Greening the Lectionary

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

Easter 2

Whether we are fearful or frustrated, lonely or longing for time alone, busy or bored, lockdown is hard. We wish Covid 19 hadn't happened and we wish things could go back to normal. As we read this week's Gospel there are some obvious parallels. The disciples are fearful behind closed doors. Following Jesus' death, they are sad, confused, and guilt-ridden. How they must have wished things could go back to normal. Then suddenly the mood changes. The Risen Jesus comes among them and says "Peace be with you" and the disciples rejoice.

Many of us are praying for peace of mind at the moment as we face an uncertain future. Biblically however, Peace or Shalom is not simply the absence of worry or danger. It is a key image of salvation. It describes a state where individuals are completely at ease with themselves, with others and with God. It is the at-one-ment, of the atonement. Shalom is about healing, physical, mental, spiritual and emotional, and Jesus is the embodiment of it – standing there, risen from the dead.

Yet Shalom is not only about the individual, because individuals, even if they are self-isolating, do not live in isolation from each other. The actions of each person have an effect on other people and on the world around them, for better or for worse. One cannot claim to have found peace and ignore the cry of the vulnerable, the poor, or the Earth. The peace of Christ enfolds the entire world. Shalom and the Kingdom of God are coterminous. Justice and righteousness abound and people live in harmony with God, each other and the created order. If we take seriously the idea of Shalom then the 'Green' ideals of ecological and social justice will have a central place.

Having shared his peace with the disciples, Jesus sends them out as he was sent. The peace of Christ is not only something to be received but to be shared, proclaimed and worked for. The responsibility the disciples felt must have been huge: the task they were given overwhelming. Yet, they do not act alone, for Jesus breathes his Spirit upon them and gives them the authority to forgive. This may have been wonderful, it may have been awe-inspiring, but it wasn’t back to normal. There was no going back to before the crucifixion.

The task ahead of us in the days, weeks, months and years ahead will be challenging and we too may feel overwhelmed. There will be no going back to normal and normal wasn’t really working anyway -not for the planet and not for the poor. As we play our part in working out what the ‘new normal’ will look like, let us be guided by the principles of Shalom and remember that we are not alone. For the same Risen Christ who says “Peace be with you” also says “I am with you always”. The Lord is here and his Spirit is with us.

Easter Day

We have been learning many things during this time of lockdown, but two stand out, the important of physical presence and of the natural world: those who live alone have longed for the touch of others, separated lovers have missed their embraces and children and grandparents wish that they could hug. Whilst some will have missed shaking hands at the peace more than others, the loss of touch has been a sort of bereavement. As our physical contacts have declined the spiritual value of the natural world has become increasingly important. With church buildings locked, this has become the only ‘sacred space’ available. The correlation between time spent with nature and mental health is being borne out and it is vital that those without gardens continue to have access to it.

The Easter story is a very physical one. For John, the resurrection takes place in a garden, creating a poetic balance with the Garden of Eden. Where once the combination of garden and tree spoke of death and alienation, now tree and garden speak of new life and restoration. Matthew’s account of the crucifixion showed the Earth mourning for Christ with darkness and shaking ground, but now as the sun rises a further earthquake announces the rolling away of the stone. Touch is a vital component too. In Matthew’s Gospel, when Mary Magdalene and the other Mary, meet the risen Jesus, we read that they ‘took hold of his feet and worshipped him’. Whilst in John’s Gospel it seems that Mary is holding onto Jesus for so long that she has to be told to let go. Later in the same chapter Thomas is invited to touch Jesus’ hands and side and when Peter addresses the house of Cornelius he points out that the risen Jesus ate and drank.

At the time that the New Testament was written, the sophisticated philosophy of the day had strongly dualist tendancies which separated the physical and the spiritual and considered the material world something to be transcended or escaped. The authors of the New Testament held out against this, insisting upon a bodily resurrection. Believing in a resurrected Christ who could be touched will undoubtedly affect both the way that we understand our bodies and the created order. It precludes treating either as disposable temporary homes, or failing to give them the respect they deserve. It stops us from imagining that God cares more about our worship and our prayer life than the embodied experiences of hunger, drought, disease and pain. It leads us to anticipate a renewing of the whole creation, rather than a spiritual heaven exclusively populated by dead souls and angels. The resurrection of Jesus is a foretaste of the Kingdom which is to come, a Kingdom of peace and forgiveness, where death, suffering and pain no longer have any hold, a Kingdom where no virus can separate us and where Jesus Christ is Lord of all.

The onset of lockdown coincided with the arrival of a beautiful Spring, which has spoken profoundly of abundant life and lifted morale. There is indeed wisdom in the ordering of the Church's year. I am reminded of Jesus saying on Palm Sunday, that if the crowds were silent that the stones would cry out in praise. In the absence of our usual Easter rituals it seems as if nature is celebrating on our behalf. God may not prefer the spiritual to the physical but he undoubtedly prefers life to death and hope over despair and so Easter remains, even in these most trying of circumstances, a cause for rejoicing. 

Good Friday

Is Good Friday good news for all creation or just for people? If we understand Jesus’ death exclusively in terms of “paying the price of sin”, our immediate answer might be – ‘just people', after all it is people and only people who are capable of sin. However, there are other models of the atonement which allow a more expansive interpretation and for the entire created order to be enfolded in the healing of the cross.

The theologian Elizabeth A Johnson articulates a model of “accompaniment” which understands that when “Word became flesh” the living essence that is common to all life was assumed. Just as Christ’s maleness and Jewishness do not preclude his redeeming of women and gentiles, so his humanity does not preclude him redeeming the non-human creation. Thus, Christ’s solidarity with those who suffer - writ large upon the cross, is not only a solidarity with suffering humanity, but with suffering creation. All living things engage in the struggle to survive and all living things live with reality of death. Johnson uses the phrase "redemptive co-suffering" to describe this. Just as we are able to understand Christ’s cry of desolation “my God, my God, why have you forsaken me” as a cry of solidarity with the poor, the abused, and the despairing, so we can understand it as a cry of solidarity with species on the verge of extinction, of rivers polluted, of plastic choked oceans, and deforested land. No suffering, no death is beyond the notice of the ‘Crucified God’ who feels the pain of his people and his world.

There is also Irenaeus’ understanding of the life and death of Jesus as “recapitulation”, undoing the first sin of Adam and removing the curse which drove human beings from Eden. A curse which affected not only humanity but also the natural world.( A further consideration of this can be found in the Lent 1 year A reflection in the archive). But there is no need jettison the understanding of sins forgiven on the cross, to ‘Green’ Good Friday, for if the natural world suffers as a result of human sin, then forgiveness of those same sins, and repentance of them will inevitably be good news for all creation.