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23rd Ordinary Sunday (A) & 1st Sunday of the Season of Creation, 06.09.20: The Ecological Conversion

Yesterday, I was watching how both the ferry to Cumbrae and the sailor of a small yacht were going with the flow. They adapted themselves skilfully to both wind and water. In part, they were respecting the power of the elements, and in part they were using it to their own advantage. Gravity helps to release tension in the muscles and to improve your posture, helping you to rest and recharge physically and mentally. Our physical and mental health depend largely on the way we follow the rhythm of night and day, darkness and light.

These examples show that we get further when we go with creation. When we respect its laws and processes, our own place in the world is clearer and more peaceful, and creation itself prospers and helps us to prosper.

As I mentioned last week, Pope Francis has now associated the Catholic Church with the Season of Creation, an ecumenical initiative started by the Patriarch of the Greek Orthodox Church in 1989. It takes place yearly between 1 September and 4 October. Its purpose is to make us pray and act together for the care of our common home, Mother Earth. As it happens, five years ago, the Pope wrote an encyclical on this very subject. He called it “Laudato Si’” (Praise be to you, my Lord), which are the opening words of St. Francis of Assisi’s beautiful canticle of the earth. So, you could say that the Spirit of God is at work inspiring all Christians at this time to take up the cause of the earth. Civil society, too, has for some time now already been telling us that the earth is suffering badly as the result of human activity. So, the Season of Creation is a way in which Christians are reading this particular sign of our times and responding to it with reflection, prayer and action.

The theme of this year’s season of Creation is “Jubilee for the Earth.” A jubilee is a time of rest, like the sabbath. During a jubilee year, there was an amnesty for slaves to be set free, debts and sins were forgiven, the land was left fallow. The jubilee was seen as a year that re-established social order and justice when these had been disturbed by human activity or negligence. All of this was the cause of great joy, hence the name jubilee. In the Old Testament, it was God himself who commanded the observance of the jubilee, every 50 years.

A jubilee for the earth, then, means that we are called to give the earth itself a rest. In recent decades, exploitation of the earth has meant that humanity has been using more resources in one year than the earth can restore in one year. Apparently, at the moment, by the end of August we have already used the resources that should last until the end of December. So, to give the earth a jubilee year, means to give her the chance to recuperate, to breathe. One silver lining to the covid pandemic has been that carbon emissions across the world have dropped dramatically; in Wuhan, where the pandemic started, due to lockdown, people began to see the blue skies again for the first time after years of smog.

The importance of this jubilee for the earth, though, is not just for an improvement for the earth’s ecosystem as if it were somehow detached and separate from humanity. Its importance is also about making us more aware of the connection and order which God has established between human creatures and all others. When we break that connection and disturb that order, we are disrespecting the will of the Creator. It is a form of injustice, not only to creation, but also to all other human beings. One obvious example is to consider how the greed of our generation is stealing resources from our children and future generations.

As the Word of God makes abundantly clear, human injustice towards creation and, through wounded creation, to future generations, is intimately tied with our own moral behaviour. The soil was cursed when man sinned because man comes from the soil and to the soil returns. Sin therefore disturbed the order between humanity and the environment and it is only conversion from sin to love that will heal that disturbance.

Pope Francis speaks in his encyclical of the need for our “ecological conversion.” He took this phrase from a speech of St. John Paul II in 2001. It can sound like a buzz word, but it is actually a logical and practical effect of the more fundamental moral conversion to which we are all called by Christ. It is this moral conversion, the turning away from evil to good, which is the key conversion, but it won’t mean anything if it does not show itself in a ripple effect of other conversions. For the Holy Father, the ecological conversion is the moral conversion in relation to the environment.

What does he mean, then, by this ecological conversion? Pope Francis tells us that he wants us to develop an ecological spirituality which motivates us to have a more passionate concern for the protection of our world. It was Pope Benedict who said that the external deserts in our world are advancing because of the vast internal deserts in the human heart. Pope Francis concludes from this that a profound ecological conversion is needed by which the effects of our personal encounter with Jesus Christ become evident in the way we relate to the world around us. The Pope says that “living our vocation to be protectors of God’s handiwork is essential to a life of virtue; it is not an optional or a secondary aspect of our Christian experience.” After the example of St. Francis of Assisi, whose ecological conversion is seen in his canticle of creation, we are called to see this conversion to cherish and treasure creation as one dimension of the conversion of our hearts to God.

While our own personal ecological conversion is essential, for there to be a real impact on the health of the earth, we have to make our conversion along with others, as a community. And, in fact, Pope Francis speaks of a community conversion. What he means by this is that we try to develop attitudes which together foster a spirit of generous care, for example: a recognition that the world is God’s loving gift, and that we are called quietly to imitate his generosity in self-sacrifice and good works; a loving awareness that we are not disconnected from the rest of creatures, but joined in a splendid universal communion; and as believers, we do not look at the world from without but from within, conscious of the bonds with which the Father has linked us to all beings. By developing our individual, God-given capacities, an ecological conversion can inspire us to greater creativity and enthusiasm in resolving the world’s problems.

Various convictions of our faith can help us make this conversion. These include the awareness that each creature reflects something of God and has a message to convey to us. There is also the certainty we have that Christ has taken unto himself this material world through his Incarnation. Now, risen, he is intimately present to each being, surrounding it with his affection and penetrating it with his light. Then too, there is the recognition that God created the world, writing into it an order and a dynamism that human beings ignore at their peril. Pope Francis makes this appeal: “I ask all Christians to recognize and to live fully this dimension of their conversion. May the power and the light of the grace we have received also be evident in our relationship to other creatures and to the world around us. In this way, we will help nurture that sublime fraternity with all creation which Saint Francis of Assisi so radiantly embodied.”

This call to conversion is directed to each one of us personally, to our marriages, families and parishes. It can easily be linked to today’s Gospel. Fraternal correction is a call not only to leave aside sins committed, but also to leave aside the good omitted. In the Gospel today Jesus uses quite a forceful term to describe how someone would correct his neighbour. He says, “go and have it out with him.” The term used implies a certain energy and forthrightness. Today, perhaps, the more gentle and persuasive approach will get further. Be that as it may, the Pope is, you might say, putting us all on notice, he is raising the stakes when it comes to Christian moral responsibility in the face of the sickness of the earth and its causes.

For my part, I can only encourage everyone to heed his plea which, I suppose, voices the plea of the earth itself, to take a step, however small or big, in this ecological conversion. It is rooted not in some liberal political ideology, but in loyalty and gratitude to the Creator himself and, indeed, to the Redeemer, who shed his blood primarily that our sins would be forgiven and our death would be destroyed, but also to set in motion the creation of the new heavens and new earth. Humanity was created on and within the earth’s arms and her complex and majestic beauty. Humanity was redeemed by the Son of God who became part of this earth, worked with the raw materials of wood and stone, showed his love for the smallest sparrow and the lilies of the field and who showed his power over storm and sea. Humanity will also be glorified in the context of the new heavens and new earth.

As a practical starting point, I invite you to make two considerations. First, I invite you sometime this week to go back to the beginning, to the story of creation in chapter one of the book of Genesis. As you read through it, try and use your “Warner Brothers” imagination to somehow see God creating each thing mentioned and setting it within the great array and order of his beautiful world. As you contemplate this, ask for the grace of ecological conversion and then inform yourself as best you can how to do something practical for the earth in the strength of that Word and in the power of that grace.

Second, consider this. In some field of wheat on this earth, we know not exactly where, the grain was harvested after months in the ground, processed  by human ingenuity in some factory, sold and baked as unleavened bread. That unleavened bread was then made into hosts, sold to this parish, brought to the altar and consecrated to become the Body of the Risen Christ and fed to our bodies and souls to give us a share in that risen life. The same is true of the grape, the wine and the Blood of Christ. So, Holy Communion is not just our communion with Christ and with each other, but also with the earth. Christ uses the earth to share his eternal life with us. As we say Amen to the Body and Blood of Christ, let us also say Amen to the creation which he gave us and which exists in him. It is the Eucharist itself which is our inspiration to make our ecological conversion.