Sean McDonagh SSC
Ecology and Religion
A Green Christology


(JOHN 10:10)

(Source: Columban Fathers, SSC)


The offices of environmental organizations 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 festoons 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.

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' (Luke 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' (Mark 10:23; Luke 16:19-31); cf.Matt 19:23-24; Luke 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?' (Luke 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 clear 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' (Luke 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?' (Luke 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' (Luke 2:P7). Pious tradition has immortalized 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' (Luke 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' (Mark 1:13) (RSV).

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 (Matt 17:1; Mark 6:46; Matt 14:23), especially before making important decisions like choosing the disciples (Luke 6:12). His teaching ministry was not carried out 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 (Matt 5:1-7:29). Much of his teaching and miracles took place on the shores of the Sea of Galilee (Matt 13:1-52; Mark 4:35-41); John 21:1-14). The miracle of the loaves occurred in a 'lonely place' (Matt 14:15-21; Luke 9:10-17; John 6:1-13).

Many of his parables are centred on nature: He speaks of sowing seed (Matt 13:4-9, 18-23;Mark 4:3-9, 13-20; Luke 8:5-8, 11-15), of vines (John 5:1-1-17; Mark 12:1-12; Matt 21:33-44; Luke 20:9-19), the lost sheep (Luke 15:4-7; Matt 18:12-14), or the life and work of shepherds (John 10:1-18). His teaching is regularly interspersed with references to the lilies of the field (Luke 12:27), the birds of the air (Matt 6:26), and the lair of foxes (Luke 9:58). He was Lord of creation and could calm the waves (Mark 4:35-41; Matt. 8:22-25), or walk on the water (Mark 6:48-49), or, when food was needed, multiply the loaves. (Matt. 14:13-21) Mark 8:1-10; Luke 9:10-17; John 6:1-13).

Like most famous religious personalities Jesus was a healer. He cured the sick and restored them to health. (Matt. 12:9-14; Mark 3:1-6; Luke 6:6-11). He cured the paralytic (Mark 2:1-12), the man with a withered hand (Mark 3:1-6), the woman who had been stooped for many years (Luke 13:10-17), and the man who had been paralysed for 38 years (John 5:1-15), and restored sight to the man born blind (John 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.

In his preaching also Jesus identified himself with the natural elements of water (John 4:13-14), bread (John 6:48) and light (John 8:12). He presented himself as the good shepherd (John 10:11; Mark 6:30-44) who came that 'they may have life and have it abundantly' (John 10:10b). He rode into Jerusalem on a donkey (Matt 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 (John 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 Christic dimension.

In the man Jesus, God who was active from the beginning in bringing forth the universe 'became flesh' (John 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)

(Source: Columban Fathers, SSC -