From late November until early January, Christians celebrate a major festival season of Advent, Christmas and Epiphany. What are the environmental dimensions to these festivals? Christians are increasingly concerned about the environmental damage of consumerism in the form of unwanted presents, crackers with plastic novelties and wrapping paper that cannot be recycled. Is there a deeper connection between environment and these festivals? How does this inform our response to the environmental crisis and shape new traditions as we celebrate?
Advent begins on the fourth Sunday before Christmas Day. In popular thinking we associate Advent with special candles and calendars (nowadays usually containing chocolate!). These do point towards the meaning of the word Advent, which is ‘coming’. Advent is a time of waiting, not simply for the coming of Christ the first time at Christmas, but for the Second Coming of Christ, to judge the world and bring peace on earth. We can think of this soberly, remembering that we have been entrusted with this world as stewards of creation. What will Christ find on his return? In Romans 8:18-25, we learn that all creation is groaning and waiting for its liberation from bondage to decay. What will that liberation look like? In Revelation 21 and 22 we see a picture of restored creation. Heaven and Earth have been remade and restored. There will be perfect harmony between God, people and the rest of creation. The River of Life will flow through the City of God, with the Tree of Life on either side, whose leaves are for the healing of the nations. In Advent we should remember creation’s waiting for this day and seek to shape our lives to point towards the future harmony and healing. We might like to make an Advent ring out of natural things to remind us of the present difficulties of the natural world and point towards the glorious freedom of the coming of Christ. What would a Romans 8 inspired Advent Ring look like?
Christmas in the western world is in full swing by late November. December can be a frenzy of shopping, parties and events. It culminates with Christmas Day and Boxing Day, then subsides. In the traditional western church calendar, Christmas begins on the night of Christmas Eve and lasts for twelve days after. Christmas night marks the birth of Jesus as we proclaim the astonishing message that the Word of God, who sustains the universe, entered our physical world and became flesh. In the birth of Christ, we see the greatest possible affirmation of the material world. God so loved the cosmos that he gave his only son (John 3:16). Our world, far from being a negative place to look to escape from, is infinitely precious to God and one day all creation will be reconciled (Colossians 1:20). As we celebrate Christmas, we might like to explore a way to celebrate God’s love for the whole universe in his giving of Jesus. How might a nativity scene be created to demonstrate God’s love for all creation? What about an All Creation Christmas Tree? You could begin with a dead branch or a large indoor plant and use natural things for decorations.
Epiphany is on 6th January and marks the visit of the Magi to see the infant Jesus. The Magi were from the East, probably Babylonia, and studied the stars, mathematics and literature. They remind us of the ancient origins of astronomy and their understanding that, in studying science, they were studying the natural world that was made by God and belongs to him. They remind us that science and faith have a natural synergy and are not in conflict. The Magi brought precious gifts. Frankincense and myrrh derive from the resin (sap) of desert trees and their beautiful scents have been much sought after since ancient times. Today the main sources of these resins are Somalia and Yemen. These valuable trees are therefore in an area badly affected by war, poverty and drought through climate change. The third gift was gold, a precious metal, found through laborious panning of sediment by workers who often earn low wages and are exposed to mercury, which is also a serious ecological pollutant. These gifts, so beautiful and costly, also remind us today of the ecological and human cost of our contemporary consumer society. Christmas gifts should be life-giving and it is a good reminder to look for ethical and natural gifts this Christmas.
The three festivals of Advent, Christmas and Epiphany all have deep biblical meaning and all are focused on the person and work of Christ. In all these festivals we find an intrinsic environmental connection as we understand how Christ’s coming into this world and his redemption of it, impacts on all creation. As we mark these festivals once more, let’s celebrate God’s love for his whole creation and point to its redemption and restoration. Season’s Greetings.
Revd Margot Hodson,
Advent wreath picture by Gellinger free for commercial use on Pixabay