This week’s blog reflects on the lectionary Epistle, Philippians 2.1-13, from an ecological perspective. The reflection is prefaced by a prayer recently written by my husband, Canon Alan Amos for these days of Zoom.
Director of Lay Discipleship, Diocese in Europe, firstname.lastname@example.org
Holy Spirit, you cannot be isolated or confined;
by nature you are the Go-between-God.
Let us then feel your presence,
living and life-giving,
in Zoom meetings and in worship.
For you are the source of all connectivity
as you fashion and shape us in communion,
who lives and reigns with the Father and the Son
our loving God forever and ever. Amen
Inscription in a Byzantine church in Philippi which includes the name of Paul
There must have been something very special about the relationship of Paul with the Christians at Philippi – at least we can assume that from reading his Letter to the Philippians. It is notable how often the theme of ‘joy’ appears in this letter. Written to the church at Philippi while Paul was in prison, their faithfulness and their care for him is clearly a source of deep joy, with him also referring at several points to their abundant generosity. There feels a special appropriateness that it is in this letter we find the famous verses of chapter 2.6-11, in which Paul may be drawing on an early Christian hymn, setting out his fundamental vision of the life and death of Jesus Christ as providing a core model for what it means to be a human being.
The verses are included as a canticle in the Offices of Common Worship, with the title ‘The Song of Christ’s Glory’. It reinforces our sense that they are a ‘purple passage’ bit of scripture – not simply to be read, but also to be prayed, and celebrated and sung. It is good to have them as our lectionary Epistle this week, especially surrounded by verses 1-5 and 12-13 that help to set them in context.
This ‘Song of Christ’s Glory’ is a resource for many different questions that we might want to explore. However in this blog I am briefly going to look at how it can provide perhaps slightly unexpected assistance for reflection on our role as Christians in the care of creation. Given that we are in the ‘Creationtide’ season of the church which runs up till October 4 this is appropriate to focus on today.
I have had the privilege during the course of 2020 of speaking to a number of different groups on ‘Creation and the Bible’. It began when I was invited to lead Bible Studies on this theme for the Archdeaconry Synod of Gibraltar Archdeaconry. It was an engagement that was fulfilled physically in person in January. (Does anyone still remember those long ago days when things like that happened?!)
It forced me to do some serious personal reflection on what the Bible, both Old and New Testaments, does suggest on this topic, and pull it together in a coherent whole in a way that could be presented to a sizeable group. Having offered it ‘physically’ in Spain in January, and then in Dorset in early March, I was then invited to offer it via Zoom as a Bible study for Holy Trinity Geneva in April, and Christchurch Vienna just a week ago in September. It became my baptism of fire for ‘online teaching’ – which I actually discovered was less difficult than I feared it might be.
It would be a mistake to try and condense all I said in those presentations into this ‘blog’. But to introduce what comes below, relating to ‘the Song of Christ’s Glory’ I need to mention that my Old Testament starting point for the discussion was the affirmation in Genesis 1.26-28 that human beings have been created in the ‘image of God’, and that it is as bearers of the divine image that we have been given responsibility (the word ‘stewardship’ is often used) for creation. Having then explored the topic fairly widely in other parts of the Old Testament, I turned in the second half of the presentation to the New. I began by offering people two comments – both of which I think are true:
- ‘To a surprising degree, exegetical discussion of Christianity’s relationship to environmental ethics and practice has been confined within a narrow band of Old Testament texts. In fact the scriptural site of this debate rarely extends beyond the creation stories and ‘dominion over the earth’ language clustered in those first two chapters of Genesis. Even fewer New Testament passages have attracted serious reflection on the topic.’ (John Gatta, The Transfiguration of Christ and Creation)
- The Christian account of creation is set within the context of the economy of salvation. There is thus a presupposition of interconnectedness between creation, redemption and consummation, which places a theological interdiction against seeing creation as an isolated action or event, complete in itself. In particular, the Christian concept of creation is linked to that of incarnation. (A.McGrath, The Open Secret: A New Wisdom for Natural Theology)
And eventually in my exploration of various New Testament texts we found our way to the Song of Christ’s Glory in Philippians. A key insight is that Paul is alluding here to the Genesis account of creation. That is widely accepted. For example when Paul commends Christ for not ‘regarding equality with God as something to be exploited’, (NRSV) (actually ‘grasped at’ is probably a better translation of the Greek) he is most likely alluding to God’s concern of Genesis 3.22, that human beings ‘become like one of us’. Although the word ‘image’ does not actually appear in these verses in Philippians, the comparable word ‘form’ – which seems to be almost a synonym – does appear twice, and the link with Genesis’ understanding of the relationship of humanity to God and the rest of creation is implied. Christ therefore is portrayed as showing what it means ‘ideally’ for human beings to be made in the image of God.
Yet as the Philippians hymn makes clear Christ however did not take the path followed by the first Adam… instead he chose the path of self-emptying, (kenosis) obedience and death on a cross. So the implication from an exploration of this ‘Song’ is that once we begin to think of Christ as representing the ideal understanding of humanity as created in the image of God it must affect also how we understand humanity’s dominion over creation. It is a ‘dominion’ that is shaped by the cross!
I am grateful to an article by Román Guridi: Imago Dei as Kenosis: Re-imagining Humanity in an Ecological Era which helped me to draw some key ideas together. “… kenosis must come to the fore in theological reflection on humanity before the current ecological crisis. It is a meaningful, sound, and timely interpretation of the imago Dei… It is Jesus’ own kenosis that reveals the true face of divine power – power in love – which decidedly aims at the wellbeing and fulfillment of creation. This twofold movement of self-limitation and self-giving love can certainly inspire the desirable renovation in theological anthropology.” (https://www.academia.edu/36327707/Imago_Dei_as_Kenosis_Re_imagining_Humanity_in_an_Ecological_Era)
The German theologian Dorothee Solle is quite blunt about the implications of ‘reading’ Genesis’ ‘image of God’ language, in the light of the role of Christ: “The desire to be in God’s image without attaining Christ’s image is a desire for immediacy, which wants everything without detour and without self-actualization, a narcissistic desire of the ego to settle down in God, immortal and almighty, that doesn’t find it necessary ‘to let its life be crucified’ and to experience the night of pain.” (Dorothee Solle, Suffering)
The ecological implications of this are also spelled out by the Orthodox bishop Kallistos Ware:
“Without sacrifice and kenosis (self-emptying) after the example of Jesus Christ crucified, there can be no ecological renewal. … this needs to be applied to our ecological work, whether for our own or for future generations. There can be no transformation of the environment without self-denial, no fundamental renewal of the cosmos without voluntary sacrifice. In Christ’s words, “Truly, truly, I tell you, unless a grain of wheat falls into the ground and dies, it remains just a single grain. But if it dies, it bears much fruit” (John 12:24). Gain comes through loss, life through death, transfiguration through cross-bearing. (http://www.orth-transfiguration.org/safeguarding-the-creation-for-future-generations/)
I hope to return to further exploration of creation at some point in the coming weeks.
(For interest a video of part of the presentation – including my reflection on this Philippians text – given recently in Vienna is available online at www.ccv-web.org/media/clareamos-andgodsaw-part2.mp4)