By Fr. Bud Grant
If you are going to read only one chapter of Pope Francis’ encyclical, “Laudato Si,” if you are looking for an excellent Christmas reflection, if you desire a spiritual approach to the recently concluded Paris Climate Summit, I suggest Chapter 6.
Chapter 5 concluded with the pope’s endorsement of a global enforcement entity to ensure that solutions to world-wide environmental crises will be enforced. In Chapter 6 he acknowledges that, while necessary, such “laws and regulations [are] insufficient” (211). In addition, then, he calls for “cultivating sound virtues” through “environmental education” in ethics which lead to new habits of behavior and “a selfless ecological commitment” (211, 209). Beyond this, the pope sees the need for an “ecological spirituality” that is inherent to and latent in the “rich heritage of Christian spirituality” (216). He spends this chapter boring down into ever deeper, richer, and — dare I say — more Catholic environmental spirituality wherein “their encounter with Jesus Christ become[s] evident in their relationships with the world around them” (217).
All religious people can develop a “spirit of generous care” for a world that is recognized as “God’s loving gift” (220). We can all embrace an ascetical spirituality, understanding that living simply (or “soberly”) “when lived freely and consciously, is liberating” (223). All Christians, who believe that “Christ has taken unto himself this material world” (221) can draw insights from such spiritual masters as Francis of Assisi, Therese of Lisieux, Bonaventure, and John of the Cross, all of whom point toward an attitude of “sublime fraternity with all creation … capacity for wonder … serene attentiveness” (221, 225, 226). This is a deeply incarnational theology that understands the indissoluble union between the world and God to be literally incarnated in the flesh of Jesus the Christ. Christ’s physical body was formed “della terra” (from dirt, the soil, the land, the earth … all are implied in the Italian c.f. 238).
For Catholics, this incarnational theology of God’s Creation reaches a sacramental-mystical crescendo in the Eucharist, which “joins heaven and earth (terra); it embraces and penetrates all creation.” Christ “united himself to this terra” (238) and comes to us, “not from above, but from within, He comes that we might find Him in this world of ours.” He reaches into our “intimate depths through a fragment of matter.” This is what makes Catholic environmental theology utterly unique among the world’s great religions. In the “stuff’ of the Eucharist we find all of creation united together into the cosmic — yes, cosmic! — love. “Creation is projected towards divinization … towards unification with the Creator” (236).
During this season of Christmas we open ourselves to receive God-made-flesh in the infant of Bethlehem. By his incarnation, enshrined in our eucharistic theology, all of creation is made holy. Yet this cannot be construed in some trite, romantic and shallow way: all of creation is holy … this includes not only the newly discovered song of the whales and the perennially evocative winter solstice, or “a leaf, mountain trail, or dewdrop” (233) but — now this is difficult, but it must be said if we are to grasp the full measure of our eucharistic claims — in Ebola, in Mount Etna’s eruption, El Nino, tsunamis … all that is created is made sacred.
The Eucharist redeems our sinfulness, our selfish wasting of resources, our blindness to the plight of poor, and “unfettered greed” (237). Further, Mary the Queen of All Creation “grieves for the suffering of the crucified poor and for the creatures of this world laid waste by human power…” (241). This is the utter profundity of our sacramental life: through the Incarnation — in the Eucharist laid in our outstretched palms — is the Instant of Mercy, a true “Holy Door” that allows us to acknowledge our sins against one another and against the Earth and to be healed, re-united with the rest of God’s creation and its — our — Creator.
If the Eucharist is not holy, then nothing is. Because the Eucharist is holy, then everything is.
(Father Bud Grant is a professor of theology at St. Ambrose University in Davenport.)