So Lent is upon us: the season of self-discipline which Bishop Robin spoke of here on Wednesday evening. Having just heard the Gospel reading about Jesus’ baptism and time of temptation in the wilderness you may be expecting me to say something about the need for examining our own lives, denying ourselves and spending more time than we usually do with God. If those ARE your expectations then I am afraid that I am about to disappoint you. But stick with me because I will – eventually – make a suggestion about something we might do in our keeping of Lent. What I say next will appear to have absolutely nothing to do with any of the readings we have heard this morning, but bear with me and all will, I hope, become clear.
Back in the 16th Century, Nicolas Copernicus performed some mathematical calculations which led him to propose the very radical idea that it was the sun and not the earth that sat at the centre of the heavens. Less than a century later, Galileo was able to confirm Copernicus’ theory by using a recently developed piece of technology – the telescope. For as long as anyone could remember, the Church had supported and promoted the ancient earth-centred view of the universe. I think it would be fair to say that this new sun-centred idea was not well received. It was a clear challenge to the authority of Church and also to the belief in the inerrancy of scripture. If the Church and scripture could be wrong about THIS what else might they be wrong about? The new learning also disturbed people at a rather deeper level: they were disturbed by the idea that if the earth really was not the centre of the universe, then neither were they. The Copernican Revolution effectively dethroned humankind, took us away from the centre of the stage and carried the implicit message that it might not be all about us. That was hard for people to hear then and it seems that it is still hard for us now. I wonder how we react to these more recent comments from well-known scientists:
Steven Hawking - We are just advanced monkeys on a minor planet of a pretty average star on the outer edge of a small galaxy.
Carl Sagan (American cosmologist) – If we could squeeze the life of the cosmos into a single year then we would date the Big Bang as happening on 1st January; the sun and planets would have formed on 10th September; human beings would have appeared at 11.50pm on 31st December.
When we think of our lives in the context of the whole of time and space it becomes very difficult to continue to believe that it is all about us. But we do find that difficult to believe. We seem to be almost inescapably anthropocentric: we put humankind at the centre again and again. And yet as Christians we are inheritors of a tradition that – if we just have the eyes to see – has been telling us for a very long time that it is not all about us. In fact, this very idea is at the heart of two of the readings we have listened to this morning. Let me remind you of them.
Firstly, Noah. He and his family and the animals had been on that Ark together through 40 days of rain. That Ark stands as a symbol of the interrelatedness of all creation: we are all in one boat together and we will either perish or be saved together. We picked up the story this morning after the waters had receded and all the inhabitants of the Ark had come out onto dry land. God then establishes a covenant: God makes a binding promise that never again will God destroy the whole earth. We are told that this is an everlasting covenant. But listen carefully to what God says to Noah: “I am establishing my covenant with you … and with EVERY LIVING CREATURE.” This is repeated no less than 5 times in slightly different ways: “This covenant I have established between me and ALL FLESH that is on the earth.” All flesh, not just the human flesh. The covenant that God makes here binds all life together. We tend to overlook this. It really is not all about us.
Next, Jesus in the wilderness. Like Noah, Jesus is cut off from human community for 40 days and is in the company of animals. The text says that he was with the wild beasts. That’s a really important little phrase – he was with the wild beasts. It reflects the expectation that surrounded the coming of the Messiah. You may remember that passage from Isaiah 11 which is read during the Carol Service each year and which offers us a vision of the world transformed when the Messiah comes. Part of it goes like this: “The wolf shall live with the lamb, the leopard shall lie down with the kid, the calf and the lion and the fatling together, and a little child shall lead them.” The Messianic Age would be one of peace and justice for ALL creatures, not just for humankind. And in the wilderness Jesus established that Messianic peace with the animals – he was with the wild beasts. A clear signal that Jesus’ life and death and resurrection has significance for the animal world too.** None of this should surprise us. It’s all hinted at in the first few chapters of scripture. We don’t, as humankind, get a day of creation all to ourselves: we share the 6th day with ‘cattle and creeping things and wild animals of the earth of every kind’. Then God saw everything God had made and declared it ALL to be VERY good – all of it, not just the human bits of it. Yes, God did give us ‘dominion’ over creation and we have, at our worst, lived out that dominion as a form of despotism, taking power over creation, including the other animals, and using them in any way that has given us pleasure or benefit or profit. But dominion is not about despotism: it is about being in loving relationship with creation, just as God is in loving relationship with us. In 1923 the Jesuit priest Teilhard de Chardin celebrated what he called a Mass over the World in the middle of a desert in China. With his arms raised, he offered the whole cosmos back to God. This action came from his deep conviction that human beings exist neither to rule the world nor to use it up, but to bless its many and varied elements, just as later in this service we will bless bread and wine, offering what is God’s back to God. This is what dominion actually means: to pass on God’s blessings as we who are made in God’s image attempt to love the world as God loves it. The Collect for Ash Wednesday speaks directly to God, saying “You hate nothing that you have made.” If we wanted to put the matter of animal theology simply, we might say something like this: if they are here, God made them; and if God made them, God loves them; and if God loves them, we who are made in God’s image should love them too.
That sounds wonderful. Who could disagree with that? We ‘get it’. But what does it mean in practice? It must mean more than just being kind to our pets and fighting to save rare animals from extinction. What about the animals we use in experiments or for entertainment and sport? What about the animals we eat? Cows are specifically mentioned as sharing that 6th day of creation with us. At the end of the book of Jonah God declares that he has held back from destroying the city of Ninevah because of the people who live there but also because of the many cattle. Cows seem to matter to God. But how much do we know about the life of the average dairy cow, for example: repeatedly impregnated, her calves taken away from her often within hours of birth; if those calves are not needed for herd replacement or for veal production they are just treated as waste products and slaughtered at a few days old. The mother, due to years of selective breeding and, more recently, genetic manipulation, will carry on producing huge quantities of milk – up to 10 times as much as her calf would need – and will be worn out and sent for slaughter at around the age of 7. The natural lifespan of a cow is around 20 years. If they are here, God made them; and if God made them, God loves them; and if God loves them, we who are made in God’s image should love them too.*** Animals are often on the menu at Christian gatherings, but they are rarely on the agenda of our thinking. In this particular ethical area the secular world is way ahead of us. And that is odd, since we have a clear God-given mandate to love and care for God’s creatures.
On Wednesday, Bishop Robin mentioned that he will be doing without the sweetener in his tea throughout Lent. Taking that same cup of tea as the focus, my suggestion is that you consider swapping your usual cow’s milk for one of the many plant milks that are so easily available now: oat, hemp, soya, almond, rice, coconut. There are plenty out there. Jesus was in the wilderness with the wild beasts and was at peace with them. God established an eternal covenant with Noah and with every living creature. Animals really should be on the agenda of our thinking. If they are here, God made them; and if God made them, God loves them; and if God loves them, we who are made in God’s image should love them too.