All Creation Groans
All creation groans in this one great act of giving birth. —Romans 8:22
“Look,” I said, index finger tapping a dictionary entry, “‘Lent,’ in its root word, means ‘spring.’” My two young sons glanced out the window at the snow-covered yard. “That means Lent is a time for us, like other living things in spring, to grow.” The older boy nodded dutifully. The younger asked if he could have a cookie.
Those two boys are adults now. In all the years they sat at our table I never found a way to talk about Lent that made their faces light up and their limbs twitch with intrigue. Little wonder, since I had no affection for the season. Lent meant pained self-examination and fervent scouring of the internal house—fervency that faded as the season wore on.
One year I thought I’d found the way to enliven Lent. I learned that for centuries the church had pointed to Noah’s Ark as a symbol of “our Lenten passage.” Ah, a story—featuring a boat massively bigger than Grandpa’s! And animals, which never failed to get the boys’ attention. I dug out a basket for our ark. The small model animals already in the toy box, plus some new ones they eagerly picked out at the bookstore, would be the ark’s lucky occupants. Each night after supper one of the boys would choose an animal he wanted to put in the basket-ark and tell what he liked about that animal, why he was glad to have it onboard: the amazing speed of the cheetah, the amazing acrobatics of the monkey, the eagle’s amazing eye. . . .
They were attentive, I was engaged. Next, the spiritual application: Noah’s story is our story, I told the boys. The ark is the church, the community that carries us across the roiling chaos of our lives—personal troubles and public troubles. All that water—it’s the chaos, and also the water of baptism that strips off the tough husk we wear so that love can spill out of us.
I watched my sons’ faces go blank, their bodies slump in their chairs. They wanted to talk about the ark’s screeching, leaping, hissing, slithering animals. Alas, the church gave no instruction on the animals’ symbolic value. The animals were merely animals.
All of this was before the words “climate change” and “mass extinction” floated in our shared cultural air. Biologists now tell us that Earth is undergoing its sixth mass extinction—species loss is that rapid. … For the past century, whole species have been disappearing a hundred times faster, by conservative estimates, than in the past, because the choices about shelter, food, transportation, communication, and leisure that we humans make every day are pounding the planet. We are laying waste the animals’ only home.
Which is the only home of human animals too. This beautiful blue-green globe is the one ark we all ride.
The boys had it right all along. Attention to the amazingness of our arkmates routes us directly to the heart of Lent. The season means to rouse us from our self-absorption. Absorbed instead in the beauty of other creatures, we see how they value their lives, lives woven together across species in beautifully complex webs. The nine-ounce red knot flies from the southern tip of the world to meet the horseshoe crab at precisely the week she crawls from the waters of Delaware Bay to lay her eggs. Once alive to the exquisite web holding all creatures, we also see the holes slashed through it. By us. We’re enraptured by the animals’ beauty, and we’re horrified by the suffering we inflict on that beauty. [These creatures] too are now the hungry, the homeless, the hunted of the earth—“the least of these,” Christ’s brothers and sisters.
The purpose of Lent has always been to startle us awake to the true state of our hearts and the world we’ve made. Which wakes an aching, wild hope that something new might be born of the ruin.
The promise of Lent is that something will be born of the ruin, something so astoundingly better than the present moment that we cannot imagine it. Lent is seeded with resurrection. The Resurrection promises that a new future will be given to us when we beg to be stripped of the lie of separation, when the hard husk suffocating our hearts breaks open and, like children again, we feel the suffering of any creature as our own. That this can happen is the wild, not impossible hope of all creation.
When we suffer in love together, a Suffering Love beyond us can birth, through us, a new world where “they will not hurt or destroy in all my holy mountain.” This is what we and all creatures groan for—this more beautiful world that lies quietly waiting in every heart.
By Gayle Boss