The glory of the sons of God: sermon on the fourth Sunday after Pentecost
By a Dominican Friar | 21 June 2023
“The expectation of the creature waiteth for the revelation of the sons of God.”
St Paul today tells us that creation has been “made subject to vanity”. Vanity, here, has the sense of futility. “The creature,” he says (that is, creation), “was made subject to vanity, not willingly but by reason of him that made it subject, in hope.” What does this mean? We can contrast it with what we read at the very beginning of Scripture. We see there that, after God has made all things, He finds no flaw in them. “God saw all the things that he had made, and they were very good.” But if, at that time, they were very good then they were not yet subject to vanity, or futility. Clearly, something must have happened after God made all things which caused them to become subject to vanity: but what?
We seem to find an answer to this question in another part of the Old Testament, in the Book of Wisdom. What do we read here? “God made not death, neither hath he pleasure in the destruction of the living. For he created all things that they might be… But by the envy of the devil, death came into the world” (Wis 1:13–14; 2:24). Death came into the world by the envy of the devil because the devil envied the happiness of our first parents and their intimacy with God, and so he induced them to disobey Him. When Adam refused to be subject to his Creator, then by a just sentence of God, he lost the mastery over his own body; Adam put in train the long process that would end with his body falling away from him altogether, by death. In this sense, the prophecy was fulfilled, “In what day soever thou shalt eat of the fruit, thou shalt die the death.”
But what we seem to learn from St Paul and the Book of Wisdom is that the sin of Adam and of the first woman, Eve, did not affect themselves alone, nor only the whole race descended from them, but that it also had a deleterious effect upon creation as a whole. It was “made subject to vanity, not willingly”, that is, this was not part of God’s original plan for His creation, “but by reason of him that made it subject”, that is, by reason of Adam’s sin. By the Fall, “death came into the whole world”.
When we look around us, it is not difficult to see what St Paul means by “subject to vanity”. All that lives on earth, dies and eventually decays. Many of the animals live on other animals. The very rocks, the hills and mountains themselves, are corrupted by the passing of the years. Though none of this is evil as sin is evil, it casts a shadow of melancholy across creation. St Basil the Great, whose feast occurred last week, once said that we cannot even see the moon begin to wane without feeling some sense of sadness.
What the Scriptures seem to teach us is that all this death and decay would not have held sway upon earth, had it not been for the sin of Adam, whom God had made the king of creation. This, of course, is not something that we may prove or disprove by human science and observation. Human science studies the world as it exists now: Scripture speaks to us of the world as it would have been without sin, and that is hard for us to imagine. But we can say that, without sin, our world would not have been subjected to vanity, as we find it now to be, by the envy of the devil.
Jesus Christ, as the beloved apostle St John says, “appeared that he might destroy the works of the devil”(1 Jn 3:8), including, therefore, death and decay. Our Lord destroyed them first of all in His own person. Though He died to take away our sins, it was not possible for Him to be held by death, since He was innocent. Likewise, it was impossible for His body to experience decay. That is why He rose in glory on the third day.
The same is true of the Blessed Virgin. God’s grace preserved her from every sin, including the sin that the rest of us inherit from Adam. Therefore, she was not subject to the effects of sin. Mary was like a new garden of Eden, against whom death and decay had no power. That is why her divine Son raised her up also, body and soul, into glory.
But what of the rest of us? What is our situation? In one sense, we are part of this creation subject to vanity, in that our bodies must grow old and wear out. If this were all that we could say, then our situation would indeed be a sad one. That is why the motto of pagans, both ancient and modern, is, “Let us eat and drink, for tomorrow we shall die.” But there are two things that transfigure everything for us who are not pagans but Christians.
The first is that, even in this life, we have the seed of immortality within us. The divine grace that we received in baptism is like a seed that will flower into glory. St Paul calls it “the first-fruits of the Spirit”. Our life of faith is already a beginning of the eternal life. Why else do we say in the preface of the Mass for the Dead:
“For thy faithful ones, O Lord, life is changed, not ended; and when the house of this earthly habitation [our body] is dissolved, an eternal dwelling in heaven is prepared.”
That is why God, by a miracle, sometimes preserves the body of this or that saint incorrupt, even after many centuries. It is a sign for us on earth that not just that saint, but all the saints, are alive now in heaven, far more alive, in fact, than we upon earth. That is also why St Athanasius could say that for the Christian, death is no longer something terrible, and why St Francis of Assisi could even address it as “my sister”.
The second thing that transfigures our situation on earth is that our bodies themselves are not doomed to a perpetual decay. Remember the words of St Paul. He doesn’t simply say that God has subjected creation to vanity, but that He has subjected it to vanity in hope. Why in hope? Because Jesus Christ, our elder brother, has promised to share with us His own resurrection. When He was drawing near the tomb of His friend Lazarus, He said to St Martha, “I am the resurrection and the life: he that believeth in me, although he be dead, shall live.” Lazarus had already been four days in the grave and by the natural course of things his body must already have been decomposing. By raising Lazarus to life, Christ showed what He will do for all of us on the last day.
And then, in some way beyond our present imagination, God the Father through His Son will raise the whole of creation to life. All creation will be “delivered from the servitude of corruption”. In other words, death and decay will end, and what St Paul calls “the glory of the sons of God” will transfigure the world itself. And though we call that “the end of the world”, we shall realise then that it is really only a beginning.