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Rev. Thomas, the former General Minister and President of the United Church of Christ, is now a professor and administrator here at CTS. Follow his timely, provocative writings on the issues of our day.

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Friendly Beasts at the Manger

This week Lydia and I set up the crèche in our apartment.  It contains all the traditional figures, but is augmented by a profusion of carved wooden animals she has purchased over the years, including many found in shops and bazaars on her international travels.  The species represented far exceed those mentioned in the Biblical narratives and have become so numerous that some of the animals have to gaze on the crèche from bookcase perches across the room.  A coiled snake claims pride of place next to Mary, offering a subtle piece of theological humor.  The baby Jesus remains in his plastic baggie in a drawer, awaiting his arrival on Christmas Eve. 

The profusion of “friendly beasts” is remarkable to behold, a source not only of beauty, but also laughter as the various odd creatures suggest a far more riotous manger than most pious art depicts.   And, of course, each animal evokes for her the memories of people and places associated with its purchase.  It is a much anticipated addition to our home each year.

Yesterday’s “Science Times” section of The New York Times included an article about the ecological commitments of Bartholomew, the Ecumenical Patriarch in Istanbul.  Marlise Simons begins her article,

At a conference near Istanbul last June, the chimpanzee expert Jane Goodall spoke about the endangered habitat of what she called “our closest relatives.” Underlining the evolutionary link, she described her encounter with a senior male ape who had a “beautiful white beard.”   With a smile, she turned to the 72-year-old man in the front row and added, “Very much like yours.”  The man with the long white beard was Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew I of Constantinople, the spiritual leader of the world’s Orthodox Christians. Fortunately, he is known for his easy, affable manner, and he joined the laughter that followed.

Bartholomew has been called “the Green Patriarch” for his theological commitment to the preservation of the environment.  In September of this year he issued an Encyclical - http://www.patriarchate.org/documents/encyclical-of-his-all-holiness-for-the-church-new-year - on the subject which, while couched in the formal and somewhat archaic theological language of Orthodoxy, is profoundly current and challenging.  It reads in part,

Biodiversity is the work of divine wisdom and was not granted to humanity for its unruly control. By the same token, dominion over the earth and its environs implies rational use and enjoyment of its benefits, and not destructive acquisition of its resources out of a sense of greed. Nevertheless, especially in our times, we observe an excessive abuse of natural resources, resulting in the destruction of the environmental balance of the planet’s ecosystems and generally of ecological conditions, so that the divinely-ordained regulations of human existence on earth are increasingly transgressed. For instance, all of us – scientists, as well as religious and political leaders, indeed all people – are witnessing a rise in the atmosphere’s temperature, extreme weather conditions, the pollution of ecosystems both on land and in the sea, and an overall disturbance – sometimes to the point of utter destruction – of the potential for life in some regions of the world. . . .  Thus, the invocation and supplication of the Church and us all to God as the Lord of lords and Ruler of all for the restoration of creation are essentially a petition of repentance for our sinfulness in destroying the world instead of working to preserve and sustain its ever-flourishing resources reasonably and carefully.

Bartholomew goes on to remind us that the ecological changes he references “are not inspired by God but initiated by humans.”  I wonder what right wing Republican deniers of climate change would do with this tree hugger in ancient and elaborate ecclesiastical garb?

This brings us back to the crèche.  As habitats are destroyed and species become extinct, some of the animals who might potentially gather at the manger are eliminated.  This, Bartholomew tells us, is not simply an aesthetic and scientific loss, but a sign of human sinfulness, a violation of the Creator’s very intention.  As His All-Holiness says, “The world that surrounds us was thus offered to us as a gift by our Creator as an arena of social activity but also of spiritual sanctification in order that we might inherit the creation to be renewed in the future age.” 

Our crèche sets tell a wondrous ancient tale and often evoke rich family memories.  But they can also remind us that the creation itself, in all its splendor and diversity, is the arena of God’s incarnation, that not just humans, but every living thing is endowed with the vocation of adoring the One who brings all to life.  As the beloved medieval French carol puts it,

Thus all the beasts, by some good spell,
In the stable dark were glad to tell
Of the gifts they gave Emmanuel,
The gifts they gave Emmanuel.

John H. Thomas
December 6, 2012

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