An Ecological Concern Far More Powerful Than Stewardship – Dennis Ormseth reflects on the priesthood of all believers meaning that we are “priests” of all creation.
Care for Creation Commentary on the Common Lectionary
Readings for the Christ the King Sunday, Year B (2012, 2015, 2018, 2021, 2024)
Daniel 7:9-10, 13-14
The long awaited king comes “with the clouds; every eye will see him, even those who pierced him; and on his account all the tribes of the earth will wail” (Revelation 1:7). With the texts for the Festival Sunday of Christ the King, the church hears a summation of the gospel of the lectionary narrative of Year B, and a matching mandate for its life under his kingship. Summation and mandate together bring our reflections on care of creation in Year B to an appropriate conclusion with reflections on the nature of Christ’s dominion and the human vocation.
The texts celebrate the “kingship” of Christ as “not from this world” (John 18:36). His kingship is instead a gift from “the Ancient One” (Daniel 7:13-14), the “Alpha and the Omega,” “who is and who was and who is to come, the Almighty” (Revelation 1:4, 8), source and goal of all that is. But if Christ’s kingdom is not “from this world,” we nonetheless celebrate his kingship as belonging within the world: all the nations of the earth do wail on his account; while “coming with the clouds of heaven,” we read that he is “like a human being,” and he is given “dominion and glory and kingship, that all peoples, nations, and languages should serve him” (Daniel 7:14); and even the non-human creation, represented here by the seas that symbolize the subdued powers of chaos, join in the praise of the Lord who “has established the world; it shall never be moved” (Psalm 93:1-4). If his kingship is celebrated as eternal—worthy of “glory and dominion forever and ever” (Revelation 1:6), it is also universal, that is to say, inclusive of all things in creation, with respect to both time and space (cf. Colossians 1:19).
Key here for our consideration of care of creation, of course, is the characterization of the nature of this “dominion.” That this concept, much discussed in the context of the environmental crisis, does not legitimize “domination” by those who belong to the kingdom over either the human community or the environment, is an assertion we have had repeated occasion to argue in the course of this series of comments in both year A and year B (See especially the comment on the texts for Name of Jesus Sunday). Christ’s is not a kingship which like those “from this world” can be gained or retained by violence; if it were, Jesus says, “my followers would be fighting to keep me from being handed over to the Jews” (John 18:36). If this “one like a human being” (Daniel 7:13) is “the ruler of the kings of the earth,” as the author of the Revelation to John reminds us, he is also “faithful witness” and “the first born of the dead,” three phrases that with remarkable economy, as Frank Senn notes, “extoll and proclaim . . . his earthly mission and heavenly minisry” (i.e. his “death, resurrection, and ascension”) (Frank C. Senn, “Christ the King,” New Proclamation Year B, 2000. Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 2000, p. 259). Moreover, his work of love, the text from Revelation reminds us, is to free us “from our sins by his blood,” a clear reference to his death on the cross that recalls the sacrificial image with which we have been constantly engaged in the texts of the lectionary here at the end of the year. Jesus has dominion as king, readers of this series of comments will acknowledge, precisely because he is also the high priest who gave his own blood in the sanctuary of the cosmos, in order to open up the way for us through his body into the very presence of God.
This is of decisive import with respect to God’s love of creation and our care of it: as we concluded in our comment on the readings for the Twenty-Fifth Sunday after Pentecost, in the words of Norman Wirzba, “On the cross Jesus encountered the alienating and violent death of this world and transformed it into the self-offering death that leads to resurrection life . . . . In light of his death and resurrection, creation can be seen as an immense altar upon which the incomprehensible, self-offering love of God is daily made manifest” (see our comment on the readings for the Twenty-Fifth Sunday after Pentecost; the quotation is from Wirzba, Food and Faith: A Theology of Eating, New York: Cambridge University Press, 2011, p. 125). Futhermore, it is of utmost interest with respect to our role in the care of creation that the author of the Revelation chooses to describe the benefit of Christ’s work for us in terms of priesthood: he has “made us to be a kingdom,” we read, “priests serving his God and Father, to him be glory and dominion forever and ever” (Revelation 1:6). Our role in the kingdom—our membership in it—is in the first instance to be understood as one of exercising priesthood, which leads us into a discussion of the second grand theme concerning care of creation, namely, definition of the role of the human in creation.
In our comments on the lectionary for Year A, we showed that an understanding of Jesus as servant of creation correlates with an understanding of the role of humans as servants of creation. We, like he, serve God by serving God’s beloved Earth. Similarly here in Year B, as we have followed to its conclusion the narrative of Jesus’ displacement of the Jerusalem temple as locus where God is present in the world, we have seen the great importance of interpreting his work in terms of the role of high priest; it seems entirely appropriate, accordingly, that in the last set of texts for Year B the image of the priest should also capture the implications of Jesus’ role for our role in relationship to creation. What does it mean, precisely, to consider the human being as priest of creation? And how might that understanding benefit the creation?
Translating the role of the priest in ancient Israel into Christian idiom, Norman Wirzba describes the role of the priest in terms of the “lifting up” of the gifts of bread and wine to God in the Christian Eucharist. As Wirzba writes, following the thought of Orthodox theologian John Zizioulas, the priestly role is . . .
“to ‘lift our hearts’ to the place of heaven so that heavenly life can transform life on earth here and now. Heaven is not a far-away place but rather the transformation of every place so that the glory and grace of God are fully evident. When in priestly motion we lift our hearts to God, what we are really doing is giving ourselves and the whole world to the new creation, the ‘new heaven and earth’ (Rev. 21:1), so that our interdependent need can be appreciated as a blessing. As priests we begin to see creation as an altar of God’s offering. The altar becomes the inspiration for our offering of the world and ourselves” (Wirzba, p. 206).
Moreover, in exercising this priestly role, the faithful human being extends the reconciling work of Christ in relationship to all creation. “From the beginning, but also to its end,” in this view, “all creation is the expression of a divine intent that all creatures be whole and at peace, enjoying the Sabbath delight that marks God’s attachment to the world.” This intent is frustrated by humankind’s propensity for “making itself rather than God the center of desire and action. People have used their freedom to manipulate the world to serve their own ends rather than glorify God.” Wirzba sums up the consequences for creation this way: “We prefer to take the world, possess it, and consume it. What we do not realize is that this hoarding gesture, a gesture often founded upon a deep insecurity and anxiety within us, compromises and degrades the giving of God that is the life of the world” (Wirzba, p. 209).
Zizioulas further illumines the understanding of the human being as priest by contrasting it to the more common understanding of the human vocation as stewards of creation. The concept of the steward, he insists, is “managerial,” or “economic”— ‘the idea of arranging things according to and for the sake of expediency.” In the concept of the priest, on the other hand, the human being is related to nature not functionally, as the idea of stewardship would suggest, but ontologically: by being the steward of creation the human being relates to nature by what he [sic] does, whereas by being the priest of creation he relates to nature by what he [sic] is. The implications of this distinction are very significant. In the case of stewardship our attitude to nature is determined by ethics and morality: if we destroy nature we disobey and transgress a certain law, we become immoral and unethical. In the case of priesthood, in destroying nature we simply cease to be, the consequences of ecological sin are not moral but existential. Ecology is in this way a matter of our esse, not of our bene esse. Our ecological concern becomes in this way far more powerful and efficient than in employing the model of stewardship (John D. Zizioulas, The Eucharistic Communion and the World, ed. by Luke Ben Tallon. London: T & T Clark, 2011, p. 139).
This is highly significant, Zizioulas insists, because the ecological crisis is . . .
“due not so much to a wrong ethic as to a bad ethos; it is a cultural problem. In our Western culture we did everything to de-sacralise life, to fill our societies with legislators, moralist and thinkers, and undermined the fact that the human being is also, or rather primarily, a liturgical being, faced from the moment of birth with a world that he or she must treat either as a sacred gift or as raw material for exploitation and use.”
An entire reorientation of culture to creation accompanies the commitment to priestly action: “As priests rather than stewards we embrace nature instead of managing it, and although this may sound romantic and sentimental, its deeper meaning is . . . ontological, since this ‘embracing’ of nature amounts to our very being, to our existence” (Zizioulas, p. 140).
Finally, from this perspective, an understanding of the role of the human being as priest of creation supports the careful development of creation beyond what it is naturally. Protection of nature, in Zizioulas view, should not be to be contrary to the development of nature, as it often is in much conservationist understanding. As priest of creation, the human being transforms the material world he takes in his hand . . .
“into something better than what it is naturally. Nature must be improved through human intervention; it is not to be preserved as it is. In the Eucharist we do not offer to God simply grain or wheat and grapes, but bread and wine, that is, natural elements developed and transformed through the human labour, in our hands. Ecology is not preservation but development” (Zizioulas, p. 140).
How does this differ from the human transformation of nature characteristic of the domination of creation by its human “proprietors”? In a priestly approach to nature, the purpose served by development is not primarily or exclusively the satisfaction of human needs, but rather because nature itself stands in need of development through us in order to fulfil its own being and acquire a meaning which it would not otherwise have. In other words, there is a development of nature which treats it as raw material for production and distribution, and there is a development which treats nature as an entity that must be developed for its own sake. In the latter case, although the human being is not passive, simply preserving or sustaining nature, he is developing nature with respect for its, and not his, interests, taking care of its fragility and its “groaning in travail,” to remember Saint Paul’s moving expression in Roman 8 (Zizioulas, p. 140).
In the Lutheran tradition, the priesthood of all believers has come to mean the inclusion and democratization of all members of Christ’s church in proclamation of the gospel, over against the elevation of the professional clergy. The Reformation protest against the Roman practice of sacrifice in the mass, on the other hand, has precluded fuller appreciation of this role for the Christian believer. With the revisioning of the meaning of sacrifice we have developed in this series of comments, it should be possible to enlist the concept not only for the restoration of creation, but also for the fulfillment of creation.
Originally written by Dennis Ormseth in 2012.