“…And Heaven and Nature Sing”

Therefore, open your eyes, alert the ears of your spirit, open your lips and apply your heart so that in all creatures you may see, hear, praise, love and worship, glorify and honor your God, lest the whole world rise against you.
—St. Bonaventure, The Soul’s Journey Into God, 1.15

This week my spouse and I lit the third candle on our Advent wreath: the Candle of Joy. Appropriately, a few days ago I was watching a video featuring several Mennonite Church USA congregations singing the Christmas carol, “Joy to the World.” Over the course of my lifetime, I’ve heard this carol sung thousands of times. But for some reason, this time was different. I was deeply struck by the final verse:

No more let sins and sorrows grow
Nor thorns infest the ground
He comes to make his blessings flow
Far as the curse is found
Far as the curse is found
Far as, far as the curse is found.

A lump formed in my throat. I struggled to hold back tears. Joy to the world! Christ comes to make his blessings flow as far as the curse is found. The curse of greed. The curse of violence. The curse of carelessness.

With ongoing reports in the media this winter of mass shootings, police brutality, Islamophobia, wars and rumors of wars, there has been an accompanying restlessness that has made it difficult to get into the Christmas spirit. Our world feels increasingly violent and hopeless. “The tacit, dominant narrative of our society is about military consumerism,” Old Testament scholar Walter Brueggemann points out in a recent online interview. “It is propelled by greed and anxiety and violence, and that narrative is a lie. It cannot produce life.”

In our current global climate—both political and ecological—it’s hard to imagine a joy so profound that it permeates the cosmos, “as far as the curse is found.” Yet the Psalms describe all of creation sharing in such joy with our Creator: “Let the heavens be glad, and let the earth rejoice; let the sea roar, and all that fills it; let the field exult, and everything in it. Then shall all the trees of the forest sing for joy before the Lord; for he is coming” (Ps. 96:11-13). In the book When Elephants Weep: The Emotional Lives of Animals, authors Jeffrey Moussaieff Masson and Susan McCarthy explore the ways in which nonhuman animals physically express emotion. An entire chapter of their book is dedicated in particular to understanding animals and joy. Dogs wag their tails, cats (from lions to domesticated house cats) purr, pigs squeal and leap from excitement, and gorillas are even known to sing when they are happy. “Part of happiness,” say Masson and McCarthy, “is often its lack of relation, or even its perverse relation, to any rational end, its utter functionlessness. The evidence is good that animals as well as people do feel such pure joy.”[1]

RabbitUnfortunately, humans have systematized violence and destruction to the point that the capacity for such creaturely expressions of divine joy has become greatly diminished, and we in the West (particularly the United States) are some of the worst offenders. More than 99% of the meat consumed in our country comes from industrial factory farms where animals are routinely and violently abused.[2] In order to meet consumer demand, concentrated animal feeding operations slaughter more than 3,000,000,000 cows, chickens, pigs, turkeys, sheep, and ducks each year in America alone.[3] These neglected creatures, beloved by God, are forced to live in squalor, often in cages no bigger than themselves. Before they are led to the slaughterhouse, they are frequently brutalized: kicked, stomped, thrown against walls. The factory farming industry feeds a myth every bit as much “propelled by greed and anxiety and violence” as the military consumerism decried by Brueggemann. This violent narrative, like the one Brueggemann discusses above, is also a lie, and Christians—particularly those who espouse nonviolence as fundamental to our religion—have a moral obligation to oppose it.

Without a radical redefinition of what it means to be nonviolent, we cannot in good faith call ourselves pacifists while continuing to support capitalistic industrial systems that oppress and exploit God’s good creation. In his mid-thirteenth-century theological treatise The Soul’s Journey Into God, Bonaventure, a friend and disciple of St. Francis, wrote, “Whoever, therefore, is not enlightened by such splendor of created things is blind, and whoever is not awakened by such outcries is deaf.”

Last week’s lectionary text featured John the Baptizer quoting the Prophet Isaiah regarding the advent of God’s promised Messiah:  “Every valley shall be filled, every mountain and hill shall be made low, the crooked shall be made straight, and the rough ways made smooth; and all flesh shall see the salvation of God” (Luke 3:6) While some translations (NIV, CEB, NLT) have opted for “all people,” or “all humanity shall see the salvation of God,” the Greek phrase is pasa sarx, literally “all flesh,” a term frequently employed in ancient Greek philosophy to refer to any living creature, human or nonhuman. The Gospel of Christ is not only good news for people. It is good news for the whole world and everything in it.

In the longer ending of Mark we find Jesus commissioning his disciples to “go into all the world and proclaim the good news to the whole creation” (Mark 16:15). This commission echoes the Apostle Paul’s words from his Epistle to the Romans. Paul recognizes that “all creation groans” while awaiting its liberation from “bondage to decay,” waiting to be set free into glory alongside the children of God (Romans 8:19-23). We are reminded, then, that the Good News is not just for people; it is an all-encompassing grace for an aching cosmos.

This Advent and Christmas season, I pray that you hear the groaning of creation as a call from God to ease the suffering of your fellow creatures with whom you share the earth as your common home. May you become midwives of God’s joy, taking the Gospel of Peace to the ends of the earth, “as far as the curse is found.” And may the good work that was begun in Christ find its completion in you.


[1] Jeffrey Moussaieff Masson and Susan McCarthy, When Elephants Weep: The Emotional Lives of Animals, 112.

[2] Source: http://www.huffingtonpost.com/nil-zacharias/its-time-to-end-factory-f_b_1018840.html

[3] Source: The Humane Society of the United States. http://www.humanesociety.org/news/resources/research/stats_slaughter_totals.html


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