The E-mail Commentary from Eco-Justice Ministries
Which Christmas will you be celebrating this year? The birth of a tiny infant in Bethlehem as told by Matthew and Luke, or the incarnation of the cosmic Christ proclaimed by John? (Yes, you can answer "both".)
The Christmas story does not provide all of the content for a comprehensive theology, but our approach to this holiday strongly suggests the style and scope of our belief. Is your faith -- and is the tendency in your congregation -- directed toward the person of Jesus, or toward the God who shapes and values all creation?
That is a powerful question, one that deals with the relevance of the Christian faith for our time. Lutheran theologian Joseph Sittler raised this issue in a 1972 essay, The Scope of Christological Reflection. (Sittler started writing about "a theology for earth" clear back in 1954, decades before most of his peers started to consider such matters.)
The quest for a Christology that shall serve our time is given urgency by what is commonly called the environmental crisis. Knowledge of the extent of pollution, the dynamic equilibrium of the natural world, the ecological structure of all life is a kind of catalytic in awareness. This knowledge is with concreteness, clarity, and force causing all [people] to acknowledge that life is indeed a bundle, that "all things" is the context of anything, that physics by nature demands a metaphysics.
He continues (including the painfully long and convoluted final sentence of his article):
No earlier time has had the knowledge or power to put its manipulative hand upon the dynamics of evolution or upon the molecular structures of matter or energy. But our time does, and a Christology that does not propose the power and presence and grace of God in Christ with an amplitude congruent with these power potentials as an operational mode of life deeply formative of technological [humanity's] personhood will be an unintelligible Christology, even an uninteresting one.
In other words, does our Christmas proclamation lift up good news of a scale adequate to the bad news which flows from our powerful, short-sighted and self-centered human race? Does our Christology have judgment, hope or grace that addresses the way our culture is exploiting and destabilizing creation?
In a Notes several years ago, I suggested some Advent Struggles that can arise for pastors in this season. If we use the four weeks before Christmas to delve deeply into our need for salvation, do we have equally deep good news to name when we gather to celebrate the birth of Christ?
Do we have a gospel of forgiveness that is powerful enough to heal people who participate every day in a globalized system of exploitation? ... Do we have a believable word of hope for those who know that the rich diversity of life on Earth is being decimated? Do we have any genuine comfort for those who live in stark terror about climate change, the super-bacteria that resist antibiotics, or epidemics of chemically-induced cancers? Do we have a message of liberation that can free people from their bondage to a global system which weaves economics, culture, technology and politics into a powerful web of seduction and control?
The worship services in Christmastide won't answer all of those questions, of course, but they should at least acknowledge that the questions are real. Holiday prayers, hymns and sermons won't develop all the answers about faith and ethics, but the worship during this season does need to affirm that the birth we celebrate somehow connects to our greatest needs -- personally, culturally, and as a planet.
For me, a warm and comforting story about the cute little baby doesn't rise to the occasion. Away in a Manger is a lovely song, but its good news is personal and other-worldly. It prays with the hope that Jesus will protect me, and that he will "bless all the dear children in your tender care, and fit us for heaven to live with you there." Even the little kids who come to the Christmas Eve service in their PJs need a stronger hope that can speak to their bigger fears about the state of our world.
Sittler critiqued another hymn on similar grounds: "the piety that could once sing Jesus, Lover of My Soul as an adequate designation of trust, loyalty, and meaning is not saying enough about Jesus, love or persons now that portions of interstellar space bear [human] footprints." Or now that humans are warping the climate of this fragile panet.
The world in which we live is a different place than the home of our ancestors a few centuries ago -- or even a few decades ago. We confront greater and more complex perils, we have greater responsibilities and possibilities, and we need a bigger Christology if our faith is going to have meaning.
That's true for us regular church-goers who get to add nuance and detail to our theology while we move from Christmas through the cycle of the church year. It is even more true for the "Christmas and Easter" members, the family members who get dragged along to church after the big dinner, and the visitors who wander through the doors to see what Christianity is all about.
For lots of folk, Christmas Eve is their most important education about Christian faith and ethics. Does the service that they experience even suggest that we care about the state of the world, that we recognize how we are woven into the web of life, and that we have hopeful good news about different ways of living within Earth community? Or do these visitors leave with the idea that the church is a sentimental community that doesn't have a clue about what is going on in our lives and in the world?
My opening question of "which Christmas will you celebrate?" implies that there is an either/or choice, and that's not accurate. There is profound truth in both proclamations -- the baby in a manger, and the Logos who shaped all creation. The celebration of "God with us" becomes remarkable when we affirm that the baby (and the carpenter, the prophet, the obedient one on the cross) embodies the one in whom "all things came into being." Both aspects are needed if our Christology is to be interesting and meaningful in this time when "all things" seem to be coming apart.
If we roll through the Christmas season and only talk about the baby, we're not communicating the whole truth. If the incarnation doesn't remind us that that "'all things' is the context of anything", then we're not speaking good news for our ecological world.
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In our work with churches, Eco-Justice Ministries often raises the hard and fruitful questions that can open the path to a transformation in awareness and behavior. Those questions -- about Christology, the good life, and the nature of God's creation -- become most meaningful and compelling when they are tied to our most sacred times.
The depth of our concern for God's creation becomes most evident when it is named at Christmas and Easter, as well as on Earth Day. When we have a genuinely ecological faith, then it will be incorporated into baptisms and funerals, as well as the Blessing of the Animals.
Eco-Justice Ministries challenges and supports churches through Eco-Justice Notes, leadership training events, public witness and political advocacy, resources on our website, and direct engagement with denominations and local congregations. We encourage you to make an end-of-the-year contribution in support of our work. Visit our website to make an on-line donation, or reply to this email with your pledge. Thank you.
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Eco-Justice Ministries ended all programming on July 31, 2020. This site is an archive of writings and resources.
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