The liturgical calendar
Churches that are serious about an extensive liturgical calendar have debated for decades about a suitable date on which attention can be given to creation and the preservation of creation.
In Europe, since 2007 there has been a consensus between most of the mainstream churches, to dedicate at least one Sunday between the first Sunday of September and the first Sunday of October to this theme. The Orthodox churches of mainly Eastern Europe decided on the first Sunday of September, the first Sunday of their ecclesiastical year. The Roman Catholic Church and the major Protestant churches, such as the Lutheran Church, decided on the first Sunday of October.
We can fall in with this date here in southern Africa. This Sunday is closest to October 4, the burial date of Francis of Assisi, who died on October 3, 1226. Francis was the first very famous church leader and theologian who paid attention to the beauty of, the love for, and the preservation of creation. In the Roman church he is regarded as the “environmental saint”.
It goes without saying that there were already influential theologians before him who paid attention to these and other related themes (such as creation and evolution), such as Basilius of Caesaria (died 379 AD) and his younger brother Gregory of Nyssa (died 394 AD). There were also contemporaries of Francis whose theological contributions testify to deeper insight and greater learning, such as Albertus Magnus (ca. 1198 – 1280), the bishop of Regensburg, and theologian of Paris and Cologne.
However, Francis is the person who captures the admiration of the masses, and that is why in the church calendar a date for reflection on creation is linked to Francis’s end of life.
Francis of Assisi
Francis of Assisi (ca. 1181 – 1226), born as Giovanni di Pietro di Bernardone, linked to the name of Johannes Baptista at his baptism and called by his father Francesco, is one of the most colorful personalities in the church’s history. He is the founder (1208) of the Franciscan order in the Roman Catholic Church; an order of imitation of Jesus in absolute poverty, a participant in the crusades to the holy land (1214), missionary, and dialoguer with sultan Melek el-Kamil (1219) about the religions.
In 1220, the first five brothers of his order died as martyrs in Morocco, which meant that he could only concentrate on preaching in Italy and Oxford (1224). Francis is also known for his platonic love with Clara, who would lead the women’s ministry of his order. Mindful of her, he wrote and set to music the well-known song “brother sun and sister moon”. This song would also become the title of a famous film that Franco Zeffirelli made in 1972 about Francis and Klara.
Over the centuries, numerous painters have captured his personal actions in nature, his poems, sermons and meditations on the natural beauty and his conversations with animals on canvas. In this contribution, the focus is on Francis’s theology and the art of painting that depicts his theological thoughts. Perhaps people who campaign for the preservation of creation can draw positive impulses from his somewhat strange thinking.
The redemption of creation
According to Francis, the animals, plants, fire, water and wind of the earth are part of God’s good creation, but still, just like humans, in need of salvation. According to Francis, these creatures of God also have a “soul” and therefore he could preach to them, and they were also objects of his deep respect and reverence (pie bag) and could he suffer with them (compassio).
His understanding of the salvation by the Lamb of God (John 1:29) was therefore universal, and not limited to people. When John 3:16-17 states that God loved the world and that the world is saved through the incarnation of the Son of God, “the world” must be understood as man and his natural environment. The cross therefore not only affects humanity, but also the plants and animals.
In light of this, he could preach to the animals (especially the birds), since they also need to hear the glad tidings. It goes without saying that there will be readers who will immediately judge that we are dealing with a mentally disturbed person here, but one should not come to this judgment too soon. Many people treat their pets like children, talk to them (also about the Bible) and pray for them when they get sick; and no one will dare to dismiss them as insane.
For example, people who talk to problem animals such as horses and cats, and those who believe that we can get to know God through creation, will also understand Francis’ opinion about nature.
Within a respected tradition
Francis did not suck his opinions out of his mouth, as he stands in the respected tradition of the “desert fathers”, who gained fame during the first four centuries due to their ascetic way of life and special bond with the desert animals.
One famous person from this tradition is Antonius (251 – 356) who also preached to the animals in the Egyptian desert, separated from people; especially for the crows that brought him pieces of bread. He let himself be guided, among others, by Psalm 19:5 and Romans 10:18. Francis was also the reason that in the ninth century there were many theological debates about the question of whether animals have a “soul” or not. The Irish theologian, Johannes Scotus Eriugena (815 – 877), made a name for himself in this connection.
The unknown brothers and sisters of the Christian
Francis argued on the basis of Romans 8:19-23 that the “creation”, and by implication the animals, will also participate in the salvation. He could therefore refer to them as “brothers and sisters”. As already mentioned, he also referred to the sun as “brother” and the moon as “sister”.
On the basis of Psalm 19:2-7, he could argue that the dome of the sky, in particular the sun and the moon, proclaim the glory of God, and that man really only falls in with what creation is already doing. The congregation participates in the creation’s worship service, and thus the Christian religion gains an added dimension, next to the gratitude for the forgiveness of sins and redemption from our dystopian (or imperfect and dysfunctional) earthly life.
The miracle of the well-functioning creation was for him also the prelude to the promise that the good at the beginning of creation will again, without the evil, finally be part of it when God will be all in all (1 Corinthians 12 :6). As a prelude to the “heaven” to come, the creation must therefore be revered (reverence) treated, and not destroyed. Francis believed that when it is realized that nature has to do with God’s eternity, the destructive urge of man will be curbed.
The Incarnation of Christ
Christmas, or better said, the incarnation of the Son of God, was for Francis the most important festival on the church calendar. The Christmas season therefore had to be for him not only a time of caring towards other people, but also towards the animal kingdom. During the Christmas period, legislation had to be devised that could lead to the protection of the animal kingdom. Church, state and people therefore had to reflect together at this time on the preservation of God’s good and beautiful creation.
In 1223, in the vicinity of the village of Greccio, Francis erected an outdoor church and a temporary village, which was known as the “new Bethlehem”. According to Francis, the fact that animals were made part of the commemoration of the incarnation of Christ would contribute to a more humane treatment of plants and animals.
The “new Bethlehem” also had to replace Jerusalem, as the focus of the church’s “mission effort”, in the form of the crusades. When reverence for and preservation of creation overcame the wars aimed at discovering Christ’s empty tomb, true humanity could become part of European civilization.
Respect for nature, for Francis, was the starting point of ending the religious wars at that time. Whoever lives in harmony with nature, according to Francis, will also live in harmony with his fellow man. Nature conservation at Christmas time therefore has political and military consequences; that’s what Francis thought and hoped. As someone who was himself a prisoner of war in his youth, he knew the inhumanity of war first hand.
Thus his “new Bethlehem” was a plea to stop the crusades and violence.
When Franciscus’s theology is read, one comes to realize anew that the preservation of creation is a Christian duty. Whether attention is given to this theme on the first Sunday of October, or on another date, probably does not matter; as long as it is done.
When we see and read what climate change is doing to communities and we hear that we as humans are partly responsible for it, we can no longer remain silent about this theme in the church and public media. Most of us love our wonderful natural beauty and animal kingdom; come let’s not ruin it further nor allow others to do so!