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God • World • Human Family • Church

All Creation, Praise the Lord

Reflections on the links between ecology and theology.

It has been said that when one ceases to believe in God it is not that he believes in nothing; rather, he will believe in anything. That there is some truth to this is suggested by the number of causes that modern (some would say “post-Christian”) humanity espouses. The ecological movement is a case in point.

Devoid of faith, secular ecologists seemingly attempt to make clean air, pure water and natural ingredients a kind of New Age sacrament. It is as if having despaired of saving the world, we are content just to save the earth.

The liturgical tradition of the Byzantine church can fill this theo-ecological void: all creation manifests the glory of God. On earth it exists for our sake. Yet as high priests of that creation, our vocation is to be the faithful stewards of these gifts, tending them with the same loving kindness as God manifests toward us.

We offer creation sacramentally to the Creator, transforming nature into grace by the power of the Holy Spirit. This metamorphosis is nowhere more evident than in the sacramental mysteries.

Water is a natural symbol of life. Scientists theorize that life originated in water. Human life begins in the water of the mother’s womb. Similarly, the account of creation in Genesis II provides a watery origin for us:

In the day that the Lord God made the earth and the heavens, when no plant of the field was yet in the earth and no herb of the field had yet sprung up – for the Lord God had not caused it to rain upon the earth, and there was no human to till the ground; but a mist went up from the earth and watered the whole face of the ground – then the Lord God formed man of dust from the ground, and breathed into his nostrils the breath of life; and man became a living being.

Later in the same account we see humankind recreated in the story of Noah. The waters that covered the earth destroyed sin, but saved the elect because they were sheltered in the ark of salvation. Baptism symbolizes death and life; the nature of water transmits the grace of salvation.

Olive oil has a similar cultural and biblical history. A natural emollient, olive oil makes supple what is rigid, and receptive what is impervious. Did not the dove carry the sprig of an olive branch as a sign to Noah of the reconciliation of a recreated world with a forgiving God? Both Chrismation and Holy Anointing raise the nature of oil to an unction of grace. St. Cyril of Jerusalem even goes so far as to draw an analogy between the eucharistic bread and the chrism of Confirmation. In the Eucharist (oil is used in the eucharistic bread) it is the seal, the gift of the Holy Spirit; in the Anointing it is the healing balm of which the parable of the Good Samaritan speaks.

In matrimony the natural love of man and woman is elevated to a supernatural plane. The imposition of the crowns and the priest’s invocation of the Holy Spirit – “0 Lord, Our God, crown them with honor and glory and establish them over the works of your hands” – transforms natural love into a living icon of Christ’s love for the church.

The Wedding at Cana gospel, which is read during the same wedding service, now has sacramental depth: Jesus takes water, good, natural and pure, and transforms it into wine. Like wine, which intoxicates, the sacrament transforms human love into pure love.

In the Eucharist nature becomes grace. Bread and wine – which symbolize our traditional diet – are transformed into the Body and Blood of the Lord. “In the Eucharist man is transformed into that which he consumes,” wrote St. Leo the Great, the 4th century bishop of Rome. So the materialistic philosopher who wrote “Man is what he eats” is right after all – but for a reason he could scarcely imagine.

Of the church’s 12 major feasts two emphasize this theo-ecological mystery, Christmas and Theophany. Listen as the universe intones the Saviour at Christmas Vespers:

What shall we offer you, 0 Christ, who for our sakes has appeared on earth as man? Every creature made by you offers thanks. The angels offer you a hymn; the heavens a star; the Magi, gifts; the shepherds, their wonder; the earth, its cave; the wilderness, the manger: and we offer you a Virgin Mother. O pre-eternal God, have mercy upon us.

On January 6, the Orthodox celebrate the baptism of Jesus in the Jordan. Known as the Theophany, this feast commemorates the first revelation of the Trinity. In the vespers liturgy, all creation is sanctified by Christ’s descent into the waters:

Today the whole creation is watered by mystical streams. Today the transgressions of humanity are washed away by the waters of the Jordan River…

All the spiritual powers tremble before you. The sun sings your praises; the moon glorifies you; the stars supplicate before you; the light obeys you; the deeps are afraid of your presence; the fountains are your servants.

How can these inanimate objects and forces of nature offer glory to God? It is through our ministry as high priests of this creation that we offer our worship. We can only perform this ministry as priests/stewards, not as consumers.

However, if we place self-service and greed at the center of our lives and reject our call to tend God’s creation faithfully – “the Earth is the Lord’s” (Psalm 24:1) – then as Isaiah the prophet warned:

The earth shall be utterly laid waste and utterly despoiled;
for the Lord has spoken this word.

The earth mourns and withers,
the world languishes and withers; the heavens languish together with the earth.
The earth lies polluted under its inhabitants;
for they have transgressed the laws, violated the statutes, broken the everlasting covenant.

Father Romanos is a priest of the Melkite-Greek Catholic Eparchy of Newton, Mass.

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