How we forgot about Nature at Christmas

By Martin Palmer

One of the oldest and most beautiful Christmas prayers comes from the Orthodox Church.

The prayer which probably dates from the 5th or 6th century, gives thanks that Christ’s birth only could have happened through all of nature working together.

The prayer runs through the different contributions: the heavens gave a star; the angels gave their music; the earth gave a mountain; the mountain gave a cave (the Orthodox believe Jesus was born in a cave out in the countryside on the way to Bethlehem).

The fields gave the grass and herbs of the manger; the trees gave the wood of the manger; the animals gave the warmth of their breath; and humanity contributed the womb of Mary.

Only because all these elements of nature worked together was Christ able to be born.

Pietro Perugino’s 1522 nativity masterpiece the Virgin, St Joseph and the Shepherds adoring the Infant Christ includes ox, ass and sheep

This sense that the birth of Christ is not just a human event but an event for the whole of Creation runs as a wonderful stream through Christian thought and iconography right up until the Enlightenment.

For example, in Britain, there is the old tradition that on Christmas Eve, at midnight, all the animals and birds kneel or bow their heads in homage to the day Christ was born.

In medieval paintings of the Nativity, look at all the aspects of nature which gather around the Holy Family.

There are of course the ox and ass and the sheep.

But there are also birds – full of symbolic significance linked to Our Lady such as the finch, symbol of a soul from heaven in this case Christ; there are flowers and plants likewise associated with the Virgin such as the strawberry, a symbol of purity and righteousness; there are lizards, sometimes snails reminders of the earthiness of incarnation.

In the distance there will often be wild animals such as lions or wolves, while closer to the Christ child are the domestic animals, symbols of the taming of the wilderness of our natures. The Nativity is a celebration of God and Nature combined.

The rise of man

Then look at an 18th or 19th century Nativity and most of nature has been excluded. The Enlightenment, and then more recently the Industrial Revolution, put Man – and I do mean Man – at the centre of every story.

So out went nature and with it the romantic but also profound idea of all creation contributing and celebrating the birth of the Saviour. Instead the story narrowed down to speak only of humanity, making the arrival of the Son of God in the world a purely anthropocentric event.

And today the division is greater than ever before. People in government and the environmental movement often refer to (what everyone else calls nature or creation) in terms of “eco-system deliverables”.

This has the explicit assumption that only that which is useful to us – which delivers human beings some kind of material benefit – is worthy of conservation.

We have shrunk the meaning of life on earth to whether we can use it, buy it and sell it.

Ownership or companionship?

Perhaps Christmas is a time to reflect that once we had a bigger, more holy and wonderful vision.

By narrowing both the meaning and significance of the birth of Christ to just ourselves as a species and by placing the needs and wants of our species as the sole justification for preserving nature, we are locking ourselves into a Faustian bind. Because then we can only see a world of ownership rather than a world of companionship with the rest of nature.

And as we ponder why the recent Doha Climate Change Conference has been a bitter disappointment like every other COP maybe it is because we no longer have the vision to see ourselves as just part of nature rather than seeing nature as there just for us.

Until we can imagine a world of interconnectedness with creation – such as that which every Orthodox church around the world on Christmas Day will celebrate – we will never find our way out of the mess we have invented for ourselves.

We all live within a story. But where does that story take us?

During the Christmas celebrations let us revisit older, wiser stories which envision a more wonderful connected, compassionate and sacred world of which we have the honour to be just one part.

Martin Palmer is Secretary General of the Alliance of Religions and Conservation (ARC), a UK-based secular body that aims to assist the major religions of the world to develop environmental programmes based on their own core teachings, beliefs and practices.

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