Today I stood at the altar and marveled at the gold of the chalice. It is, of course, supremely blessed, holding (as it does) the very Blood of God. But I was simply thinking of its journey to that altar, its transformation, indeed, its transmutation. If the science of cosmology is followed, then heavy elements such as gold have a very unique origin. The free elements of the universe such as simple hydrogen don’t simply become something else without help. The other, heavier elements, are forged in the gravitational fusion furnaces of stars. This is true for the elements up through iron. Beyond that, even greater forces are required. For gold, a supernova is required, a single moment in the death of some stars in which collapsing forces become so great that it explodes, forging heavy metals such as gold and scattering them across the galaxy. They are relatively rare.
Some scientists suggest that for gold to be part of the earth requires that the materials of its formation included portions of an exploding supernova in the galaxy. The timing would have been extremely important. This simple “science fact” is only one of the vast multitude of such things in our daily lives. However, we’re more likely to think of gold in terms of “money.” Fr. Alexander Schmemann wrote:
Man has loved the world, but as an end in itself and not as transparent to God. He has done it so consistently that it has become something that is “in the air.” It seems natural for man to experience the world as opaque, and not shot through with the presence of God. It seems natural not to live a life of thanksgiving for God’s gift of a world. It seems natural not to be eucharistic. The world is a fallen world because it has fallen away from the awareness that God is all in all. The accumulation of this disregard for God is the original sin that blights the world. And even the religion of this fallen world cannot heal or redeem it, for it has accepted the reduction of God to an area called “sacred” (“spiritual,” “supernatural”)—as opposed to the world as “profane.” It has accepted the all-embracing secularism which attempts to steal the world away from God. (For the Life of the World)
This opacity of the world is born out of our habit of seeing things as though they existed in themselves, when, in fact, nothing does. Everything that exists does so only as the immediate gift of God, sustained in its existence solely by His good will. When we look at anything in all of creation, we see the good will of God.
I think we often fail in this seeing because we think the “good will of God” must be measured by some sort of benefit, something added to what is there. We do not understand that even mere existence is His good gift. The well-ordering of all things (which is a mark of all things that exist) is not a self-contained property, but a reflection of the Logos through Whom all things exist. The well-ordered-ness of each thing and all things is an icon of the Logos.
I often think that sacramental Christians strain themselves, staring at the Bread of the Eucharist in a misguided effort to see that it is the Body of Christ. In truth, we fail to even see its truth as bread. That truth is a prerequisite of the other. Schmemann suggests that in the sacraments, God reveals things to be what they are. The whole universe is eucharistic. Consider Christ, who reveals what it truly means to be human (as well as what it means to be God). “Even the winds and the sea obey Him.” This is true because of who He is and of what they are. When Christ speaks to the winds and the sea, we see the truth of creation and our place within it. Both humanity and creation are revealed.
I have not found science to be problematic in thinking about these things. For, at its best, science still only speaks of the “surface” of things. That gold was formed in the furnace of a dying star says nothing that contradicts the providence of God, and can, indeed, simply serve to deepen our wonder. I have noticed, however, that there are Christians who can adamantly insist that the earth is but 7-8,000 years old and still be completely mired in a secular experience of creation. Indeed, a certain form of historical literalism is part-and-parcel of the secular world. It holds no attraction for me.
The emptiness of a secularly-constructed creation (which would not be a “creation” at all) spills into everything in our life. There are no secular solutions to anything – for, in truth, nothing is truly secular. We are experiencing the triumph of the merely moral, the attempt to “fix” the world by behaving differently, by imposing new rules and insisting on their inviolability. In all of human history, no application of “morality” (when conceived simply as rules) has created a just society or “changed” the world. The world is spiritually constructed. True “morality” can only be had when a life is “spiritually moral.” This comes when our lives are conformed to the Logos who is the logos of our existence. That conformity is the life of grace and cannot be obtained in any other manner. The imposition of the merely moral in our time will end in a blood bath. That is its inner logic [sic].
The agony of our time is the agony of all creation. St. Paul tells us that creation “groans like a woman in childbirth” as it cries out for the true liberty of the children of God. The groaning of a tree is audible to those with ears to hear. The groaning of humanity sounds like the screams of chaos, fierce, angry, violent, smothered in shame and sadness. At present it is the groaning of a child that will not be comforted. Unable to articulate its true need (for it has become blind) it reaches and snatches for whatever is at hand. This is the age of delusional solutions: none of them will work.
And yet, gold-forged-in-the-heart-of-a-dying-star stands on the altar holding the Blood of God. What love and intimate care directed all things such that such a wonder would appear. The same love and intimate care has directed every atom of creation, including those who groan in their agony to this present moment. The Chalice waits for their drinking, ready to slake a thirst older than the star itself. It is the Chalice at the end of the world and thus the Chalice that brings an end to our agony.
I think of George Herbert’s (1633) poem:
Philosophers have measured mountains,
Fathomed the depths of seas, of states, and kings,
Walked with a staff to heaven, and traced fountains,
But there are two vast, spacious things,
The which to measure it doth more behoove:
Yet few there are that sound them; Sin and Love.
Who would know Sin, let him repair
Unto Mount Olivet; there shall he see
A man, so wrung with pains, that all his hair,
His skin, his garments, bloody be.
Sin is that Press and Vice, which forceth pain
To hunt his cruel food through every vein.
Who knows not Love, let him assay,
And taste that juice, which on the cross a pike
Did set again abroach; then let him say
If ever he did taste the like.
Love is that liquor sweet and most divine,
Which my God feels as blood; but I, as wine.