On the Protection of the Natural Environment
by His All Holiness Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew I
On a number of occasions in the ecclesiastical year the Church prays that God will protect humanity from natural catastrophes: earthquakes, storms, famine and floods. But today we see the reverse. On the day devoted to God's handiwork, the Church implores the Creator to protect nature from calamities of human origin, calamities such as pollution, war, exploitation, waste and secularism. It may seem strangely paradoxical that the body of believers, acting vicariously for nature, beseeches God for protection against itself and its own actions. But from this perspective the Church, in its wisdom, brings before our eyes a message of deep significance, one which touches upon the central problems of fallen humanity and its restoration. This is the problem of the polarization of individual sin against collective responsibility.
Scripture tells us that if one member of the body is infirm, the entire body is also affected (1 Cor. 12:26). There is, after all, solidarity in the human race because, being made in the image of the Trinitarian God, human beings are interdependent and co-inherent. No man is an island. We are 'members of each other' (Eph. 4:25) and so any action performed by any member of the human race, inevitably affects all other members. Consequently, no one falls alone and no one is saved alone. How does this central problem relate to the matter of protecting the environment against mankind's actions? It has become painfully apparent that humanity, both individually and collectively, no longer perceives the natural order as a sign and a sacrament of God but rather as an object of exploitation. There is no one that is not guilty of disrespecting nature, for to respect nature is to recognize that all creatures and objects have a unique place in God's creation. When we become sensitive to God's world around us, we grow more conscious also of God's world within us. Beginning to see nature as a work of God, we begin to see our own place as human beings within nature. The true appreciation of any object is to discover the extraordinary in the ordinary. The Church teaches it is the destiny of mankind to restore the proper relationship between God and the world as it was in Eden. Through repentance, two landscapes, the one human, the other natural, can become the objects of a caring and creative effort. But repentance must be accompanied by soundly focused initiatives which manifest the ethos of the Orthodox Church. There is the eucharistic ethos, which, above all else, means using natural resources with the eucharistic ethos, which above all else, means using natural resources with thankfulness, offering them back to God. In the Eucharist, we return to God what is His: the bread and the wine. Representing the fruits of creation, they are no longer prisoners of a fallen world, but are returned liberated, purified from their fallen state, and capable of receiving Divine Presence within themselves. At the same time, we pray for ourselves to be sanctified, because through sin we have fallen away and have betrayed our baptismal promise. Secondly, we have the ascetic ethos of Orthodoxy which involves fasting and other spiritual works. These make us recognize that everything we take for granted are in fact God's gifts provided to satisfy our needs. They are not ours to abuse and waste simply because we have the ability to pay for them. Thirdly, the liturgical ethos emphasizes community concern and sharing. We stand before God together and we hold in common the earthly blessings that He has given to all creatures. Not to share our own wealth with the poor is theft from the poor and deprivation of their means of life; we do not possess our own wealth but theirs, as a holy Father of the Church reminds us. We stand before the Creator as the Church of God which, according to Orthodox theology, is the continued incarnate presence of the Lord Jesus Christ on earth; His presence unto the salvation of the world, not just humanity but the entire creation.
The ethos of the Church in all its expressions denotes a reverence for matter; the world around us, other creatures, our own bodies. Hence, our Patriarchal message for this Day of Protection for the Environment is simply that we maintain a consistent attitude of respect in all our dealings with the world. We cannot expect to leave no trace on the environment. However, we must choose either to make it reflect greed and ugliness or to use it in such a way that its beauty show God's handiwork through ours.
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