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A Publication of


From The Ark No 184

Animals in Our Future

Edward Echlin* is a well-known environmentalist and is research fellow in theology at Trinity & All Saints University College, Leeds. Here he argues that the effects of the baptism of Jesus in the river Jordan concern the whole of the creation which is dependent on water.

By Edward P. Echlin

Developing people are told - and readily believe - that everyone can consume the earth's resources like American tourists. Of India it is said, 'Frugality is India's tradition, modernity sees frugality as poverty'.

In our millennial time the myth of never ending 'progress' in consumption is coming to an end. Most who read The Ark know that the earth's life- support systems will not function much longer even if only Americans travel and consume like Americans. As Christians we have responsibilities to tell people what God has done for our whole earth community in Jesus, that salvation in Jesus is more inclusive than spiritualities which legitimate unsustainable consumption. Salvation is the fundamental search of the human heart. And because we are relational beings, our salvation includes our fellow creatures with whom we share the earth. As God's priestly representatives on earth we have responsibility to care for the creatures which share our future, 'in holiness and righteousness, administering justice with an upright heart.' (Wisdom 9:2-3)

Jesus, related to all creatures

The fascinating quest for the 'historical Jesus' reminds us of the humanity of Jesus, 'consubstantial with us as regards his humanity' as the Chalcedon Council said in 451. Because he is like unto us Jesus is related, like us, to all creatures, including the animals. In Jesus risen a 'new creation' begins which includes us and our fellow creatures. Pope John Paul II invites artists, musicians and poets to assist us to understand and visualise our common redemption with our fellow creatures. 'Men and women who have given your lives to art, declare with all the wealth of your ingenuity that in Christ the world is redeemed: the human person is redeemed, the human body is redeemed, and the whole creation which, according to Saint Paul, "awaits impatiently the revelation of the children of God" (Rom 8:19), is redeemed.'

Some early Christian writers, those we call 'Fathers', associated the river where Jesus was baptised with redemption of the waters and all creatures dependent on water. 'He was born and baptised that by his passion he might purify the water,' said Bishop Ignatius of Antioch (d. c. 110). All water everywhere, and all water creatures, including ourselves and our domestic animals, are redeemed, reconciled, saved, and destined for a common future, because Jesus was baptised in the Jordan. Some Fathers called that famous river the 'cosmic Jordan'.

There is ecological insight in that symbol. We know today that, through evaporation and precipitation, all the earth's waters are mingled and related. To be baptised in the Tiber, the Ganges, the Thames, or our own fonts, is to be baptised in the Jordan. Armenian Christians call their baptismal fonts 'the Jordan'. Christians care about water and all the creatures dependent on water. We are countercultural to the throwaway, 'what does it matter?' consumerist attitude to water and its creatures. In consumer societies animals, with plants and water, are regarded as disposable items. We revere water because Jesus sanctified water at the Jordan. 'Water was the beginning of the world, the Jordan the beginning of the good news,' said Bishop Cyril of Jerusalem, (d. 386).

Liturgical inclusion and Eden

We must find ways to include other creatures visually and explicitly in our baptismal liturgies, including the instructions given to the baptised, their families, spouses and friends. We must remind ourselves - and the whole world - of our relatedness to other living beings. Baptism should make us feel connected to plants and animals, as does Alice Walker in The Colour Purple, 'One day when I was sitting quiet and feeling like a motherless child, which I was, it came to me: that feeling of being part of everything, not separate at all. I knew that if I cut a tree, my arm would bleed.'

Within our recurring Advent liturgies we recall the familiar, much loved peaceable kingdom (Isa. 11: 6-9). In this beautiful poem wild and domestic animals play with the child who, to Christians, foreshadows Jesus. The biblical portrayal of the first garden, what we call Eden, is pictured as a well-watered wildlife garden. In Revelation, the future garden is a garden city with trees and, again, living water. These three pictures of our inclusive future can nourish our imagination, helping us to realise our shared destiny with other beings, including the wildlife and domestic animals we have known and loved throughout our lives. My peke companions are right in their indomitable assumption that we are friends and companions forever, even when death parts us. Deceased animals and whole extinct species are present in and with Jesus risen even now.

Our living memory of Jesus baptised in the Jordan and with the animals of Galilee is countercultural to the myth of progress which throws away water and other creatures. Our hope is grounded neither in the progress myth nor in any self-indulgent consumerism in the present without hope of a future. We are Jesus people, committed to the earth Jesus, who, 'consubstantial with us', is related to all the creatures to whom human flesh is related. In the words of the Pope who walked mountains, John Paul II, "The first born of creation, incarnate in the humanity of Jesus, unites himself in some way with the whole reality of man which is ' flesh? - and in this reality with all flesh, with the whole creation.' (Dom et Viv, 50).

* Dr Edward P. Echlin is author of Earth Spirituality: Jesus at the Centre, Arthur James, 1999 (See Review, Ark 182)

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