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Penguins and the Puzzle Palace

By Fr. Jerry Pokorsky ( bio - articles - email ) | Apr 15, 2024

We have an ingrained curiosity to solve puzzles. From childhood tinker toys to modern skyscrapers, our curiosity helps us overcome engineering complexities. Curiosity also helps us assemble the picture puzzle of God’s revelation. By God’s design, life is a puzzle palace for us.

On the Road to Emmaus, Jesus assembles the scriptural pieces found in the Old Testament to demonstrate that the Messiah had to suffer and die to save us from our sins. God creates. Man sins. God promises a Redeemer. He forms and prepares the Chosen People to receive the Messiah in the fullness of time. Moses and the Exodus provide a blueprint for our journey to the Promised Land. The Prophets direct us on the right path.

The risen Jesus appears to His Apostles. Jesus confers the dignity of life in union with Him through the sacraments. He appears in his glorified body. Jesus reveals the wounds of His crucifixion. He asks for food, proving He is not a ghost. He convinces every last one of the Apostles—including Doubting Thomas—of His Divinity, and they proclaim the risen Jesus until their ultimate witness of martyrdom.

God also wants us to assemble the picture puzzles of faith. Just as the Scriptures preceding the Incarnation complete the picture of Jesus, the heroic witness of the Apostles illustrates the certainties of our faith. History repeats itself. We find Mary and the Apostles, the chief priests and the Pharisees, the sick and the dying, saints and sinners, empires and vassal states—in every generation.

God reveals Himself in the puzzle box of Scriptures. Complementary portraits depicting the life of Jesus emerge when we assemble, with His grace, the elements of Revelation. We delight in the emergent pictures because we assist with the assembly. Our prayerful conversation with Him adds our life story to the objective components of God’s revelation.

Thoughtful Christians and intelligent atheists have similar as well as wildly divergent visions of life. We live, we desire happiness in this life, and we die. Christians rely on the witness of the Church to believe in heaven and hell. Atheists believe—without sufficient evidence—that death terminates all human existence. The cessation of our entire existence at the end of life is a dogma of faith for atheists. So it is understandable that modern atheists tend to obsess over extending human life using so-called artificial intelligence. Catholics also wish to extend life, but we know we shouldn’t overdo it. Death is an inevitable part of the picture. We pray for a happy death in God’s grace as we pray, “Thy kingdom come.”

Believers and atheists find common ground in science. Conception merges two sets of chromosomes into a distinct human being. Science teaches that life begins at conception. Catholics follow the science and celebrate the Annunciation on March 25. Do the math. Mary conceives by the power of the Holy Spirit nine months before Christmas. Anyone who accepts abortion on demand dismisses the science of new human life and cannot be a trustworthy scientist—or a good Christian.

Creation is puzzling for atheists and Christians. Genesis describes God’s creative handiwork with the truth wrapped in poetry. Those seeking a more literal explanation suggest there was a Big Bang a long time ago (or an eternal universe). Little critters emerged from the slime and became big critters. Big critters became apes. Man descended from the apes (or ascended from the slime), and here we are. It’s hard to keep track of the theories.

Were the parents of Adam and Eve monkeys? Did we all descend (or ascend) in lockstep? Are some tribes part human and part ape? Do we have master human races and genetically inferior tribes? The truth wrapped in God’s poetry has more appeal than these theories wrapped in hypothetical scientific narratives. God creates. We don’t know when and don’t know how. We have only one human race with Jesus as our Divine King Who “came not to be served but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many.” (Mt. 20:28)

Nature’s observable puzzles help us understand God’s mind. A penguin in the flesh may have more appeal than its evolutionary story. The renowned 2005 nature documentary March of the Penguins depicts the yearly journey of penguins in Antarctica. In autumn, all the penguins of breeding age leave the ocean and journey inland to their ancestral breeding grounds. There the penguins participate in a courtship that, if successful, results in the hatching of a chick. For the chick to survive, momma and poppa penguin must make multiple arduous journeys between the ocean and the breeding grounds to obtain food.

The penguins are monogamous. The female lays a single egg, and the cooperation of the parents is needed if the chick is to survive. The male tends to the egg in the intense cold as the female returns to the sea for extra food. The males huddle together and incubate their eggs as temperatures drop to −80 °F. When the chicks hatch, the males feed them with a small meal. One scene from the documentary depicts near-starving chicks taking sustenance out of the throat sacs of the poppa penguins. The momma penguins return to feed their young ones and bond with them. During the spring, the ice melts, and the distance to the sea decreases, enabling them to make their return journey and leaving the chicks behind to fend for themselves.

The penguin picture show provides many practical life lessons. They are monogamous, with momma and poppa penguins having distinct and complementary roles in providing for and protecting their young. Penguins risk their lives to care for their young. The entire drama is a lesson of triumph and tragedy. Our life is like that. Those comical creatures help us understand the enigma of our existence.

The puzzles of nature stir us to appreciate and rejoice in the glorious reality of God’s creation. The puzzles of our faith stir us to enrich our lives with the vision of our eternal salvation.

Fr. Jerry Pokorsky is a priest of the Diocese of Arlington who has also served as a financial administrator in the Diocese of Lincoln. Trained in business and accounting, he also holds a Master of Divinity and a Master’s in moral theology. Father Pokorsky co-founded both CREDO and Adoremus, two organizations deeply engaged in authentic liturgical renewal. He writes regularly for a number of Catholic websites and magazines. See full bio.

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