Thursday, April 21, 2011

Good Friday

Today, of course, is Earth Day. I know this, because the American calendar in our kitchen at home tells me so.  This is the first time, actually, since its inception in 1970, and the last time for about another fifty years, that Earth Day and Good Friday coincide.  Earth Day began forty one years ago with some high hopes – it was the year after human beings had first landed on the moon, a year after that most famous image of our blue planet hanging like a fragile jewel in the vast emptiness of space had been beamed back to us from moon orbit.  Its founders expressed the hope that Earth Day would help us to fall in love with our beautiful planet, to feel its vulnerability and to resolve together to take steps to reduce the environmental impact of our consumer lifestyles.  Unfortunately, Earth Day has never really gained much momentum outside the United States, and recently its critics have started to call for its abolition on the grounds that it has utterly failed.  Our blue planet is in a way worse state than when it started: on every indicator, our skyrocketing over-use of the Earth’s resources has become unsustainable, as a result of human over-population the extinction of plant and animal species has accelerated to an alarming degree, and human beings continue to argue and put our heads firmly in the ever growing desert sands about whether the latest manifestation of the environmental crisis, global warming, even exists – so far are we from any sort of consensus about taking the costly action necessary to preserve the biological stability of our one and only home.

Somewhere along the way, Earth Day became for many a symbol of failure, a day of regret for what might have been, a day not of hope, but of hopelessness.  What does it mean for our reflection this morning, that this day of ambiguity and regret coincides with the devastation of divine love that is Good Friday?  Because, of course, Good Friday is at the centre of our Christian message of hope – as Archbishop Rowan Williams expresses it, whether we like it or not, because of Good Friday, as Christians we are prisoners of hope.

Medieval theologians like St Bonaventure, who developed elaborate metaphysical systems to describe the whole of created reality as existentially grounded in Christ, struggled to comprehend the crucifixion and death of the One in whom all reality finds its being.  Surely, they argued, creation ceased for three days?  Without the divine Word, present with God from before the dawn of time and without whom – as the prologue of John’s Gospel tells us – not one thing could be created – surely, they argued, creation itself is thrown into reverse by the destruction of the ground of all created reality?  And so they developed elaborate theologies of the sleep of Christ in the tomb on Holy Saturday, a sort of Sabbath rest for all creation.  And all of that is interesting, but beyond the power of created beings like us to really fathom – a bit like trying to imagine who you would be if your father had never met your mother – but the important thing is this: that at Easter what is destroyed is death itself, which in swallowing the Incarnate Word of God, bites off more than it can chew.  Far from creation being driven into reverse, what is destroyed in the death of Jesus of Nazareth - is Death.  As Bishop Tom Wilmot expressed it in a card I received from him yesterday – “the death of Death at Easter signals the new rhythm of life for all creation – the fundamental code of life itself has been re-written as Life, Death and New Life in Christ.”

It is no coincidence, I think, that the events that we commemorate in our observance of the Triduum, or the Great Three Days of our faith – the events of Maundy Thursday, Good Friday and Easter Day – begin and end in a garden.  As St Paul expresses it, Christ becomes the new Adam, the new starting point not just of human life but of creation itself within which human beings find their true identity in relationship with all living things.  And so it is in the Garden – in Gethsemene – that Christ as the new Adam begins to retrace the original story of creation.  And it is also in this garden that we begin to relearn who we truly are, and what our true relationship is with the world in which we live.  As the new Adam, Jesus is uprooted from the garden by the powers that be, the “kingdom of this world” whose hallmarks are violence, humiliation, and death.  This is the domain of top-down power – economic and industrial power just as much as military power - power that refuses to participate in life-giving and life-sustaining relationship and that sees human beings and all earth’s living things and natural systems as opportunities for exploitation and self-gratification.  It is the domain of the denial of God and the denial of our true humanity that reverberates through all of human history.  And just as Jesus has affirmed throughout John’s Gospel his life-giving connection with God in the simple words: “I am” - we hear the contradiction three times on Peter’s lips: “I am not.”

But where this story turns out differently than the original Genesis version is that the new Adam – Jesus – is not banished for ever from the garden of creation.  This time, Adam returns to the garden, transformed and transforming, to complete and recreate it as God intended.

You see, if the medieval theologians are kind of right in recognising Holy Saturday as the Great Sabbath, as the day of rest on which all creation sleeps in solidarity with the sleep of the One who is the ground of all life – then the day after that – the first day of the week is the first day of a new creation, a creation made whole and complete and restored to its true purpose in the resurrected life of Christ.  And this day also begins in a garden, in the new Eden where the risen Jesus will be mistaken for a gardener, the one whose role it is to tend and nurture the cacophony of living things.  The events of Good Friday and Holy Saturday that come to a riotous conclusion with the dawn of Easter morning are not the defeat of God, nor the end of God’s involvement with creation, but the signal for creation’s fulfilment, as well as the fulfilment of human life understood to be about life-giving and life-sustaining relationship with the One who gave us life, with one another and with all living things.  It is a vision, of course, of the original Eden as it should have been.  And to re-paraphrase Archbishop Williams again – as Christians we don’t have any choice about this because we are captives of hope.

When we tell the story in this way we recognise it as a fable of our own return to a future in which human flourishing as seen in terms of relationship, a future in which we might learn to obey God’s original commandment to “serve and preserve” the earth that gives us life and from which we came. [1]  St Paul expresses beautifully the relationship between human salvation and the health of all creation, when he writes:

For creation waits with eager longing for the revealing of the children of God ...  the whole creation has been groaning in labour pains until now; and not only creation, but we ourselves, who have the first fruits of the Spirit. (Romans 8:19-23).

St John’s Gospel says it even more simply: God so loved the world – that is, the entire cosmos, the earth and all its bounty, including God’s human creatures – that God gave his only son to restore us all to our true identity as “servers and preservers” of our home. As Christians, we are called to be agents of healing and hope – agents of the love that raises Jesus Christ to new life on Easter morning as a sign of God’s intention for all living things.

On Good Friday we see two kingdoms colliding, two visions of what human life is all about being brought into stark opposition.  On the one hand we see what we might call an ecological vision of human life – the understanding that we don’t live in isolation, for ourselves alone, but in context and in relationship.  That what it means to be human is to be interdependent and mutually accountable – that our responsibility for all creation weaves us into a network of relationships with other human beings, with the poor of this earth, as well as with all of Earth’s living creatures and its living systems of air and water and soil.  We are grounded in the garden of creation.  And on the other side we see a vision of human life as being about power to dominate, to accumulate and to focus on our own needs and desires.  To see living things, and land and water and minerals as assets to be traded or consumed.  And Good Friday challenges us to reflect which kingdom we belong to.

It matters where we stand now, because we know where the story ends up, in the garden of new creation on Easter morning.  Christian ecology sees a connection between how we tend our relationships with God and with each other, and how we tend our relationships with the living creatures and systems of our blue planet home.  The other difference between Christian ecology and the secular version is that Christian ecology is always about hope that God’s love is the basis for what is, and that the orientation towards life and hope that is modelled for us in the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ is the template for all creation.

Happy Earth Day!


[1] Gen. 2:15