GEICO insurance company has some pretty clever advertising. In addition to their articulate gecko spokesperson, they have frequently featured cavemen – presumably Neanderthals – to show how easy it is to save with their products. Ironically, with the exception of their protruding brows and abundance of body hair, every other aspect of the caveman looks like a normal, urbane persons – their clothes, their interests, their desires; even their sensitivities are somewhate “metro-sexual”. It is only when the voice over to the ad says – “it’s so easy, even a caveman can do it” that the Neanderthals take offense and storm off in anger. The ad campaign is pretty clever and it builds upon our common use of Neanderthals as the butt of jokes and insults.
Well, a couple of weeks ago a big announcement was made from the scientific community. According to paleo anthropologist John Hawks, a recent study of DNA extracted from Neanderthal bones changed everything we thought we knew about the decline of the Neanderthals and the rise of human beings as separate distinct species. According to the newly completed analysis of available Neanderthal DNA, it appears that there was actually some physical intimacy between what scientists traditionally considered distinct and unequal emerging species. In fact, according to the recent study, the “fruit” of that intimacy shows up still today in that one to four percent of our “modern” human genetic code has been passed to us from Neanderthals. For anthropologists, this raises not only a biological issue but a philosophical one causing us to reconsider not only how we think about Neanderthals, but also how we think about what it means to be a human. After all, even without knowing it, we might have been carrying around a little Neanderthal within in us all along. Now, tell me, does that change the way you think about the person sitting next to you? Does it change the way you think of yourself? …It could explain a lot!
What, indeed, does it mean to be human – fully human? Is there anything that truly separates us from the rest of creation, the rest of the animals or even those Neanderthals who we thought disappeared from the earth tens of thousands of years ago? Is being human simply a matter of biology and the weight of our brains?
The Solemnity of Pentecost that we celebrate today reminds us that to be human involves much more than being a particular and peculiar arrangement of carbon, water, and other base elements arranged in a genetic code of dubious origins. No, being human, fully human, means being created in the image and likeness of God, animated by the very breath and Spirit of God, and called to a destiny that is most fully revealed in God’s own Son and Word-Made-Flesh Jesus Christ.
In the opening chapters of the Book of Genesis we find the story of the beginning of creation, and the beginning of the human saga as well. So important is the story of the origins of creation and of humanity, that two versions are given. Both stories emphasize that the formation of our first parents out of the clay of the earth was a singular act of God, and that humanity came to life when God breathed into our physical body the breath of divine life. Formed and filled with this divine in-spiration, we were as God intended us to be. We lived in peace with God, one another, ourselves and the rest of creation, It was only with sin that we began to be de-formed by fear, shame, unnatural or covetous and lustful desires, anger, resentment, jealousy and violence. Nonetheless, God continued to call us back to dignity.
In the fullness of time, God extended this call in an extraordinary way by assuming our human nature to show us what it means to be truly human, and to make it possible for us to experience that dignity once again. Jesus Christ came to call us beyond a merely fleshly existence as we lived in ignorance of the full picture of what it means to be human. He came so that we might once again be animated by the Spirit of God and so that we might once again live as God’s beloved children. During his life and ministry he revealed to us this dignity, and before he ascended into heaven, he broke through the barriers and locked doors of our primordial fear and breathed upon us the creating and animating Holy Spirit of God. In doing so, he extended to us the gift of peace and the possibility of forgiveness which makes peace possible.
My brothers and sisters, through our rebirth in the waters of baptism, and through our sharing in the divine life that comes to us through the sacraments, we have been re-formed, re-created and in-spired by this same Holy Spirit. This Spirit, dwelling within us makes it possible for us to live beyond the locked doors of fear, beyond the limitations of resentment and jealousy, and beyond the anger that gives rise to violence of every form. Even though we have inherited the wounded genetic code of Original Sin from our first parents, and even though we ourselves have acted out of the hostility sinful flesh, we also have been freed from the burden of debt of sin that compromises the dignity of our true human identity. As St. Paul writes to the Romans: “we are not debtors to the flesh, / to live according to the flesh. / For if you live according to the flesh, you will die, / but if by the Spirit you put to death the deeds of the body, / you will live.”
It might be true that each of us has been walking around with traces of distant Neanderthal ancestors, and maybe this knowledge will change the way you look at the person sitting next to you or the person you gaze upon in the mirror. Much more important than that knowledge, however, is the knowledge that we are also walking around with the Spirit of God within us, the Spirit that gives life to and guides the DNA that is so closely studied by scientists today. It is this divine Spirit, this divine spark of life, this divine breath, this divine instinct to love, that truly gives us our identity – making it possible for us to cry out to God – “Abba, Father.” It is this Holy Spirit that makes it possible for us to say, “Jesus Christ is Lord.” It is this Holy Spirit that makes it possible to forgive others and even to forgive ourselves so that we might experience peace. It is this Holy Spirit that draws us toward everlasting life.
Yes, it is true that we might from time to time forget or at least be unaware of the presence of this Spirit acting within us, or within others. Our forgetfulness, our complacency, however, does not make the presence and action of that indwelling Spirit any less real. Does this reminder change the way that you look at the person sitting next to you or the person you see in the mirror? The Lord knows it should!