Today, we have a lot to celebrate and commemorate. It’s still Easter, so there’s that. Then, in the German tradition, the 5th Sunday of the Easter season is traditionally celebrated as ‘Cantate’ Sunday, and ‘cantate’ is the Latin imperative for ‘to sing’, so literally this is the ‘Sing, y’all!’ Sunday; and the weird name derives from the opening word of the Latin version of Psalm 98, which traditionally is prayed on this day in Germany. And this is the Sunday many churches around the world commemorate as Earth Day. So let’s tie all this together.
Do you happen to know where the name ‘Easter’ comes from? Easter comes from the old Germanic word Eostre or Ostara; Eostre or Ostara is an Anglo-Saxon goddess of the dawn, the goddess of new life, and the goddess of new beginnings; now especially in the Nordic countries, where you have very short days during the winter, the dawn is synonymous with spring and new life; in the ancient Germanic calendar, a spring month was named after this goddess. Now scholars argue if the Christian festival of Easter, or ‘Ostern’ in German, is in fact named after a pagan deity, or simply named because it was celebrated in the month of Eostre.
Well, who knows, but of course the parallels between the goddess of the dawn and new life, and Jesus Christ who rises at dawn and conquers death, are quite striking. And these similarities probably helped bring Christianity to the rough folks of Northern Europe.
Now we in this day and age sometimes tend to celebrate Easter as a more spiritual renewal, and we see the new life given to us by God through the death and resurrection of Christ as something either symbolic, or something that awaits us in the great beyond. But life, and yes, new life, is dependent on the cycles of nature, and the coming of spring. Our forebears saw and marveled at this connection, and so we still have so many symbols from nature which help explain the miracle of new life: the sun, the lilies of the field, eggs, baby chicks, lambs, and even the bunny.
Jesus himself, in his parables and sermons, referred to images and examples from nature in order to explain the workings of the kingdom of God. That it’s all about growth, and about bearing fruit. If you look into the Bible, you even have the ‘tree of life’ as bookends: in the beginning created by God, and in the end to be found in the New Jerusalem, its leaves bringing healing to the nations.
For millennia, people, and yes, Christian believers as well, lived in a strong symbiosis with nature; their life depended on it, and they knew it. Not many talked about it, because it was just a part of everyday life to live with the cycles of nature – but then we have those beautiful writings that express the awe of creation. Francis of Assisi wrote the famous Canticle to the Sun, in which he calls all that God created brother and sister. And for lesser known medieval mystic Hildegard of Bingen, the color of the Holy Spirit wasn’t red, as it is in our tradition, but green – for her, God’s Spirit, a Spirit of life, is manifested in growth, and in life itself.
Christian faith didn’t really concern itself with creation and environmentalism for a long time because there wasn’t a need for it. God, in psalms and songs, was praised as the creator. For a long time, that was enough. But then, with the industrialization, the invention of artificial fertilizers and pesticides, and the use of machines in agriculture, came the explosion of the world population. And with the explosion of the world population came the need for more and more: more food, more goods, more means of transportation, more fossil fuels and other natural resources. God’s creation has been raped for several centuries now, we see the effects of the overuse and abuse of this precious planet and its resources everywhere. From formerly fertile soil now exhausted to the ever decreasing sources of fresh water -from the scary global deforestation to the extinction or near extinction of many species, our planet hurts. And we as humans shouldn’t be cavalier about it – there have been studies which conclude that the increase of people with allergies or the increasing number of children with autism and ADHD for example are a result of our messing with nature. And have you ever wondered why there seem to be more and more cases of cancer?
And I don’t even want to get started on the negative effects climate change has on many regions in this world.
I am not saying everything was great in those days when people lived in a stronger symbiosis with nature. Droughts, floods, wars, and other natural and man made disasters destroyed flocks and fields and led to famine and diseases. But we have to be honest with ourselves, we have to open our senses to a planet which is exploited beyond capacity. As a human race, we can’t just go on. We can’t put man made gods like the economy before a creator God who made all things good.
Now there are Christians out there who are saying, well, I don’t read anything about environmentalism in the Bible, it’s all about the salvation of the human race, why should I care for creation? And it doesn’t help that, for many centuries, churches taught that the true reward will be received in heaven, in a place far away somewhere in the heavens. This world, this earth, then is but a temporary stop for our immortal souls.
But even if we buy into that view and understanding, does that mean we can and should destroy the world God so lovingly created, as a place to live, as a place to have life? Imagine you build something, and then someone comes and just destroys it. Now it’s not only the destruction of a thing, you are hurt in the process as well. By being careless about God’s creation, we dishonor the creator as well.
Sin, a word we use so much, especially in our tradition, in essence is the dishonoring of God; sin is wanting to be like God, to have the power to create and destroy. Sin is putting ourselves and our wants, which the devil tries to sell us as needs, before God. What we are doing with God’s creation is sinful.
Part of our sin is to declare what’s worth saving and what isn’t. Do declare certain things less important than others. The lesson from Acts, which we heard earlier, is one of my favorite lessons in the entire Bible. Because here, in a vision, God declares to Peter: what God has made clean, you must not call profane. And, by the way, God has to say that three times until Peter finally seems to get it – and get over his own judgment. What God has made clean, what God has made holy, you must not call profane. And I would like to expand that: what God has made good, you must not call and treat as unimportant and dispensable. Everything created has the fingerprint of the creator on it – everything created thus is holy. God is holy. Creation is holy. Creation was made for the purpose of life. Life is holy.
And, by the way, this is not just my idea – even Martin Luther already acknowledged the presence of the living Spirit of God in all things created.
Which brings us back to Easter, and the celebration of God’s victory over death; it brings us back to Easter and the celebration of life.
German contemporary theologian Juergen Moltmann, who just celebrated his 90th birthday, makes the following observation about Easter and Easter faith: “(Easter) faith sees the raising of Christ as God’s protest against death, and against all the people who work for death; for the Easter faith recognizes God’s passion for the life of the person who is threatened by death and with death. And faith participates in this process of love by getting out of the apathy of misery and out of the cynicism of prosperity, and fighting against death’s accomplices, here and now, in this life. ..Death is an evil power now, in life’s very midst…The resurrection faith is not proved true be means of historical evidence, or only in the next world. It is proved here and now, through the courage for revolt, the protest against deadly powers, and the self-giving of men and women for the victory of life…So resurrection means rebirth out of impotence and indolence to the ‘living hope’. And today ‘living hope’ means a passion for (all) life, and a lived protest against death.” (‘The Power of the Powerless’, pp. 123-124).
These words ring very true in the light of all the terror and division we experience in this world right now – but they also ring true as we experience how this planet Earth, God’s creation, is slowly choked to death. As people who believe in the resurrection and new life, we have to do as we say: to protect and further life, new life, all around us.
This is how we praise and honor God, the creator of life, the one who made all things holy. This is how we praise and honor God, our creator, redeemer, and sustainer, who has given us a new life in Jesus Christ. This is how we love. And so let our voices and actions sing out with all creation, you know, that’s the ‘cantate’ part: Praise God, sun and moon; praise God, all you shining stars! Praise God, you highest heavens, and you waters above the heavens. Let them praise the name of the Lord, for God commanded, and they were created. God established them forever and ever. Young men and women alike, old and young together! Let them praise the name of the Lord, for his name alone is exalted; his glory is above heaven and earth. Alleluia!
This post is also available in: German