A 2nd Century map by the Greek cartographer Ptolemy labelled a point along the South East coast of Ireland as the Sacred Cape, an inspired name that ignites our imagination and enlarges our faith. So in Wexford, we have every opportunity to witness first-hand the breadth and depth of creation, a celebratory contemplation of God’s glory reflected in the creatures around us.
The Sacred Cape
In County Wexford, our three nature reserves hug the sandy coastline. Ballyteigue Burrow Nature Reserve is a nine-kilometre-long shingle spit near the coastal village of Kilmore Quay harbouring features, such as sand dunes, mudflats and salt marshes. It is home to wild grasses, delicate flowering plants, rare lichens, incredible invertebrates and graceful birds. Moving Northwards, the Raven Nature Reserve began its life as a long narrow sand spit protecting the North entrance to Wexford harbour. Over one third of the world’s population of Greenland White-fronted Geese overwinter here. They feed by day on the neighbouring Wexford Wildfowl Reserve and return each evening to roost in the relative safety of the sand bar, on the southern tip of the Raven. The area is rich with wildflowers and butterflies.
When we visit such beautiful places, we can’t help wondering at the diversity of life on our planet, the Kingdoms of Life: Bacteria, Protists (e.g. slime moulds and seaweed), the Plants, the Fungi (e.g. yeast and mushrooms) and the Animals. In Chapter 13 of the Gospel of Luke, Jesus compares the Kingdom of Heaven to the growth of a mustard seed into a large bush that the birds of the sky dwell upon. He also compares it to the yeast that a woman mixed with wheat flour until the dough was leavened.
The Kingdom of God
Within a few short sentences of sacred scripture, we hear Jesus referring to species from three different kingdoms of life: Plants, Animals and Fungi pointing to the interconnectivity, vital relationships and interdependence of creation. It is through the germination and growth of the mustard seed and the yeast within the interconnected web of life that transformation occurs. This is the mystery of the Kingdom of God, the coming together of the power for growth within each one of us within the larger web of God’s creation. This is the power of the Holy Spirit, which helps each one of us grow towards a fuller life.
In Genesis, the first act of God is to create light. In early Christianity, baptism was known as ‘photismos’ or illumination. Through the light of God, the living community of the faithful reflects the rich and diverse web of creation – interconnected, related and interdependent – a reflection of the Holy Trinity. Every time I light a candle in Church, I thank God for the resplendent light of truth. In a very real way, each one of us become messengers of light within a larger community of light, who work towards bringing God’s Kingdom of radiant light into the world. For us, lighting a candle banishes the darkness and gives us a tangible experience of God’s light on earth.
The Sacramentality of Nature
Just as baptism is the sacrament that invites us into illumination by living water and the invocation of the Holy Trinity, the natural world created by the Holy Trinity is also sacramental, fed by the living waters of the rivers and streams that pour into the great seas. We see reflections rippling across the surface of the living waters of the earth and contemplate the hidden depths within. From early childhood, water captures our attention. The happy child leaping into a muddy puddle becomes the joyful adult sitting peacefully by the seashore contemplating the majestic flight of the geese.
Greenland White-fronted Geese fly in family groups of wavering lines that are easy for us to recognise reaching Ireland on the cold northerly winds that trumpet the onset of winter and leaving again on the warm southerly breezes that herald the spring. Each sunset, these geese depart the fields to roost overnight in the relative safety of the sandbanks of Wexford harbour. Each dawn, they flock back into the fields of the North and South Slobs, where they spend the short winter days grazing on rye grasses and the roots of buttercups and clover. They also feed on crop roots that have been especially grown for them by the work of human hands. It is this work of human hands that reminds me of the celebration of the Eucharist, a sacred fulfilment of our creative work with nature, a sonorous note in the symphony of our role within creation.
Every time I see these geese, I reflect on sacramental symbols, visible signs of God’s presence. The awe-inspiring movement of thousands of birds across an incandescent sunset or glittering dawn always stops me in my tracks. It is an almost indescribable moment of true joy, a feeling of intense humility joined with a deep feeling of belonging that could only originate from love. My sacred response is Amen, a covenantal cry from the heart. By witnessing the fingerprints of God around me, I become ever more aware of the reflection of God within me, gradually revealing my true image beneath the dying embers of my lingering independence. We are united in mystery. I, God and neighbour. This is what it means to be free. So be it.
The Mystery of Presence
Such moments of life-filled grace alert us to God’s abiding presence: the sheer extravagance of creation, the interconnected journey of just one local migrant to our shores, the relationality of each and every one of God’s creatures and the interdependence of all being. I marvel over the soil, the clover, the buttercups, the water, the clean air, the attentive raising of young goslings and the long difficult migration in harmony with the earth’s seasons.
Birds navigate according to weather patterns, food sources, the earth’s magnetic field and the location of the sun by day and the stars by night. This is the unfolding story of the universe itself which speaks powerfully of God’s providence for: ‘God made the two great lights - the greater light to rule the day and the lesser light to rule the night - and the stars. God set them in the dome of the sky to give light upon the earth, to rule over the day and over the night, and to separate the light from the darkness. And God saw that it was good’ (Genesis 1:16-18).
A Gift for All
The magnificence of nature is a freely available endowment of God, a watercourse of natural grace, a gift that we bring into the Church with us to be renewed and elevated during the liturgy. This is where we express thanksgiving, acclaim God’s glory and offer up nature’s gifts worked by human hands for consecration through which all creation is taken up by Christ the Redeemer to be transformed and presented to our heavenly Father. It is where we celebrate the memorial of Christ, express communion with the whole Church of heaven and earth and respond ‘Amen’ to the concluding words: ‘Through Him, with Him and in Him, in the unity of the Holy Spirit, all glory and honour is yours, almighty Father, for ever and ever’. It is a celebration of creative presence, embodied wisdom and eternal love.
When we say ‘Amen’, we honour the glory of creation in Christ just as we welcome the real presence of Christ in the Eucharist. Through the Eucharist, we share in God’s own life through a radical transformation which penetrates the heart of all being leading to the transfiguration of the entire world. Each time the priest raises up the Eucharist, he is responsible for bearing the weight of the world upon his fragile shoulders in a cosmic act that unites heaven and earth. It is a daring act of tremendous courage, a truly sacred moment that offers us a taste of divinity.
At special moments, as I sit and watch with a sense of attentive expectation, I see beyond the confines of the building. The flapping wings and the wild call of the Greenland geese beckon my soul outwards where I hear the crash of the waves upon the shoreline and the still quiet song of all creation. From the sacred heart of Jesus, the whole universe comes pouring out. Galaxies, grace and geese unfold before me enveloping the entire earth in a profound mystery of hope that pulses to the rhythm of the psalms, echoing the heartbeat of God.
Through the Eucharist, we offer ourselves, our works and all creation to Christ. This gives us an insight into the final fulfilment for which we and creation are destined, a new creation of heaven and earth where the new Jerusalem comes down from heaven and rests elegantly upon the earth. This is our destiny. Through witnessing the Greenland geese glide across the cold wintry waters of the Wexford coastline, my eyes, my ears and my heart open even wider to Christ. As the geese gracefully descend, weary from travel to dwell upon the protected grounds of the Raven Nature Reserve, I glimpse the great work of love that Jesus accomplished – the redemption of the world. We are all witnesses to wonder as we journey along the road to heaven, a revealing pilgrimage for our hearts that brings us closer to God.
The splendours of the natural world offer us an abundance of gifts that instil in us powerful feelings of awe and reverence. When we walk in God’s presence, we walk upon sacred ground where even the geese speak of grace. As we wander the shorelines of the Sacred Cape, we can look and listen with attentive minds and open hearts. God puts all things under our feet and above our heads to restore our souls, rejoice our hearts and enlighten our eyes.
As I finish writing this, I begin to stroll out amongst the lively breezes of the Wexford shoreline. Over eons of time, long before the birth of humankind, the oceans shaped the land that I now tread upon. Near the limits of my vision, I spot a wavering line just above the horizon and my heart lifts with joy. A teardrop rolls down my cheek and becomes one with the waters of the earth. All existence begins to diminish and fade into the soft cadence of the sea that reaches out beyond me to where God’s geese fly.