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From The Ark Number 194 - Summer 2003

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Who We Are

Jesus, the Church, and the Animals

Our Chairman, Dr Edward Echlin, gives a concise overview of biblical and church tradition on the place of animal creation.

A talk on this theme will be given at the AGM in October.

by Edward P. Echlin

Caravaggio, and then Valasquez, captured in oil the instant of Emmaus recognition. Since that instant, and similar, apparitions in Jerusalem and Galilee, Christians have reflected on Jesus within all creation. A very early hymn used by Paul, our earliest writer, says ‘At the name of Jesus every knee should bow, in heaven and on earth and under the earth, and every tongue confess that Jesus Christ is Lord’ (Phil 2:10). ‘Every knee and tongue’ includes the worship by angels, animals, and elements, in a cosmic liturgy. The risen Jesus of the Marcan appendix [16:9-20] tells disciples to preach the gospel to all creation. A hymn of John of Patmos, in the last pages of our Bible, pictures, ‘Every creature in heaven and on earth and under the earth and in the sea and all therein, saying, "To him who sits upon the throne and to the Lamb be blessing and honour and glory and might for ever and ever!"’ (Rev 5:13).

In Byzantine art of Jesus’ baptism by John, we notice the pagan river gods fleeing, or even praying. Fish, animals, birds, and plants, praise Jesus the Creator. Indeed ,medieval art, of East and West, portrays God the Creator as the glorified Jesus of Nazareth. Think of Byzantine domes, and, with the poets Paul Claudel and Charles Peguy, contemplate the Pantocrator in those western gothic portals at Amiens and Chartres.


In Jesus God entered the earth community of created sensate beings. We recognise this, we even take it for granted, in a common Greek word at which we bend our knees, the ‘flesh’ word, sarx. The Word became sarx and dwelt among us (John 1:14). Jesus, as human, shares the same flesh as do we and the other animals. Paul told the Corinthian Christians, ‘Not all flesh is alike, but there is one kind for men, another for animals, another for birds, and another for fish’ (Cor 15:39). And John of Patmos pictures ‘the flesh of kings, the flesh of captains, the flesh of mighty men, the flesh of horses and their riders, and the flesh of all men, both free and slave, both small and great’ (Rev 18:19). When, in Jesus, God walked the earth, he was surrounded by his animal creatures from birth. The Bethlehem manger (phatne) connotes both ox and ass, ‘the ox knows its owner, and the ass its master’s crib’ (Isa 1:3). The star recalls Balaam’s compassionate donkey, who was wiser than the seer (Num 23:21-34). According to Moses Maimonedes, the medieval Jewish philosopher (‘the Ramdam’), the Jewish tradition of compassion derives from the teaching of Balaam’s ass [Num 22-24]. The Judean sheep, and other creatures of the fields, were, with the shepherds, the first creatures to hear the gospel (Luke 2:8-14).

Familiar fields

Jesus’ family travelled to Jerusalem for feasts, with the family donkey, in those fortunate, more sustainable, car- and jet-free days. Luke says Jesus was a tekton, a craftsman; in other words, middle class. As the eldest son, he would have worked the family fields. Growing food, in and with the soil community, a person gets to understand, and relate to, other creatures. As John Seymour says, a person learns that he too is a soil organism. In familiar fields, Jesus observed the delicate beauty of insects and birds, the compassion of hens that sheltered chicks, roosters that crowed near dawn, foxes that hid in dens, wolves that prowled, and sheep who knew their shepherds.

Moved by the Spirit who prompts the hearts of youth, Jesus, as a young adult, travelled to the Jordan and the wilderness Baptiser. At his baptism, the teeming river itself, and all water creatures, were forever sanctified. ‘When Jesus stepped into the Jordan where John was baptising, a fire was enkindled in the Jordan,’ said Justin of second century Rome. After leaving John’s community, Jesus remained awhile in the wilderness, with its wildlife (Mark 1:13). In wilderness, whether desert or woodland, mountains, parks, or gardens, a person becomes conscious of the ties between humans and fellow sarx and plant creatures. A Jesuit seismologist, who spent a winter in Antarctica wilderness, told me how humans, temporarily based there, feel kin with the companionable penguins. Alice Walker recounts, ‘One day 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.’


After leaving the wilderness and its animals, Jesus settled in Capernaum, by the lake, with hinterland fields similar to those he had known, and tended, in the hill country. In that fishing settlement, Jesus shared the earth with riparian life, including fresh water fish, raptors and scavengers, water mammals, and fishermen. Where the southern lake narrows into the Jordan, kingfishers still, colourfully and skilfully, catch fish.

When Jesus left the lake, and travelled to Jerusalem for the last time, he rode on the gentle beast whose relatives had accompanied him in other important moments of his life. G.K. Chesterton speaks for that immortalised Jerusalem donkey,

Fools! For I also had my hour;

One far fierce hour and sweet:

There was a shout about my ears,

And palms before my feet.’

(The Donkey)

As in earlier stays in Jerusalem, Jesus visited the olive mountain, especially the west facing plantation, rich with birds, sheep, bees, and wildflowers, called Gethsemane. ‘Judas knew the place, for Jesus went there often with his disciples’ (John 18:2). An olive plantation is one of the most biodiverse of cultivated fields. Even now, on the Mount, the birds flit through the trees, and rest on the backs of browsing sheep. There is something to ponder about our relationships with other sarx creatures, in Jesus’ words to his drowsy disciples. ‘The spirit indeed is willing but the flesh is weak’ (Mark 14:38).

As he died on the cross, his mother, and the beloved disciple, suffered with him. Nearby other women and men disciples suffered also. The elements too were darkened, and voiced cosmic compassion (Mt. 27.51). ‘All creation wept’, comments the Anglo-Saxon author of ‘The Dream of the Rood’. Edwin Muir suggests that, at Golgotha, insects and small dogs may have partaken of Jesus’ blood,

Then braced by iron and by wood,

Engrafted on a tree he died,

And little dogs lapped up the blood

That spurted from his broken side.

(Thought and Image)

Filling the universe

Since that death, descent, and exaltation, Jesus, God’s Word made flesh, fills the universe, including our galaxy, our planet, ourselves, the trees, and the animals. ‘He who descended is he who also ascended far above all the heavens, that he might fill all things’ (Eph 4:10).

We admire the Assisi story, wherein, says Chesterton, ‘man has stripped from his soul the last rag of nature-worship, and can return to nature.’ Less familiar is a story Ignatius Loyola told about himself, to Concalves da Camara. Shortly after his conversion, Ignatius was riding away from home, and into the future, when he met a doubting Moor who questioned the perpetual virginity of Mary. As the Moor rode ahead, Ignatius, still half knight, only barely half saint, left the check reins slack. If his mule turned into a village, after the Moor, Ignatius determined to follow, challenge, and perhaps stab the man. If the animal chose the highway, Ignatius would continue his journey. Like Balaam’s ass, the mule chose the more excellent way. The Moor - and Loyola - escaped. Thanks to a mule on a highway, the Spiritual Exercises, and the Jesuit movement, within the wider Jesus movement, happened.

Our recent ecumenical Council, Vatican II, was light green at best. Council fathers, periti, and observers, are invariably men of their time. Vatican II happened in a scientific and technologically triumphalist time, the sixties, the high tide of the progress myth! But at an ecumenical Council, which is of and for the whole earth, more than ‘two or three’ are gathered in Christ’s name. The Spirit prompted the Council, which responded with some hints, pointers, harbingers, and trajectories to a more earth inclusive Church. These trajectories, like Loyola’s mule, gently induce us to follow, to become a more inclusive movement for the greater glory of God. In the Council’s words, ‘redeemed in Christ, and reconciled in the Holy Spirit, people can and should love all God’s creatures. Receiving them from God, people can respect and reverence them as coming from God’s own hand’ (Gaudium et Spes 37).

Greenest Pope

Pope John Paul II, the greenest Pope in Christian history, pleads with people to care for animals ‘our little brothers and sisters’. Even burly primates are ‘little’ in their total dependence on sustainable human behaviour. ‘Respect for life and human dignity,’ says the Pope, ‘extends also to the whole creation, which is called to join people in praising God’. Psalm 148, he calls ‘a cosmic alleluia involving everything and everyone in divine praise.’ E.O. Wilson, the eminent conservation biologist, says of human induced extinction, ‘quenching life’s exuberance will be more consequential to humanity than all of present day global warming, ozone depletion, and pollution combined.’ Abuse and extinction of animal creatures diminishes the exuberant ‘cosmic alleluia’ of divine praise. When we care for ‘our little brothers and sisters’, our fellow creatures in the flesh, we respect and reverence them, in Vatican II’s words, ‘as coming from God’s own hand.’

l Dr Edward P. Echlin is Honorary Research Fellow in Theology, University College of Trinity & All Saints, Leeds.

l He is also author of ‘Earth Spirituality: Jesus at the Centre’, Arthur James, 1999, 2002, ISBN: 1856084450, £5.99.


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