that emerge out of the concrete encounters with realities of oppression and struggles for liberation—that is, it requires thinking divinity from the materiality of reality.

Ellacuría describes Romero’s conversion in his mission to be the result of how he historicized the Gospel; his conversion did not come out of primarily theoretical considerations. In this sense, the oppressed prompt and guide Christian theological concepts and historical praxis. In Leuven, Romero insisted that the world of the poor—and by this I understand him to refer not only to the objective reality of the world of the poor but also to the ways the oppressed have made sense of their reality—teach the church what Christian love, liberation, and hope in fact entail. In Romero’s claims about the church, I find a challenge to the theologian to allow for radical receptivity in theological discourse from the oppressed, and even more, to allow theological discourse to be shaped by the perspectives and concerns of those oppressed by social structures, and by their struggles for liberation.

For me, articulating the need for an understanding of transcendence akin to Romero’s is the trickiest dimension of Romero’s thought that Ellacuría pulls out because of recent critiques of transcendence within theology that I think make valid points (e.g., those from Catherine Keller, Mayra Rivera, and Laurel Schneider). Yet, the claim Romero makes for Christian transcendence in his Leuven address, which refers to the priority of the Christian faith and a transcendent God, issues a necessary caution to such theologies. Romero describes his understanding of incarnation as relying on the priority of the Christian faith and a transcendent God, but a Christian faith and a God whose transcendence are only revealed in history, and particularly in historical processes of the oppressed initiating their liberation. Incarnation for Romero is not, at least in the first instance, universal; it is “preferential and partial.” It is only from the perspective of the world of the poor that “the church will become a church for everybody.” Romero’s understanding of transcendence doesn’t imply a positivistic understanding of revelation that stands apart from the world; there is a necessary receptivity in the Christian faith and in divinity. This receptivity is not receptivity in the abstract sense, a receptivity as such, but a particular form of receptivity: receptivity from the world of the poor. Romero maintains the transcendence of the church by basing its praxis in its faith in a God who self-revealed as for the oppressed, even as he urges that transcendence be given meaning by the marginalized. Romero ends his address with this interplay: “From the perspective of the transcendence of the gospel, I believe we can determine what the life of the poor truly is. And I also believe that by putting ourselves alongside the poor and trying to bring life to them we shall come to know the eternal truth of the gospel.” The gospel, in other words, is given priority, yet the content of the gospel is only worked out within historical, material encounters—that is, through the process of historicization.

The three dimensions Ellacuría finds so crucial in Romero’s work—historicization, the oppressed as guiding center, and Christian transcendence—indicate the radical nature of Romero’s understanding of incarnation. Romero took his Christian faith seriously by holding to an ultimate orientation within reality shaped by the revelational claim of divinity incarnated in the world of the oppressed. This faith claim based on revelation calls for a receptivity in revelation itself from the perspective of the world of the poor. It places a demand on the (liberation) theologian to hold to an ultimate orientation not necessarily discernible through philosophical reflection, and also entails a rejection of naïve claims of “real” liberation and “true” personhood proclaimed from a dogmatic position not adequately touched by reality, and particularly the reality of the periphery. While the way that Romero understood and named the world of the poor has to be renewed, his call for incarnation that he articulated in Leuven remains as a challenge to the theologian.