Greening the Lectionary

A Theological Response to the Ecological Crisis: Reflections, Liturgy, Reviews, Comment.

Thoughts for this week

Easter Day: Isaiah 65.17-25, 1 Cor 15.19-26, Luke 24.1-12

 Alleluia, Christ is Risen! He is Risen Indeed Alleluia!.

The liturgical colour may be celebratory white or gold but Easter Sunday is a “Green” day. Churches will be decorated with flowers, the Easter Garden transformed, and nature metaphors such as chicks and lambs will be pressed into service to speak of new life. Even the time of year, spring, echoes the message of the day, as the earth teems with new growth after its period of dormancy. It is a day when the natural world and the world of faith seem to be intertwined.

The association in our imagination between Easter and the natural world is so strong that it can come as something of a surprise to discover what a low profile it has in Luke’s narrative. We might have expected nature to have exploded with the joy and excitement of resurrection moment, birds singing a symphony, flowers spontaneously blooming, or indeed the trees of the field clapping their hands, but no such imagery is deployed. The setting of the tomb in a garden and Jesus being mistaken for the gardener is found only in John’s Gospel. Nature rises to the occasion in Matthew's Gospel, delivering an earthquake to announce the “earth shattering” event, but Luke makes no mention of this. His focus is clearly on the experiences of the human witnesses, their confusion, doubt and amazement.

Although Luke is quiet on the nature front, the Old and New Testament readings more than make up for this. Isaiah paints a compelling picture of God creating new heavens and a new earth. A place of joy and delight, where weeping and distress are things of the past, lives will be long, the land will be fruitful, and peace will reign to such an extent that nature will no longer be “red in tooth and claw”. The wolf and lamb shall feed together and the lion will eat straw like the ox. Whilst Paul focusses on the image of first fruits, describing the Resurrected Christ as “the first fruits of those who have died”.

Paul would have understood “first fruits” with reference to the practice of offering to God the first of the grain, fruit, or vegetable harvests. Doing this was an act of trust; trust that a greater harvest would follow. Jesus’ resurrection then, is not a one-off event, but the first of numerous resurrections. The resurrection he experiences will one day be shared by those who belong to him.

It may be whimsical, but I liken this to snowdrops and spring. When the snowdrops bloom it is still winter, spring is a long way ahead, but those first flowers stand as a reminder and a promise that winter will not last forever and that, in due course, other flowers will bloom and spring will return. Jesus’ resurrection contains a similar promise for the future.

The image of first fruits can be extended to speak of the resurrection as the first fruits of the new or “renewed” creation - a foretaste of what the world will be like when the Isaiah's vision is fulfilled and God’s kingdom comes in all its fullness. Then death will be no more and all things, including the natural world, will be restored and redeemed.

Amid the desperation of the environment crisis, the message of Easter is, as it always has been, one of hope. God can bring triumph out of disaster, joy from sorrow, life out of death. There is no situation so bleak that it cannot be redeemed.

The good news is that in the renewed creation, we will continue to enjoy, delight and appreciate the natural world. But this does not mean we treat the Earth any way we wish, with no consequences, expecting God to pick up to the pieces. Those who believe in the resurrected Christ are called, like him, to be “first fruits of the new creation”. They are to live as if the new creation in all its fullness and glory is already here, show what it will be like and point others to it. In such the "new creation" community values such as seeking peace, a thirst for justice and respecting the Earth will be second nature, and every day will be, like Easter, a "Green day".

Lent 6 Palm Sunday Luke 19.28-40, Luke 22.14 - 23.56

 

Is it possible to include a “green perspective” when preaching about about Palm Sunday or the Passion narrative? Nature is certainly present within the text. In the Palm Gospel the donkey has a significant role in signposting the nature of Jesus' vocation. GK Chesterton’s poem*, might be pressed into use, to show Jesus including and giving dignity to those things that others disregard, ridicule, take for granted or abuse.

Those who are not squeamish about conflating the gospels might comment on the way that the palms are used to welcome the Jesus as Messiah. Although Luke makes no mention of palms or tree branches, only cloaks which are laid in Jesus’ path, in his gospel.

I am tempted to make more of Jesus’ declaration that should the multitude of disciples stop praising, then “the stones would shout out”. A figure of speech perhaps, but one which suggests that nature has a capacity to recognise who Jesus is. Those whose voices were raised to acclaim Jesus upon his triumphal entry deserted him, but nature like the faithful women, remains a witness to the end; grieving at the cross; the sun’s light failing, as Jesus’s life ebbs from him.

Within the passion narrative, mention could be made of the bread and wine of the passover, as symbols of co-operation between nature and humanity. An emphasis usefully underscored in this prayer of preparation at the Eucharist.

Blessed are you, Lord God of all creation, through your goodness we have this bread to set before you, which earth has given and human hands have made. It will become for us the bread of life. Blessed are you, Lord God of all creation, though your goodness we have this wine to set before you, fruit of the vine and work of human hands. It will become for us the cup of salvation.

Preachers might prefer to save reflection on this this until Maundy Thursday or Corpus Christi.

Nature is present as Jesus continues on towards the cross. The crowing cock exposes Peter’s denial and Jesus uses metaphors from the natural world to encourage the daughters of Jerusalem to lament for themselves, rather than him. Jesus prays his prayer of agony outside, in the Mount of Olives, and the ground receives the sweat of his brow, as it later receives his body in the rock hewn tomb.

The image of Jesus being received by the earth has long inspired reflection on nature, including the idea of Jesus being buried like a seed to emerge renewed at the resurrection, and there is a well-established tradition that the earth is hallowed by the presence of Jesus' body within it. In the Seventeenth century, Gerrald Winstanley wrote

“The body of Christ is where the Father is, in the earth, purifying the earth; and his Spirit is entered into the whole creation which is the heavenly glory where the Father dwells.” **

There is also a sense in which the earth, through the tomb, ministers to and protects the body of Jesus, providing safe haven, after the violence of the cross.

Nature is not the primary focus on the passiontide narrative. The focus must surely remain Jesus and his suffering. Notwithsanding this I would suggest it is possible to view nature is a participant in the passion, who affects and is affected, and stands as a faithful, sorrowful and compassionate witness alongside those women who stood at a distance, sorrowfully watching.

 

* https://www.poetryfoundation.org/poems/47918/the-donkey

 **G.H Sabine, ed. The Collected Works of Gerrard Winstanley (Cornell University Press. 1941) P117 quoted in I Bradley, God is Green (Dartman, Longman and Todd, London 1990) p80

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Poem of Lament

 

"It's 3:23 in the morning and I'm awake because my great great

grandchildren won't let me sleep.

my great great grandchildren ask me in dreams

"what did you do while the Planet was plundered?

what did you do when the Earth was unravelling?

surely you did something when the seasons started failing?

as the mammals, reptiles, birds were all dying?

did you fill the streets with protest when democracy was stolen?

what did you do once you knew?..."

 

Excerpt from "Hieroglyphic Stairway" by Drew Dillinger

A resource for those wishing to incorporate a theology of creation and stewardship into their discipleship worship and preaching. 

Offering reflections each week, based on the readings in the Revised Common Lectionary.

Curating a theological response to the ecological crisis.

About the Author

Revd Ruth Newton, is the parish priest of St John's Sharow, and a member of the Church of England General Synod. Ordained for 17 years, Ruth has ministered in three multi-parish benefices, as a Cathedral Canon and as a Lay Training Officer.

 

The award winning Churchyard at St John's, Sharow is managed for maximum biodiversity and has won a number of awards, including highly commended in the Church Times Green Award. The Church is involved in the Eco-Church programme and last year hosted a regional symposium on Churchyard management.

 

Ruth is married to Andrew, who has Multiple Sclerosis. Together, they work to raise awareness of accessibility issues. 

Twitter: @greening_the 

revdruthnewton@gmail.com