How often have you heard a sermon or read an article that emphasised the importance of the natural world in the life of Jesus? Yet, when we begin to look at the gospels we see that nature played a crucial role in his life. At his birth, Luke tells us that he was laid in a manger, because there was no place for them in the inn ((Lk. 2: 7). Mary, Joseph, the animals and straw surrounded Jesus at his birth. The first human beings to greet him were the shepherds who were keeping watch over their flocks by night. (Lk. 2.8). The love which Mary and Joseph had for Jesus and the helplessness and total dependence of the infant Jesus on his parents captures our imagination. It was St. Francis of Assisi, the great lover of all creation, who graphically portrayed this in the first Christmas Crib which appeared in Grreccio in 1223. Thomas of Celano wrote,
It had, indeed, been the intention of Francis, by a concrete representation of the manger-crib, the hay, the live animals, and the child-image, to remind all of the pitiably harsh circumstances of the birth of the Son of God. In the crib, we can see that Jesus’ hands are spread out in a gesture of love for us and all creation.
From the beginning of his life Jesus had first hand contact with nature. The importance of nature is central to St. |Mark’s gospel even though he does not have an infancy gospel. His gospel begins with the Spirit leading Jesus into the wilderness where wild beasts and angels looked after him. (Mk. 1: 12 -13).
It was during his sojourn in the desert that Jesus came to accept and appreciate the messianic ministry he was called to embrace. In order to be fully open to his call, Jesus forsook the company of people and spent time with wild animals in the wilderness. He regularly returned to the hills to pray and commune with the Father, especially before making important decisions like choosing the twelve disciples (Lk. 6: 12).
It might seem strange to us, whose religious ceremonies are mostly performed in buildings, that Jesus’ ministry was carried out, not so much in synagogues or the temple, but in the cathedral of nature. In Matthew’s Gospel, the beatitudes and subsequent teachings are delivered on a mountain Mt. 5: 1 – 7: 29). Matthew is, of course, presenting Jesus’ moral teaching in the larger Jewish context. Jesus’ teaching complements and fulfils the teaching given to Moses at Mount Sinai.
Many of the parables of Jesus were centred on nature. To illustrate how different people respond to the gospel message, he told the Parable of the Sower. Imagine a sower going out to sow…Some fell on the edge of the path ………….. Others fell among thorns. And the thorns grew up and choked them. Others fell on rich soil and produced their crops, some a hundredfold, some sixty, some thirty. Listen, anyone who has ears. (Mt. 13: 4 -9). One could easily draw parallels between this parable and the way people today are responding to contemporary ecological challenges.
Jesus displayed an appreciative and contemplative attitude which, of course, was rooted in God’s love for all creatures. Think of the ravens. They neither sow or reap; they have no storehouses and no barns; yet God feeds them (Lk 12: 24). The gospels warn about the urge to continually accumulate more and more goods. God will provide for our legitimate needs; are you not worth more than the birds? (Lk. 12: 24).
In, Peace with God the Creator, Peace with All Creation, Pope John Paul II saw the importance of changing our lifestyles, especially in the affluent world. In many parts of the world society is given to instant gratification and consumerism while remaining indifferent to the damage which these cause. Why not avoid getting sucked into the consumerist thread mill this Christmas? Instead you might consider giving a gift of an environmental magazine to your friends. I would recommend The Green Christian, published by Christian-Ecology Link. The website, www.christian-ecology.org.uk> is a mine of information on ecological theology and prayers. It also gives practical direction on how to live more lightly on the earth. In Ireland, I would suggest The Local Planet. This publication carries a variety of information on ecological issues. The editorial team are based at Fivealley, Birr, Co. Offaly and the website is www.localplanet.ie