new heavens and a new earth

We hear these scintillating words in this prophecy of Isaiah today, the Monday after Laetare Sunday (Is 65:17-31), from right near the end of the whole book of Isaiah: I am about to create new heavens and a new earth. It is no accident that the prophet uses the Hebrew word bara’ here for ‘create.’ thThis is the same word that is used in the first line of the book of Genesis: In the beginning when God created the heavens and the earth… The same power that was operative in the original creation is again at work in a new creation.[1] But it’s important to note that one of the characteristics of Old Testament prophecy is that when it points to a New Age, it is not something other-worldly. It sees this world transformed or, maybe better to say, it sees this world restored to its original purpose, the purpose that God intended in creating it. Behold I create a new heavens and a new earth. And remember Peter uses this same line, proclaiming that in Christ too we wait for a new heavens and a new earth (2 Pt 3:13); and the Book of Revelation ends with the same vision: I saw a new heaven and a new earth; for the first heaven and the first earth had passed away (Rev 21:21). Could it be that they all mean this physical world in which human beings will be free from hardships, a place where righteousness is at home (2 Pt). Isaiah is wildly optimistic about it: the span of human life will be a hundred years and if someone fails to reach old age it will be a sign of divine displeasure. It is not about the restoration of the Davidic monarchy or about the earthly city, the geographical Jerusalem, or even about Israel itself, but the new Jerusalem, as Revelations says, coming down from heaven adorned like a bride. And when that righteousness comes about, when human beings are loyal to the divine will, then Nature itself will respond; it will be a new or a renewed creation. There are so many echoes of this in the New Testament; besides the ones I mentioned there is certainly also Romans 8: the world itself will be freed from its slavery to corruption when we have experienced the redemption of our bodies (Rom 8:21).[2]

And then we have this scene in the Gospel of John (4:43-54), where Jesus is doing just that, redeeming someone’s body, restoring this boy to his original purpose. But note that this scene is wrapped up in all kinds of other images that have been so powerful for us the last weeks. This is Jesus’ second miracle in the Gospel of John; the first was the wedding feast at Cana, Jesus’ feat of alchemy, transubstantiating the water into wine. And just like that first sign, here too he at first refuses. “Oh you people! You won’t believe unless you see a sign!” Why that’s important is because right after the wedding at Cana, he heads off into Samaritan territory––not his people––and they believe his word. They don’t need a sign or a miracle. His word is enough, his promise that ‘The water that I will give will become in them a spring of water gushing up to eternal life (Jn 3:10).’ And now he’s back in Cana of Galilee, and they need a sign. His prophetic word is not enough. Whereas Matthew shows us the scene where Jesus says this, John only adds it parenthetically: Prophets are not without honor except in their hometowns.”

I’ve been reading a little about alchemy recently. Besides the Christian language of the paschal mystery, and the birth death cycle of Baptism, it is alchemy that has really fascinated the Western mind for centuries, and was certainly highly influential on Karl Jung. The reason I bring it up is because of how much the alchemical process sounds to me like the purpose of Lent, and the purpose of our spiritual practices in general––a regeneration. What the alchemists thought happened to materials can be seen as a metaphor for what happens to the soul. Like a material, the soul is subjected to intense inner heat through the practice of ascetic disciplines, and that heat decomposes the soul and reduces it to its substrate condition, to its prime matter, which (according the Aristotelian metaphysics is) the universal stuff underlying all substance. After undergoing this decomposition the soul comes under the influence, in alchemy, of the philosopher’s stone or the elixir (which most people see as an image of the Holy Spirit) and begins to be regenerated and transubstantiated, until the soul is perfected and becomes a full vessel of divinity.[3] Ah! A new creation!

This is what we’re going through too through our own discipline, in our spiritual life, through the grace of God in the sacraments and this season of Lent: after we have allowed ourselves to be stripped down to our naked selves, the spiritual life could and should lead us too to be transformed or, maybe better to say, restored to our original purpose, the purpose that God intended in creating us in God’s own image, the new life breathed into us by the Spirit of the Risen Christ.

What does Paul say in 2 Cor 5:17? If anyone is in Christ, there is a new creation: everything old has passed away; see everything has become new! Including you and me.

[1] Edward Young in The Book of Isaiah, vol. III, 513

[2] A. S. Herbert in The Cambridge Bible Commentary, 187-188.

[3] Michael Washburn, The Ego and the Dynamic Ground, 204.

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