Columban missionary Seán McDonagh expresses his wish that environmentalists would discover the inspiration for their work which the words of Jesus provide.
The offices of environmental organisations may not be the most efficient places in the world, but I am always impressed by the passion and commitment of those working there and the creativity embodied in the posters and cartoons that festoon the walls and, even, the ceiling. Yet as a Catholic missionary, I find it very significant and sad, that whilst the text on the posters might come from Chief Seattle’s address or the Indian poet Tagore, I have never seen a quotation from the Bible or a reference to the words of Jesus. It often transpires that many of the people working in these offices promoting campaigns as diverse as biodiversity, organic farming or water conservation are dedicated Christians, but it seems that very little inspiration for their work flows either from the teachings of the Church or the life of Jesus. This is a tragedy, especially for the Christian Churches, because it means that the Good News of Jesus has nothing to contribute to addressing the most crucial issue of late 20th century, the rampant and, often irreversible destruction of God’s creation.
Jesus’ attitude to nature
It is particularly tragic because Christians and others have much to learn from the attitude of respect which Jesus displayed towards the natural world. For example, there is no support in the New Testament for an exploitative, throw-away consumer society which in the last four decades has destroyed the natural world in so many parts of the globe and produced mountains of non-biodegradable and toxic waste which will plague the people and creatures of planet Earth for centuries. In the New Testament the disciples of Jesus are called upon to live lightly on the earth, ‘take nothing for your journey, no staff, nor bag, nor bread, nor money; and do not have two tunics’ (Lk 9:1-6). Jesus constantly warned about the dangers of attachment to wealth, possessions, or power. The forces which are impoverishing hundreds of millions of people in the Third World, and at the same time destroying the planet, very often spring from greed and the allure of mammon. ‘How hard it is for those who have riches to enter the kingdom of God’ (Mk 10:23; Lk 16:19-31; cf. Mt 19:23-24; Lk 18:18-23). ‘Fool! This very night the demand will be made for your soul; and this hoard of yours, whose will it be then?’ (Lk 12:16-21).
Jesus grew up in a rural environment and had an intimacy and familiarity with a variety of God’s creatures and the processes of nature. It is dear from his teaching that he was not driven by any urge to dominate or control either his fellow human beings or the world of nature. Rather he displayed an appreciative and contemplative attitude towards creation which was rooted in his Father’s love for all creation: ‘Think of the ravens. They do not sow or reap; they have no storehouses and no barns; yet God feeds them’ (Lk 12:24 NJB). The gospels warn against the urge to continually accumulate more and more goods. God will provide for our legitimate needs: ‘are you not worth more than the birds?’ (Lk 12:24).
The gospels tell us that nature played an important role in Jesus’ life. At his birth, Luke tells us that ‘he was laid in a manger, because there was no place for them in the inn’ (Lk 2:7). Pious tradition has immortalised this in the crib which appears in many Christian homes and churches during the Christmas season. Mary, Joseph and the animals surround Jesus at his birth. He was first greeted by people who were ‘keeping watch over their flocks by night’ (Lk 2:8). Mark tells us that the spirit drove him into the wilderness. And he was in the wilderness forty days, tempted by Satan; and he was with the wild beasts; and the angels ministered to him’ (Mk 1:13 RSV).
The cathedral of nature
It was during his sojourn in the desert that Jesus came to accept and appreciate the messianic ministry he was about to embrace. In order to be fully open and receptive to his call, Jesus forsook the company of people and spent time with the wild animals in the wilderness. He regularly returned to the hills to pray and commune with the Father (Mt 17:1; Mk 6:46; Mt 14:23), especially before making important decisions like choosing the disciples (Lk 6:12). His teaching ministry was not carried our in buildings, in synagogues or in the Temple, but in the cathedral of nature. In Matthew’s gospel the beatitudes and subsequent teachings are delivered on a mountain (Mt P-7:29). Much of his teaching and miracles took place on the shores of the Sea of Galilee (Mt l3:1-52; Mk 4:35-41); Jn 21:1-14). The miracle of the loaves occurred in a ‘lonely place’ (Mt 14:15-21; Lk 9:10-17; Jn 6:1-13).
Many of his parables are centred on nature: He speaks of sowing seed (Mt 13:4-9, 18-23; Mk 4:3-9,13-20; Lk 8:5-8, 11-15), of vines (Jn 5:1-17; Mk 12:1-12; Mt 21:33-44; Lk 20:9-19), the lost sheep (Lk 15:4-7; Mt 18:12-14), or the life and work of shepherds (Jn 10:1-18). His teaching is regularly interspersed with references to the lilies of the field (Lk12:27), the birds of the air (Mt 6:26), and the lair of foxes (Lk9:58). He was Lord of creation and could calm the waves (Mk 4:35-41; Mt. 8:22-25), or walk on the water (Mk 6:48-49), or, when food was needed, multiply the loaves. (Mt 14:13-21) Mk 8:1-10; Lk 9:10-17; Jn 6:1-13).
Like most famous religious personalities Jesus was a healer. He cured the sick and restored them to health. (Mt. 12:9-14; Mk 3:1-6; Lk 6:6-11). He cured the paralytic (Mk 2:1-12), the man with a withered hand (Mk 3:1-6), the woman who had been stooped for many years (Lk 13:10-17), and the man who had been paralysed for 38 years (Jn 5:1-15), and restored sight to the man born blind (Jn 9:1-41). While individuals are restored to health in each act of healing, the healing ministry of Jesus was not confined to individuals. Each healing was a sign that challenged social or religious prejudices, and it also aimed at sowing a seed of healing within a community which was attempting to open itself up to the transforming power of God’s compassion and graciousness.
Take gospel to all creation
In his preaching also Jesus identified himself with the natural elements of water (Jn 4:13-14), bread (Jn 6:48) and light (Jn 8:12). He presented himself as the good shepherd an (Jn:10-11; Mk 6:30-44) who came that ‘they may have life and have it abundantly’ (Jn 10:10b). He rode into Jerusalem on a donkey (Mt 21:1b-5). In Mark’s gospel (16:15) the disciples were called to take the gospel to all creation. Finally in and through his death, Jesus participated in the most radical way in one of the key processes of nature.
The ministry of Jesus was not confined to teaching, healing and reconciling humans and all creation with God. His life and ministry had a cosmic dimension. Paul tells us that he is the centre of all creation. ‘He is the image of the invisible God, the first-born of all creation; for in him all things were created, in heaven and on earth, visible and invisible, whether thrones or dominions or principalities or authorities – all things were created through him and for him. He is before all things, and in him all things hold together.’ (Col 1:15-8 RSV).
Jesus is the word and wisdom of God who existed with God from the beginning. In the prologue of John’s gospel the birth and life of Jesus is framed within the widest context of cosmic history. He is active in bringing forth creation; through him the universe, the earth and all life was created (Jn 1:3-5). All the rich unfolding of the universe from the first moment of the fireball, through the formation of the stars, the moulding of planet Earth, the birth and flowering of life on earth and the emergence of human beings, is centred on Christ. Hence all of these crucial moments in the emergence of the universe have a Christian dimension.
Becoming flesh and transforming it
In the man Jesus, God who was active from the beginning in bringing forth the universe ‘became flesh’ (Jn-1:14). Johannine scholars tells us that the Greek word which is used here, sarx, has a very earthy ring to it. They believe that the author consciously chose this word to attack the Gnostic teaching which was prevalent at the time. For the Gnostics, sarx was evil and could not in any way be co-mingled with the Divine. In the face of this, the author of the gospel of John insists that Jesus enters into every dimension of earthly reality. The redemption which he accomplishes does not come by way of discarding, denigrating or abandoning sarx, but by transforming sarx from within. In John 3:16, Jesus’ incarnation is seen as an outpouring of God’s love for the world: ‘for God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, that whoever believes in him should not perish but have eternal life’ (RSV).
Christ’s life of service involved a radical stance on the side of life, which necessitated his own suffering and death. He atoned for sins against life (Heb 9:12). Paul presents Jesus’ incarnation in this light in Phil 2:5-7 and Col 1:15-20. ‘Make your own the mind of Christ Jesus; who, being in the form of God, did not count equality with God something to be grasped. But he emptied himself, taking the form of a slave, becoming as human beings are’ (Phil:2:5-7 NJB).
The leadership which Jesus gives in the New Testament is always a leadership of service. When an argument broke out among the disciples as to which of them was the greatest, Jesus admonished them. ‘Among the gentiles it is the kings who lord it over them and those who have authority over them are given the title benefactor. With you this must not happen. No, the greatest among you must believe as if he were the youngest, the leader as if he were the one who serves’ (Lk 22:25-26 NJB).
This leadership involved accepting death joyfully. Paul in Philippians goes on to say: ‘And being in every way like a human being, he was humbler yet, even to accepting death, death on a cross’ (Phil2:6-8 NJB).
Called to serve creation
A service which involves emptying oneself and working for the good of others is at the very heart of the Christian vocation. The follower of Christ does not seek power and riches in order to manipulate other human beings and beggar the earth. Rather he/she hears the call, ‘if anyone wants to be a follower of mine, let him renounce himself and take up his cross every day and follow me’ (Lk 9:23). In the contemporary situation, Christian service must mean working for a more just world and preserving the earth. This call to serve all creation throws a new light on the Genesis call to ‘be masters of the fish of the sea, the birds of heaven and all living creatures that move on earth’ (Gn 1:26). In following Christ’s example this ‘dominion’ includes a deep respect for the ecological laws which bind creation together; the kind of care that Noah displayed when he took the animals into the ark (Gn 6:19). Only in this way can people of this and future generations experience the abundant life which Jesus promised (Jn 10-10).
The passion and death of Christ call attention to the appalling reality of suffering which humans inflict on each other and on creation. By causing others to suffer we persecute the body of Christ. We are beginning to realise that the parameters of the body of Christ are expanding to include not just Christians or all humans, but the totality of creation. Paul was reminded on the road to Damascus that in persecuting the Christians he was persecuting Jesus (Acts 9:4-5). In today’s world many see the passion of Christ being re-enacted in the injustices which are inflicted on the weak and the poor, in cruelty to animals and in the devastation which humans are wreaking on creation. This pain experienced by the total body of Christ is captured in a prayer from the Byzantine liturgy: ‘The whole creation was altered by thy Passion; for all things suffered with thee, knowing, 0 Lord, that thou holdest all things in unity.’
Facing the mystery of death
Jesus’ life shows us how to live our own life to the full in the face of the mystery of death. By facing death he achieved glorification. Paul again confesses, ‘therefore God highly exalted him and bestowed on him the name which is above every name, that at the name of Jesus every knee should bow, in heaven and on earth and under the earth, and every tongue confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God’ (Phil 2:9-11 RSV). Many contemporary psychologists believe that the frenzied grasping for more and more possessions which lies at the root of our consumer society arises primarily out of our anxieties in the face of our own death. By surrounding ourselves with more and more goods we hope to avoid the reality of death and gain some measure of immortality, at least, in the things that we own.
The New Testament tells us that this resistance to death is a blind alley. The tragedy for ourselves, the human community and creation as a whole, is that in pursuing this illusion, individually and collectively, we are destroying irreversibly God’s creation – the air, the water, the soil, the forests and the abundance of life-forms.
In seeking to avoid death, we are literally killing planet Earth. This is why Jesus’ way of living his life into death, trusting completely in the love of his Father, must become the foundational reality in our lives. His death, and especially his resurrection, is the basis of our hope that we can turn back the tide of planetary death.
The resurrection of Christ is the beginning of the new creation (2 Cor 5:17-19). All the writers of the New Testament are at pains to affirm the visible, bodily nature of Christ’s resurrection. They are not professing that an immortal spirit put on the guise of a human body in order to be present to his disciples and others. The Greeks would have found such a concept very acceptable – not folly. The evangelists are adamant that he rose in the flesh (Mt 28:1-8; Mk 16:1-8; Lk 24:1-10; Jn 20:1-10). This corporeal nature of Christ’s resurrection came as a complete surprise for the disciples and the early Church, so the writers of the New Testament are at pains to stress the bodily dimension of his resurrection. They do this by recounting a variety of incidents where Jesus touched people (Jn 20:27) and ate with them (21:4-14). In his resurrection Jesus was transformed in his total person, which naturally affected his body. His resurrected body is no longer confined by its previous limitations. He can pass easily through solid substances and visit his disciples who because of their fear are huddled together in an upper room on the evening of the resurrection (Jn 20:19).
Through the reality of Christ’s resurrection all visible created reality is touched, given new significance and transformed. Paul states ‘God was in Christ reconciling the world to himself’ (2 Cor 5:19, Col 1:20). In this text Paul is affirming that all reality is both interconnected, sequentially linked over time and ultimately grounded in God. The Easter Preface in the Roman Missal echoes this belief: ‘In him a new age has dawned, the long reign of sin is ended, a broken world has been renewed and man is once again made whole. The joy of the resurrection fills the whole world.’
All creation united in Christ
The resurrection is the cosmic sign of hope. All creation is united in Christ and therefore everything has a future in God, through Christ. This hope for wholeness or redemption is anchored in the presence in the world of the Spirit of God, who despite human failures and sin, can bring about new beginnings (Is 43-19, Ezek. 37). This grace frees the believer to look forward confidently to the future and not to be bogged down in either individual or collective past failures. This is a profoundly liberating experience which can release new energies and allow people to focus their attention on bringing about a healing of creation.
Over recent years it is beginning to dawn on many people that alleviating, healing nature and preserving the stability of the biosphere is the central task for those who wish to follow in the footsteps of Jesus in today’s world. Human creativity, inventiveness and technology will have a very important part to play in this healing, but religious energies flowing from the life, death and resurrection of Jesus are also crucial. In the words of the Celtic hymn ‘Christ be beside me,’ based on St. Patrick’s Breastplate, Christ can surely be the vision of those who are working at local, national and global level to create a new heavens and a new earth.
This article first appeared in Spirituality (Sept-Oct 1996), a publication of the Irish Dominicans.