Sunday, December 27, 2009

St. John, Christmas and Going Green?

December 27 is the Feast of St. John. It is observed a day later this year, as Sundays take precedence over other observations on the church calendar.

John, known variously as the Evangelist, the Divine (meaning one who sees into the mysteries of God, not an idolatrous claim that John is a divinity), and the beloved disciple, is credited with the New Testament Gospel that bears his name, three New Testament letters, and the Revelation. It should be noted that scholars still debate about how many different "Johns" might actually have contributed to those Biblical texts.

As I think about the traditional view of John, I muse about the church's punting of environmental issues to secular or neopagan zealots. John sees the earth fighting on God's side in the battle against evil:

"When the dragon (the devil) saw that he had been hurled to the earth, he pursued the woman who had given birth to the male child... Then from his mouth the serpent spewed water like a river, to overtake the woman and sweep her away with the torrent. But the earth helped the woman by opening its mouth and swallowing the river that the dragon had spewed out of his mouth. Then the dragon was enraged at the woman and went off to make war against the rest of her offspring—those who obey God's commandments and hold to the testimony of Jesus." Revelation 12:13-17

John sees God's final justice and hears the earth receive the same vindication as the saints:

"The time has come for judging the dead, and for rewarding your servants the prophets and your saints and those who reverence your name, both small and great— and for destroying those who destroy the earth." Revelation 11:18

John's Feast Day invariably falls during Christmas season, which is appropriate since John's Gospel is the richest exposition of the Incarnation - the supernatural God's choice to inhabit the natural, material world in the flesh and blood of Jesus. The great Prologue of his Gospel is assigned for this First Sunday after Christmas:

"In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. He was in the beginning with God. All things were made through Him, and without Him nothing was made that was made... And the Word became flesh and dwelt among us..."

excerpts from John 1

The hymns of the Christmas season, written in different places and periods of church history, present the natural world rejoicing as its creator takes flesh:

"Of the Father's love begotten, ere the worlds began to be, he is Alpha and Omega, he the source, the ending he, of the things that are, that have been, and that future years shall see, evermore and evermore! At his word the worlds were fram├Ęd; he commanded; it was done: heaven and earth and depths of ocean in their threefold order one; all that grows beneath the shining of the moon and burning sun, evermore and evermore!" Marcus Aurelius Clemens Prudentius (348-413)

"Good Christian men, rejoice with heart and soul and voice; give ye heed to what we say: Jesus Christ is born today; ox and ass before him bow, and he is in the manger now. Christ is born today! Christ is born today!" Valentin Triller, 1572

"Joy to the world! the Savior reigns; let us our songs employ, while fields and floods, rocks, hills and plains repeat the sounding joy, repeat the sounding joy,repeat, repeat the sounding joy." Isaac Watts, 1719

"Angels we have heard on high Sweetly singing o'er the plains, And the mountains in reply Echoing their joyous strains. Gloria, in excelsis Deo! Gloria, in excelsis Deo!"
Traditional French Carol, trans. J. Chadwick 1862

(All lyrics from Oremus Index of the Episcopal Hymnal 1982)

These few Bible passages and hymns barely dip into a deep Christian river of reverence for God's pleasure, plan and presence in the natural world. One of my parishioners recently coauthored a book on the environmental awareness running through the works of C.S. Lewis, perhaps the most widely read Christian of the 20th century.

I don't have a quick answer as to why the church has lost its joyful proclamation that "The earth is the Lord's, and the fullness thereof..." (Psalm 24:1). Some usual suspects would be

  • - Urbanization: the detachment of human life from natural cycles;

  • - Fallout from the (so called) "Enlightenment": Endless analysis of particulars and rejection of meaningful connections between them. Intellectual dis-integration, such as "science and religion, natural and supernatural, material and spiritual are all separate categories with no overlap."

  • - Humanism: Yeah, I said it. The College 101 myth is that "The Bible tells people to rule over the earth, and that's why there's environmental destruction." But the fact is that the Industrial Revolution and other historically harsh-on-the-environment seasons coincide with the rise of human-centered (as opposed to God-centered) world views. Don't forget Blake's 19th century poem, popularized as a hymn, in which Jesus strolling on "mountains green and pleasant pastures" is contrasted with the "dark Satanic mills" of Industrial England.

From a Christian point of view, St. John reminds us that our inattention to any aspect of God's pleasure, plan and presence is symptomatic of evil's constant (but blessedly futile) effort to obscure the truth: the love of God revealed in the birth of Jesus.

"The Word gave life to everything that was created, and his life brought light to everyone. The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness can never extinguish it... He came into the very world he created, but the world didn’t recognize him. He came to his own people, and even they rejected him. But to all who believed him and accepted him, he gave the right to become children of God. They are reborn—not with a physical birth resulting from human passion or plan, but a birth that comes from God." Selections from John's Prologue, New Living Translation

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