The Stream that gives Joy to God’s City
Throughout Sacred Scripture we find mentioned a river that flows from the center of the City of God. This river is already represented in the Garden of Eden: “A river flows out of Eden to water the garden, and from there it divides and becomes four branches” (Gen 2:10). At the other end of the Bible we find it once more: “Then the angel showed me the river of life, rising from the throne of God and of the Lamb and flowing crystal-clear” (Rev 22:1). The Psalms sing of this river: “There is a river whose streams bring joy to God’s City, it sanctifies the dwelling of the Most High” (Ps 46:4).
The prophet Ezechiel also had a vision in which he saw that a stream went forth from the side of the Temple and flowed out to water the land. This river gives life and health to the plants and animals with which it comes into contact. “Wherever the river flows, all living creatures teeming in it will live. Fish will be very plentiful, for wherever the water goes it brings health, and life teems wherever the river flawlessness the river, on either bank, will grow every kind of fruit tree with leaves that never wither and fruit that never fails; they will bear new fruit every month, because this water comes from the sanctuary. And their fruit will be good to eat and the leaves medicinal” (Ez 47:9-12).
Both Scripture and Tradition consistently speak of Paradise, the Temple in Jerusalem, and heaven as pointing to the state of men and angels living together in the communion with God. For this reason it is safe to assume that the image of the river that is mentioned in these various passages refers to one and the same reality.
From these passages of Sacred Scripture, the significance of the seemingly incidental observation of St. John comes to light: “One of the soldiers pierced Jesus’ side with a lance; and immediately there came out blood and water” (Jn 19:34). St. John had previously identified the body of Christ as the Temple (cf. Jn 2:21). Here then, he identifies the stream that gives joy to the City of God and that flows from the throne of God and the Lamb, giving life to the whole world, as the stream of divine grace that flows from the Heart of Jesus opened for us in His sacrifice on the Cross. The one stream flowing from the side of Christ is a river that sanctifies the whole of creation, as is beautifully expressed in the verse from the hymn found in the Liturgy of Good Friday:
He endured the nails, the spitting,
Vinegar, and spear, and reed;
From that holy Body broken
Blood and water forth proceed;
Earth, and stars, and sky, and ocean
By that flood from stain are freed.
Crux Fidelis, from Veneration of the Cross)
The Book of Genesis points out a certain characteristic of this stream which is of particular significance. It is written that this one river divides into four branches when it passes out of the Garden of Eden (cf. Gen 2:10). This passage from the book of Genesis has received various interpretations throughout the ages. St. Augustine saw that Paradise represents the Church, and the four streams that flow out of the Church in order to water the entire earth are the four Gospels (St. Augustine, City of God, 13, 21). Others have seen that the four streams, understood in relation to man’s moral life, represent uprightness, expiation, light, and piety (cf. Cornelius a’Lapide, Commentary on Genesis, Ch. 2, col. 177). Still others have interpreted them to be symbols of the four cardinal virtues: justice, fortitude, prudence, and temperance (ibid.).
From these various interpretations we see that this Scriptural image can be understood to mean that the stream of Christ’s grace, when it passes into creation, is divided into a fourfold stream of grace. Following the traditional manner of interpretation of these streams already mentioned, we may also consider them as representing the four finalities for which sacrifice is offered: adoration, thanksgiving, expiation, and petition. This is fitting, since the grace that flows from the side of Christ is the fruit of His perfect sacrifice on the Cross. The single sacrifice of Christ contains this four-fold fullness, so as to embrace and elevate all praise, thanksgiving, petition and expiation offered by men in union with Him. Closely related to these four forms of sacrifice are the Four Bearings, or the Fundamental Directions in the Work of the Holy Angels: Adoration, Contemplation, Expiation and Mission. These are the fundamental responses of angels and men to all the graces which flow from the Cross of Christ. They issue from the fourfold stream which flows from the Heart of Jesus, while themselves constituting a fourfold stream by which the angels seek to lead us back to the Heart of Jesus.
We will focus in this present Circular Letter upon the first of these four streams which flow from the Heart of Christ to give joy to His Holy City, the Church: the stream of praise and adoration. This stream passes over the choirs of angels, down upon the Church on earth, and from there, it waters the entire physical creation. Just as the river in Eden provided life and beauty to the plants in the earthly paradise, so does this stream of praise give life and beauty to the Church on earth and in heaven, as well as to the whole creation. As Eric Peterson points out: “What applies to the highest grade of creation applies equally to the lowest, to plant-life, animals and things which stand much lower than man in the scale of being. When in the Psalms let us say, animals and mountains break forth in praise of God, this is no mere hyperbole or excess of poetic fancy, an unwarrantable human personifying of inanimate nature. It is something based ultimately in the nature of the created thing, which runs right through the whole scale of creation from the Cherubim and Seraphim down to the least thing in the world” (Eric Peterson, The Angels and the Liturgy, pp. 48-49).
The way that the plants and animals are able to glorify the Lord, despite their having no understanding, is by the fact that they bear the stamp of their Creator and reflect Him to some degree. This idea is expressed in one Psalm: “The heavens are telling the glory of God; and the firmament proclaims his handiwork. Day to day pours forth speech, and night to night declares knowledge. There is no speech, nor are there words; their voice is not heard; yet their voice goes out through all the earth, and their words to the end of the world” (Ps 19:1-4). Further, they praise God by their “obedience” to His command as is expressed in another Psalm: “Praise the LORD from the earth, you sea monsters and all deeps, fire and hail, snow and frost, stormy wind fulfilling his command” (Ps 148:7-8).
But beyond the glory that the physical creation gives to God by its natural existence, the physical creation gives even greater glory to God by being involved in the worship of God. This worship offered by all creation is presided over by man, who serves as God’s specially appointed minister. From the very beginning man was created to serve as the “high priest” of creation (cf. John Paul II, Crossing the Threshold of Hope, 2). He was set in the Garden, which was the sanctuary of God, with the task of “cultivating” the earth. That is to say, he was to bring creation into the cultus (worship) of the one true God. But this sanctuary was desecrated by the sin of the very high priest who was sent to bring it into the adoration of God. Consequently, the sin of Adam effected not only the soul of man, but the physical creation as well: “Cursed is the ground because of you” (Gen 3:17). The creation, which was to be a sanctuary of God, was desecrated by the very one who was created to be the “high priest” of creation.
By sin, rather than raising the physical creation up into the harmonious song of praise, man introduced a disharmony which subjected creation to futility. As St. Paul describes, “The creation waits with eager longing for the revealing of the children of God; for the creation was subjected to futility, not of its own will but by the will of the one who subjected it, in hope that the creation itself will be set free from its bondage to decay and will obtain the freedom of the glory of the children of God. We know that the whole creation has been groaning in labor pains until now” (Rom 8:19-22). The “futility” to which creation was subjected means that it was no longer capable of achieving the finality for which it was created: the glory of God through the ministry of man.
Man, too, was subjected to futility because he was unable to achieve the complete finality for which he was created. For this reason he experienced a profound sense of the futility of his labors, as is eloquently expressed in the Old Testament: “Vanity of vanities, says Quoheleth, vanity of vanities! All things are vanity! What profit has man from all the labor which he toils at under the sun?” (Ecc 1:2-3).
The flood from the side of Christ not only freed the creation from the curse of sin, but it also offers creation the possibility of being lifted up once more into the song of praise. The sacramental order of the Church uses various physical elements: water, oil, bread, and wine; as well as the material used for the altar, the vestments, the candles, and incense, etc. And so, by way of representation, the physical creation is made present and elevated once more.
But while the salvific sacrifice of Jesus Christ has made possible the capacity for the creation to participate in the glory of God, it is not all at once completely effected. Rather, it is an on-going struggle. The world remains a field embattled, where the consequences of sin wages war against the consequences of the saving work of Christ. For the sin of Adam and the sins committed throughout the history of mankind, even after the coming of Christ, have similar consequences on the material world. Our sins continually subject the physical creation to a certain “futility”, depriving it of the purity and integrity needed for being worthy to be involved in giving glory to God. St. Thomas speaks of this in the following terms: “Now although a corporeal thing cannot be the subject of the stain of sin, nevertheless, on account of sin corporeal things contract a certain unfittingness for being appointed to spiritual purposes; and for this reason we find that places where crimes have been committed are reckoned unfit for the performance of sacred actions therein, unless they be cleansed beforehand. Accordingly, that part of the world which is given to our use contracts from men’s sins a certain unfitness for being glorified, wherefore in this respect it needs to be cleansed” (Summa Theo., Suppl. 74, 1, c.).
As we have already seen, the “cleansing” of creation is accomplished by the flood that flows from the side of Christ. Men may wash themselves in this stream as Naaman was once cleansed of leprosy in the streams of the Jordan (cf. 2 Kings 5:1-14). This is accomplished particularly by entering into the stream of praise with the angels, in and through Jesus Christ’s perfect act of worship. This stream of adoration and praise is made available through the celebration of Sacraments of the Church, the sacred Liturgy, and through our continual union with the graces of the Sacraments by means of the practice of devotions. The adoration rendered by the Liturgy is accomplished in union with the whole of creation. It is “in tune” with the entire universe. As the Holy Father once wrote concerning the Holy Sacrifice of the Mass, “In this sacrifice, on the one hand, the very mystery of the Trinity is present in the most wonderful way; and on the other hand, the entire created universe is united (cf. Eph 1:10). The Eucharist is also celebrated in order to offer ‘on the altar of the whole earth the world’s work and suffering’…That is why in the thanksgiving after Holy Mass, the Old Testament canticle of the three young men is recited: Benedicite omnia opera Domino. For in the Eucharist all creatures, seen and unseen, and man in particular, bless God as Creator and Father; they bless Him with the words and the action of Christ, the Son of God” (Pope John Paul II, Gift and Mystery, pp. 73-74).
The Holy Father mentions the fittingness of singing the canticle found in the Book of Daniel (Dan 3:29-68), which is a litany calling upon the various creatures to praise and glorify the Lord. In a certain sense this is resumed in the unending hymn of praise sung by the angels: “Holy, holy, holy is the Lord of Hosts, the whole earth is full of His glory!” (Is 6:3). This song expresses the burning desire of the Seraphim for the realization of the canticle of Daniel: “Bless the Lord, mountains and hills, sing praise to Him and highly exalt Him for ever. Bless the Lord all things that grow on the earth, sing praise to Him and highly exalt Him for ever” (Dan 3:53-54).
In every situation of our life we, too, can express this ardent desire for the glorification of God by all creation through praying the “Holy, holy, holy Lord…” with the holy angels. By praying this prayer, the Sanctus, we become a channel of the stream from Christ’s Heart, so as to fulfill in some measure the very thing we desire. This is a true exercise of the common priesthood in which all the baptized share. In praying this prayer of adoration we pour out water on thirsty soil and streams on dry ground, bringing the creation to blossom (cf. Is 44:3-4). Where this stream of praise and adoration flows in the world, there is found the beauty of song and the true dignity of life. Where this stream dries up, there enters noise and degradation
Further, in adoring with the angels, we are not only serving as intercessors or channels of the flow of God’s grace, but we ourselves become the beneficiaries of this grace. We drink from the stream that flows by the wayside, and so lift up our heads (cf. Ps 110:7). Through the act of adoration men become “like trees planted by streams of water, which yield their fruit in its season, and their leaves do not wither. In all that they do, they prosper” (Ps 1:3). This fruitfulness comes about when we pray the Sanctus with our own Guardian Angel or with the angels of the different people and places with which we come into contact throughout the day. For with regard to the angels it is written: “Are they not all ministering spirits, sent to serve for the sake of those who are to inherit salvation? (Heb 1:14) All the angels are ministering spirits, sent to assist us. When we adore with them, praying the Sanctus with them, we open ourselves up to their ministering assistance—we allow them to help us to bear fruit.
Further, if we consider the extraordinary uniqueness of each individual angel, each having his own particular store of the riches from the unfathomable treasure of Christ’s graces (cf. Eph 3:8), we will find that the benefit we derive from praying with the various angels can be a source of profound spiritual enrichment.
We see, then, that to work with the angels to fill the whole earth with the glory of God is a vocation that we have received from Christ Jesus and which we must realize in and through Him. By virtue of our communion with Jesus and, through Him, with the whole of creation, we should first strive to sanctify all our work and activity throughout the day. It is necessary to break out of the secular mentality which tends to segregate God out of the work-a-day world. Adoration must rise continually from the place of our work as well as from the place of our recreation. Thus, the rhythm of our life is marked by the cry of the angels: “The whole earth is full of your glory”. This brings about a real transformation and sanctification of creation. But even more, man also achieves his fullest self-realization, such that his very life becomes a hymn to the praise and glory of God: “For what does man learn on reaching the angelic world but that the creation praises God, praises Him from the last star down to the least blade of grass?…Because he only comes to be there by rising ever higher and higher above himself...[i]t is thus appropriate that in the end he is present with the angels only as a song, and as a song he pours himself out before God” (Eric Peterson, p. 48). In this way the water that flows from the heart of the City of God in heaven returns once more to God, having carried out God’s good pleasure and achieved what it was sent to do (cf. Is 55:10-11).
Fr. Basil Nortz, ORC
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