Orthodox Liturgy and the Care for Creation
Bishop Ireneos Pop
The Church of Christ has to cope today with many problems which are prominent in our contemporary world. The crisis facing ecology is one such problem that has grave moral implications for all humankind.
It is well known that Orthodoxy emphasises the spiritual conversion of its faithful and strives itself to guide its believers in this epoch of rapid change. Orthodoxy watches with great anxiety the merciless trampling down and destruction of the natural environment caused by human beings with extremely dangerous consequences for the very survival of the natural world created by God.
According to Christian teaching, the moral relationship of humanity to nature is included in these words:
"Be fruitful and increase in number, fill the earth and subdue it. Rule over the fish of the sea and the birds of the air and over every living creature that moves on the ground ... I give you every seed-bearing plant on the face of the whole earth and every tree that has fruit with seed in it. They will be yours for food ..." (Gen. 1: 28-29)
Through these words humanity is given a relative authority to rule over nature throughout the cosmos. The whole of creation, the heaven and earth were made our subjects to serve and work for us. As Prof. N. Zabolotsky said:
"The creatures of God minister not to God, nor to angels, nor to themselves, but only to man."
In view of the present situation the Church of Christ cannot remain unmoved. It constitutes a fundamental dogma of her faith that the world was created by God the Father, who is confessed in the Creed to be "maker of heaven and earth and of all things visible and invisible."
In Orthodox worship there are special supplications and litanies for `seasonable weather, for abundance of the fruits of the earth' or for protection in the case of natural disasters. Here is a special prayer from the service said in times of danger from earthquake:
"The earth, is without words, yet groans and cries: 'Why, all people, do you pollute me with so many evils? The Master spares you but chastises me entirely: understand and propitiate God in repentance.'"
In worship the Orthodox Church conveys this profound understanding of creation. In particular, the role of humanity as the priesthood of creation is most clearly shown in the liturgical theology. We are able to reshape and alter the world. In the words of Father Dimitru Staniloae, we put the seal of this understanding and of our intelligent work onto creation: "The world is not only a gift, but a task for man".
The whole of the universe worships and offers gifts to its Creator. In the very shape of the churches and the placing of the icons, mosaics or frescoes within them, we find a microcosm of the universe, which clarifies the role both of humanity and of the rest of creation in relation to God. For it is an expression not just of what is on earth today, but of what exists in heaven and what is to come- the eschatological promise and redemptive transformation of all creation through the salvation wrought by Jesus Christ (cf. Rom. 8).
For instance, the prayers and psalms tell us of the sanctification of all creation. Every day in our Vespers, we sing Psalm 103 which says, "Bless the Lord all his works. In all places of His dominion, bless the Lord, O my soul". It is captured in our blessing for all manner of elements of creation. The blessing of the waters shows us the sanctifying and redemptive power given to an element of creation through the invocation of the Holy Spirit by the Church.
What is important for us, however, is that the baptismal water represents the matter of the cosmos, the world as life of man. And its blessing at the beginning of the baptismal rite acquires thus a truly cosmic and redemptive significance. God created the world and blessed it and gave it to us as our food and life, as the means of communion with him. The blessing of water signifies the return or redemption of matter to this initial and essential meaning. By accepting the baptism of John, Christ sanctified the water - made it the water of purification and reconciliation with God. It was then, as Christ was coming out of the water, that the Epiphany - the new and redemptive manifestation of God - took place, and the Spirit of God, who at the beginning of creation "moved upon the face of the waters", made water - that is, the world - again into what He made it at the beginning.
"Great art Thou, O Lord, and marvelous are Thy works, and there is no word which sufficeth to hymn Thy wonders. For Thou, of thine own good will, hast brought into being all things which before were not, and by Thy might Thou upholdest creation, and by Thy providence Thou orderest the world ...
"Before Thee tremble all the Powers endowed with intelligence. The sun singeth unto Thee. The moon glorifieth Thee. The stars meet together before Thy presence. The light obeyeth Thee. The deeps tremble before Thee ...
"Thou didst come and didst save us!
"We confess Thy grace. We proclaim Thy mercy. We conceal not Thy gracious acts."
Once more the world is proclaimed to be what Christ revealed and made it to be - the gift of God to humanity, the means of humanity's communion with God. This water is manifested to us as "the grace of redemption, the remission of sins, the remedy of infirmities".
"And confer upon it the grace of redemption, the blessing of the Jordan. Make it a source of incorruption, a gift of sanctification, a remission of sins, a protection against disease, a destruction to demons, inaccessible to the adverse powers and filled with angelic strength: that all who draw from it and partake of it may have it for the cleansing of their soul and body, for the healing of their passions, for the sanctification of their dwellings and for every purpose that is expedient."
Orthodox worship is about the celebration and thus the use of all aspects of the senses. It is about sight, sound, taste, smell and touch. Orthodox worship uses and appreciates the material - be that wood and paint, writing materials, bread and wine or burning incense.
"I shall not cease reverencing matter, by means of which my salvation has been achieved ..."
Just as the priest at the Eucharist offers the fullness of creation and receives it back as the blessing of Grace in the form of the consecrated bread and wine, to share with others, so we must be the channel through which God's grace and deliverance is shared with all creation. The human being is simply yet gloriously the means for the expression of creation in its fullness and the coming of God's deliverance for all creation.
The vocation of humanity, as shown in liturgical theology, is not to dominate and exploit nature, but to transfigure and hallow it. In a variety of ways - through the cultivation of the earth, through craftsmanship, through the writing of books and the painting of icons - humanity gives material things a voice and renders the creation articulate in praise of God.
It is significant that when, at the Eucharist, we offer back to God the first fruits of the earth, we offer them not in their original form, but reshaped by our hands. As Bishop Kallistos of Diokleia has said, we bring to the altar not sheaves of wheat but loaves of bread, not grapes but wine.
The blessings for all manner of natural elements such as the fields, vineyards, first fruits, wheat, etc., show how the Church recognises the transformation of all aspects of creation through the salvation and glorification of humanity and thus of all creation.
In the Greek Liturgy of St James this is expressed as follows:
"The heavens praise Thee, and their whole might, the sun, the moon, and all the choir of stars, the earth, the sea and all that therein is, the heavenly Jerusalem, the church of the firstborn that stands written upon the heavens, the angels and archangels ..."
In the Egyptian Liturgy of St Mark there is the following Prayer:
"But keep, O Lord, our journey through this life free also from storm and hurt unto the end. Send down refreshing rain upon the. places that have need of it; gladden and renew through it the face of the earth, that it may delight in the refreshing drops and become green ... Bless, O Lord, the fruits of the earth, keep them for us free from disease and hurt, and prepare them for our sowing and our harvest ... Bless now also, O Lord, the crown of the year through Thy goodness for the sake of the poor among Thy people, for the sake of the widow and the orphan, for the sake of the wanderer and the newcomer and for the sake of all who trust in Thee and call upon Thy Holy Name."
To bless is to give thanks. In and through thanksgiving, we acknowledge the true nature of things we receive from God and thus enable them to attain the fullness God intended for them. We bless and sanctify things when we offer them to God in a eucharistic movement of our whole being. And as we stand before the cosmos, before the matter given to us by God, this eucharistic movement becomes all-embracing.
We are able to bless and praise God for the world. We are defined as a "eucharistic" animal because we are capable of seeing the world as God's gift, as a sacrament of God's presence and a means of communion with him. So we are able to offer the world back to God as thanksgiving: "Thine own of Thine own we offer unto Thee ..."
This liturgical expression reflects the Orthodox vision and understanding of our relationship both with creation and with the Creator. We are the free agents through whom creation is offered to the Creator. The Eucharist is the most sublime expression and experience of creation transformed by God the Holy Spirit through redemption and worship. In the form of bread and wine, material from creation moulded into new form by human hands is offered to God with the acknowledgement that all of creation is God's and that we are returning to God that which is his.
The primordial relationship of Adam to both God and Creation is restored in the Eucharist and we have a foretaste of the eschatological state of creation.
But when we look today at our world, we see a very different picture. Humanity's rebellion, pride and greed has shattered the primordial relationship of Adam. It has ignored the Church's understanding of our role as priests of creation. By doing so, our world is facing a crisis of death and corruption to a degree never before experienced.
We must attempt to return to a proper relationship with the Creator and the creation, in order that the survival of the natural world can be assured. We are called to bear some of the pain of creation as well as to enjoy and celebrate it. That means to perform Liturgia "extra muros", the Liturgy beyond (outside) the walls of the church, for the sanctification of the world.
"Through heaven and earth and the sea,
"through wood and stone, through all creation visible and invisible,
"I offer veneration to the Creator and Master and Maker directly and by itself, but it is through me that the heavens declare the glory of God, through me the moon worships God,
"through me the stars glorify him, through me the waters and the showers rain, the dews and all the creation, venerate God and give him glory."
St. Leontios of Cyprus
Source: The Orthodoxy and Ecology Resource Book is produced by SYNDESMOS, The World Fellowship of Orthodox Youth.
Editor: Alexander Belopopsky and Dimitri Oikonomou