CHURCH AND ENVIRONMENT: THEOLOGY, SPIRITUALITY, AND SACRAMENTS

Rev. Dr. John Chryssavgis
(13 Jouly 2007)

I. Introduction

Allow me to take you back on a journey to the story of creation. Whenever we think of the Genesis account of creation, we tend to ignore our connection to the environment. Perhaps it is natural reaction – or perhaps it is a sign of arrogance – but we often overemphasize our creation “in the image of God” (Gen. 1:26) and overlook our creation from “the dust of the ground” (Gen. 2:7). Yet, our “heavenliness” should not overshadow our “earthliness.” Most people forget that we human beings did not get a day to ourselves in Genesis. In fact, we shared the sixth day with the creeping and crawling things of the world (Gen. 1:24-26). There is a binding unity and continuity that we share with all of God’s creation; it is helpful to recall this truth.

Of course, in more recent years, we have been painfully reminded of this truth with flora and fauna extinction, soil and forest clearance, as well as air and water pollution. However, our concern for the environment does not result from any superficial or sentimental romanticism. It arises from our effort to honor and dignify God’s creation. It is a way of paying attention to “the mourning of the land” (Hosea 41:3) and “the groaning of creation” (Rom. 8:22).

This is the reason why the Ecumenical Patriarchate has organized, among other initiatives, a number of international and inter-disciplinary symposia over the last decade: in the Aegean Sea (1995) and the Black Sea (1997), along the Danube River (1999) and in the Adriatic Sea (2002), in the Baltic Sea (2003) and on the Amazon River (2006). Like the air that we breathe, water is a source of life; if defiled, the very essence of our existence is threatened. Tragically, however, we appear to be caught up in selfish lifestyles that repeatedly ignore the constraints of nature, which are neither deniable nor negotiable. There will be some things that we learn about our planet’s capacity for survival which we will discover only when things are beyond the point of no return.

          II. ORTHODOX THEOLOGY: Three Ways of Perceiving the World

            One of the hymns of the Orthodox Church, chanted on the feast of the Epiphany, a feast of renewal and regeneration for the entire world, eloquently articulates this tragedy:

I have become the defilement of the air, the land and the water.

How, then, are we to restore within ourselves a sense of wonder before God’s creation? Our theology presents us with three helpful ways:

·     icons (namely, the way we perceive creation);

·     liturgy (namely, the way we celebrate creation); and

·     asceticism (namely, the way we respect creation).

i. The Iconic Vision of Nature

A sense of the holy in nature implies that everything that breathes praises God (Ps. 150:6); the entire world is a “burning bush of God’s energies,” as Gregory Palamas claimed. When our heart is sensitive, then “our eyes are opened to discern the beauty of created things.” (Abba Isaac the Syrian) Seeing clearly is precisely what icons teach us to do. The world of the icon offers new insights into reality. It reveals the eternal dimension in everything that we experience. Our generation, it may be said, is characterized by a sense of self-centeredness toward the natural world, by a lack of awareness of the beyond. We appear to be inexorably trapped within the confines of our individual concerns. We have broken the sacred covenant between our selves and our world.

Well, the icon restores; it reconciles. The icon reminds us of another way of living and offers a corrective to the culture that we have created, which gives value only to the here and now. The icon reveals the inner vision of all, the world as created and as intended by God. Very often, it is said, the first image attempted by an iconographer is that of the Transfiguration of Christ on Mt. Tabor. This is precisely because the iconographer struggles to hold together this world and the next, to transfigure this world in light of the next. For, by disconnecting this world from heaven, we have in fact desacralized both. The icon articulates with theological conviction our faith in the heavenly kingdom. It does away with any objective distance between this world and the next, between material and spiritual, between body and soul, time and eternity, creation and divinity. The icon speaks in this world the language of the age to come.

This is why the doctrine of the divine incarnation is at the very heart of iconography. For, in the icon of Jesus Christ, the uncreated God assumes a creaturely face, a beauty that is “exceeding” (Ps. 44:2), a “beauty that can save the world.” (Fyodor Dostoevsky) And in Orthodox icons, faces – whether of Christ, or of the saints – are always frontal; two eyes always gaze back at the beholder. The heart becomes “all eyes,” eternally receptive of divine grace. Christ is in our midst, here, Emmanuel (Matt. 1:23). Profile signifies sin; it implies a rupture in communication. “I see” means that “I am seen,” which in turn means that I am in communion. This is the powerful experience of the invisible and the immortal, a passing over – a Passover, or Pascha – to another way of seeing and “a different way of living,” as our Easter hymns proclaim.

Indeed, the entire world is an icon, a door opening up to this new reality. Everything in this world becomes a seed. “Nothing is a vacuum in the face of God,” wrote St. Irenaeus of Lyons; “everything is a sign of God.” Thus, in icons, rivers have a human form; so, too, do the sun and the moon and the stars and the waters. All of them assume human faces; all of them acquire a personal dimension – just like people; just like God.

ii. The Liturgy of Nature

What an icon does with matter, the liturgy does with time. If we are guilty of relentless waste, it is perhaps because we have lost the spirit of worship. We are no longer respectful pilgrims on this earth; we have been reduced to mere tourists. Our original sin lies in our prideful refusal to receive the world as a sacrament of communion.

By liturgical, however, I do not mean ritual. I mean dynamic movement. This world is a never-ending movement toward the kingdom. It is profoundly and intimately related to the heavenly kingdom. This means that what we do on earth matters for what we believe about heaven. The way we relate to other people on earth reflects the way we pray to God in heaven. And, by extension, we respond to nature with the same sensitivity and the same tenderness with which we respond to human beings. We have learned not to treat people like things because they are created “in the image of God.” We must now learn not to treat even things like mere things because they contain the very trace of God.

Liturgy, then, is precisely a commemoration of this innate connection between God and people and things. It is a celebration of the sense of communion; it is a dance of life. When we recognize this inter-dependence of all persons and all things – this “cosmic liturgy,” as St. Maximus the Confessor described it – then we will begin to resolve the environmental crisis. For, then we will have acquired, as St. Isaac the Syrian noted in the same century:

A merciful heart burning with love for all of creation – for humans, birds, beasts, and demons – for all God’s creatures.

The world in its entirety comprises an integral part of the liturgy. God is praised by trees and birds, glorified by the stars and moon (Ps. 18:2), worshiped by sea and sand. There is a dimension of art and music in the world. This means, however, that whenever we reduce our spirituality to ourselves and our own interests, we forget that the liturgy implores God for the renewal of the whole polluted cosmos. And whenever we narrow life to our own concerns and desires, we neglect our vocation to raise creation into the kingdom.

iii. The Way of the Ascetics

Of course, this world does not always feel or even look like heaven; a quick glance at the suffering inflicted through wars is sufficient to bring us to our senses. Nonetheless, St. Paul writes:

Through Christ, God was pleased to reconcile to himself all things, whether on earth or in heaven, by making peace through the blood of his cross (Col. 1:20).

Reference to “the blood of the cross” is a clear indication of the cost involved. There is a price to pay for our wasting. Only a spirit of asceticism can lead to a spirit of gratitude and love, to the rediscovery of wonder and beauty in our relationship with the world. So the ascetic way is a way of liberation. The ascetic is one who is free, uncontrolled by attitudes that abuse the world, characterized by self-restraint, as well as the ability to say “no” or “enough.” The goal of asceticism is moderation, not repression. Its content is positive, not negative: it looks to service, not selfishness; to reconciliation, not renunciation. Without asceticism, none of us is authentically human.

Consider one example of asceticism in our tradition, namely fasting. We fast from dairy and meat products for half the year, almost as if to reconcile one half of the year with the other, secular time with the time of the kingdom. What does fasting imply? To fast is to learn to give, and not simply to give up. It is not to deny but, in fact, to offer; it is learning to share, to connect with human beings and the natural world. Fasting means breaking down barriers with my neighbor and my world: recognizing in others faces, icons; and in the earth the face of God. Ultimately, to fast is to love, to see clearly, to restore the original beauty of the world. To fast is to move away from what I want to what the world needs. It is to liberate creation from control and compulsion. Fasting is to value everything for itself, and not simply for ourselves. It is to be filled with a sense of goodness, of God-liness. It is to see all things in God and God in all things.

III. ORTHODOX PRACTISE: Three Models of Caring for the Earth

Now, if our ecological prayer is to move from the distant periphery of an abstract theology to the center stage of practical living, if Orthodox spirituality is to become “incarnate,” then there are three complementary models that are proposed – and have been tested – by the Orthodox tradition.

i. The Biblical Model

According to this model, the Church is called to be in solidarity with the weakest parts of the Body of Christ. It must stand for the most vulnerable, the helpless or voiceless elements of this world, which according to St. Paul “groan in travail, awaiting their liberation from the children of God” (Rom. 8:22). This implies a kind of cosmic “liberation theology”:

One member cannot say to another, “I have no need of you.” On the contrary, those members that seem to be weaker are indispensable … and our less respectable members are treated with great respect (1 Cor. 12:20-25)

The earth, too, is a member of our body, a part of our flesh, inseparable from our history and our destiny. In the same way as the God of Israel once heard the cry of the poor and the oppressed (Ex. 3 and Jonah 4), God also hears the silent cry of the earth. This is the Biblical covenant, God’s promise to the people of Israel: God listens to the world; God attends to the world; God tends to the smallest details of this earth.

ii. The Ascetic Model

In the second model, we might think of the three “R”s of the ascetic life: renunciation, repentance, and responsibility.

Renunciation is an ancient response – indeed, it is pre-Christian. It is also a universal response – indeed, it is even non-Christian; Aboriginal and Indian peoples know this very well. As we have seen, renunciation is a way of learning to share. Therefore, it has social consequences; it reminds us to use material goods respectfully. Renunciation is about living simply and about simply living;

Repentance is a return to a God-given life “according to nature,” as the Church Fathers would say. In repentance, we confess that we have sinned – you will recall how His All Holiness Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew defined the abuse of the natural environment as sin. Moreover, we confess that do not share, that we are self-centered, that we in fact abuse the resources of the earth. Through repentance, we recognize that we have fallen short of our vocation “to serve and preserve the earth” (Gen. 2:15);

Responsibility is our challenge, our choice. Having renounced whatever clutters our mind and our life, and after repenting of our wastefulness, we can direct our lives in love and reverence toward creation and Creator.

iii. The Sacramental Model

And we do this through the sacraments, which have an undeniable and indelible environmental seal. Unfortunately, the sacraments are often reduced to ritual observances. Yet, communion is much more than a way of pious inspiration or individual reward. It is the imperative to share. It is crucial, then, that we recall the sacramental dimension of the world, recognizing that nothing is secular or profane. Everything is created by God and embraced by God. God is – and is within – the very constitution of our world. If God were withdrawn from the world, the world would collapse. Before Vespers each evening, we recite the Ninth Hour and recall our vocation to realize the presence of God “at every hour and every moment, both in heaven and on earth, indeed in all places of his dominion” (Ps. 103:22). Such is the depth of a sacramental worldview.

Orthodox Christians in fact prefer to speak of “mystery” rather than “sacrament,” which tends to imply the acquisition something “objective.” Traditionally, it is said that there are seven mysteries or sacraments. Yet this categorization is neither completely true nor always helpful. The Orthodox Church has never limited itself to seven sacraments, preferring to speak of every moment and aspect of life as being sacramental – from birth through death. Indeed, the funeral service was once also classified as a sacrament in Orthodox liturgical practice. So the sacraments do not work in some magical manner; rather, they function “mystically,” silently permeating the hearts and lives of those, who choose to be open to the possibility of encounter with God – like the flow of blood in the human body. Let us consider the mysteries:

In the sacramental way, Baptism becomes more than merely a formal initiation to some exclusive or closed community. Baptism is a re-creation of humanity and the world in the light of Christ. Through the water of Baptism, we are immersed into the death and resurrection of Christ (Rom. 14:8), being “planted together” (Rom. 6:5) forever with Christ. In a world where water is so carelessly wasted and polluted, the sacrament of Baptism highlights the profound connection between the Spirit of God brooding over “the face of the world,” as in the first moments of Genesis, and the entire universe. The living water of the living God is able to renew and sanctify all of creation.

The sacrament of Chrismation is more than a confirmation of our personal membership in the Body of Christ. It recognizes “the seal of the gift of the Holy Spirit” in all human beings, in all corners of the world, and in all elements of the universe. We are, therefore, called to recognize the face of God in the face of each person as well as in the face of the natural world. The word “chrismation” derives from the Greek chrisma, which means anointing; the “anointed one” is the “Christ,” or the “Messiah” (in Hebrew). Our goal is to be “in Christ” and Christ-like, anointing and healing the entire world.

The sacrament of the Eucharist is of course pregnant with endless possibilities for deepening communion. It is an invitation to conform to the Body of Christ. The Eucharist is not a spiritual reward for rigorous ascetic discipline. Rather, it challenges individuals and communities to work for a just society, where basic food and water are plentiful for all and where everyone has enough.

The sacrament of Confession provides more than simply an opportunity to express remorse for the removal of guilt. Forgiveness provides the grace and space “for giving,” for sharing. It focuses attention on others and on God’s creation – not only on ourselves. It is a way of re-integration into the Body of Christ. But it is also a re-integration into the body of society and the world.

In Marriage, a couple is invited to experience and celebrate communion despite the pain of brokenness, separation and isolation. How unfortunate it is that this sacrament has been conveniently reduced to a social contract, somehow introducing a romanticized urban lifestyle in Western society. In its spiritual sense, marriage is primarily the experience of the cross, the other side of the coin we call ascesis. As such, it is the desire for unity between Creator and creation, God and humanity, body and soul, time and eternity, heaven and earth.

Holy Unction is a healing sacrament. In the Orthodox practice, it is celebrated throughout life as the outpouring of “the oil of gladness” on the scars of the soul and the wounds of the world. It aims healing the breach or brokenness between body and soul, mending the shattered parts of the heart and the earth, while reconciling heaven with all of God’s creation.

Finally, the sacrament of Ordination is not a declaration of the exclusive rights granted to the hierarchy. Priesthood is the royal vocation of all people. Through ordination, the Body of Christ receives new expression and renewed vitality. The whole world becomes a cathedral; every person is ordained for the kingdom and no place is unhallowed. When we discern the presence of God in everyone and in every place, then we can rejoice and celebrate the fullness of life.

IV. Conclusion

The image of sacramental communion in the Orthodox Church is represented in color through the icon depicting the hospitality of Abraham and Sarah welcoming three strangers in the desert of Palestine. It is an icon of the communion between the three persons of the Trinity. The story is related in Genesis 18 of Abraham sitting under the oak trees of Mamre:

The Lord appeared to Abraham by the oaks of Mamre, as he sat at the entrance of his tent in the heat of the day. (Gen. 18:1)

If we pay close attention, not only do the oaks provide refreshing shade for the Patriarch of Israel, but they are the occasion for divine revelation. By analogy, not only do the trees of the world provide sustenance for humankind in diverse ways, but they reflect the very presence of God. Cutting them down implies eliminating the divine presence from our lives. Indeed, the Hebrew interpretation of this text implies that the oak trees themselves – just as the visitors who appeared at the same time – actually reveal God. Indeed, it was not until Abraham recognized the presence of God in the trees (namely in creation, or adamah) that he was also able to recognize God in his visitors (namely in human beings, or adam). Creation, just like the human beings who appeared in the form of angels, is itself the manifestation of God in the world.

The crisis that we are facing in our world is not primarily ecological. It is a crisis concerning the way we envisage or imagine the world. We are treating our planet in an inhuman, godless manner precisely because we fail to see it as a gift inherited from above; it is our obligation to receive, respect and in turn hand on this gift to future generations. Therefore, before we can effectively deal with problems of our environment, we must change the way we perceive the world. Otherwise, we are simply dealing with symptoms, not with their causes. We require a new worldview if we are to desire “a new heaven and a new earth.” (Rev. 21:1) This is our calling; indeed, this is God’s command. We must near and heed it now. As His All Holiness Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew declared jointly with the late Pope John Paul II:

It is not too late. God’s world has incredible healing powers. Within a single generation, we could steer the earth toward our children’s future. Let that generation start now, with God’s help and blessing. (Venice, 2002)

 


 


Conference Presenter Revd. Deacon Dr. John Chryssavgis



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