As a kid, I loved dinosaurs. To this day, the rhinoceros is my favorite animal at the zoo, because he looks to me like a Triceratops. Every week in grade school, I would insist my mother take me to the Greene County Library to check out the over-sized dinosaur books, with glossy artist renderings of Brontosaurus, Diplodocus, and Tyrannosaurus rex. These were not with the children’s books but rather found in the grown-up section, and as I read them I felt like a real paleontologist. Somewhere along the way, I learned the motto of the Paleontological Society. In Latin, it is Frango ut patefaciam. In English, that translates to “I break so that I may reveal.”
I hadn’t thought about that motto for years, but lately it has sprung to mind unbidden. Within the past three months, so much of the world has broken. And the breaking has revealed a lot. Cracked open, we have seen where our weaknesses are, with regard to both our public health and our economic models. The breaking open of the veneer of racial harmony has revealed that we still have so much work to do to render this a land experienced by all as life-giving, sustaining, and free. The continued breaking open of our political divide (How much more can it break?!) reveals that, for a long time, neighbors and friends have viewed our county and its challenges very differently from one another.
And, we see more when the view zooms down to the up-close-and-personal. I don’t know about you, but in some ways the past three months have just about broken me. On a personal level, as these months have gone on, as life has shifted once, twice, ten times, the little cracks and yawning chasms have revealed some things about me of which I’d been, at best, dimly aware. How about you? Have you caught yourself responding to situations in ways that surprised you? Have you heard your own voice and barely recognized who was speaking? Have you experienced an undifferentiated anxiety that has a murky source and no constructive destination? Has your breaking revealed things to you about yourself?
The spiritual question is, of course, “What do we make of this, and what might God do with it?” The Gospels remind us that Jesus, too, was broken. In the Garden of Gethsemane, Jesus’ confidence was shaken as he anxiously sweated like drops of blood. Jesus himself experienced the desolation of abandonment as he cried from the cross, “My God, why have you forsaken me?” As St. Paul adds in 1 Corinthians 11, when Jesus implemented the Last Supper, he told the disciples always to break the bread — which we still do to this day — as a reminder that Jesus himself was broken.
The paleontologists’ motto is “I break so that I may reveal.” Jesus’ own breaking revealed his fragile humanity, but as Peter Abelard first reminded us eight hundred years ago, Jesus’ breaking also and most importantly revealed the fathomless depths of God’s love. By his willingness to undergo the Passion — not in the absence of doubt and anxiety, but in the very face of them — Jesus the Incarnate God revealed that God will go to any lengths, suffer any violence, endure anything for love of us. There is nothing we can experience or encounter in this world absent the God whose love for us birthed the very world.
Most importantly, this is what our present breaking reveals anew for us, whether it is the breaking of the world or our own individual cracks. When we are solid, behind bastion walls and ramparts, it is easy to pretend that we have no need of God, that our own strength can sustain us. When things begin to break, we quickly realize that our walls are as fragile as eggshells. Our breaking reveals our need for God, for a love more subtle than any virus and greater than any strife: a love that picks up pieces and knits them into something new.
In these days, it is worth remembering the lyrics of the great Leonard Cohen:
Forget your perfect offering
There is a crack, a crack in everything (there is a crack in everything)
That’s how the light gets in