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Eucharist, A Call to Ecological Conversion

26 June 2012


Eucharist, a Call to Ecological Conversion

The word Eucharist derives from the Greek Eucharistia, to give thanks.  The Eucharist has its origin in the last supper, shared by Jesus and his disciples before his passion, death and resurrection. The Eucharistic celebration enfolds and re-enacts these events.  Much of contemporary theology, however, suggests that Eucharist was already present in the mission of Jesus prior to the last supper.  The feeding of the five thousand and the four thousand, in particular, ‘are unmistakably descriptions of eucharist ritual’.[1]    

We now know that the earth was the womb, within which and out of which, we evolved as a human species.  The deteriorating health of that womb, especially over the last century is a cause of grave concern.  I believe, as John Feehan does, that ‘no contemporary celebration of the Eucharist can fail to take cognisance of this dimming of the rainbow of creation for which we are accountable’.[2]

The celebration of the Eucharist has four parts: the Introductory Rite, the Liturgy of the Word, the Liturgy of the Eucharist, and the Concluding Rite.  I briefly explore each of these parts from the perspective of its ecological dimension.  This perspective, I suggest, focuses us on ecological conversion and has the potential to move us from our human devastation of the earth towards mutually beneficial human earth relationships, a task which Thomas Berry terms, The Great Work, of our time.  Celia Deane-Drummond claims that ‘ecological ideas’ need ‘to become embedded into Christian consciousness’.   In her view, this is best achieved ‘through worship and celebration’.[3]


An ecological Introductory Rite

The Introductory Rite emphasises unity in the human community and preparedness for Eucharistic worship.  Human, Eucharistic or any community cannot be understood in isolation from the whole community of life.  The whole community of life cannot be isolated from its home, the earth and the vast web of interconnectedness that holds the whole universe together.  ‘That the humans and the other components of Earth form a single community of life is the central issue of The Great Work.’[4]   Biological discoveries have shown that we are all related genetically. All humankind is one family.  Modern science has further demonstrated that all life is genetically related, is one family.  That means that ‘other species are part of our “we” and so the ripples of consanguinity must extend to all creatures.’[5]

In preparation for Eucharistic worship we reflect on our attitudes and behaviour towards other humans.  An authentic examination of conscience can no longer be limited to inter-human behaviour only.  It must extend to examining human interaction with the other than human world.  Berry says that morally we have developed a response to suicide, homicide and genocide ‘but now we find ourselves confronted with biocide, the killing of the life systems themselves, and geocide, the killing of the planet Earth in its basic structures and functioning.’[6]


An ecological Liturgy of the Word

The Liturgy of the Word, consists of readings from the Bible, a homily, the Creed and the Prayers of the Faithful.  This listening, hearing, reading, speaking, helps us to understand the relevance of the Christian message in our time and to allow our lives to be transformed by it. When we gather as twenty-first century ecologically literate readers, listeners and hearers, some scriptural texts will speak more strongly than others to us.  These are the texts with which the whole gathering needs to grapple.

The creation stories in Genesis and Proverbs 8:22-31, for example, can be fused together and interpreted in the light of the scientific story of our origins.  The genre of poetry employed in many parts of the Book of Job, like the narrative genre, give scope for new interpretations and meanings.  Our great need for wisdom will draw us towards the Wisdom/Sophia literature.  The Book of Revelation can be interpreted as presenting us with a vision of hope for the renewal of earth.  The understandings, laws and celebrations of biblical sabbaticals and jubilees contain examples of limits, restraint and alignment of human living with earth’s rhythms.  The great concern of Jesus for the oppressed and his desire to heal, expressed in the parables, can be extended to include the earth, in its time of crisis and need for healing.   Reading Scripture, with a sense of the biblical bio-region which is its setting, can emphasise eco-just living within the local area in which Eucharist is celebrated. 

An important aspect to remember is that God’s revelation is in no way confined to human words or to the historical period of our long evolutionary story.  God’s revelation precedes language.   David, celebrated as eco-psalmist, captures some of this wordless revelation.  The heavens are telling the glory of God: and the firmament proclaims his handiwork. There is no speech nor are there words. (Ps19:1,3)  Highlighting God’s wordless revelation directs us towards the three-fold cosmological cycles of daily, seasonal and planetary movement and change.   A sense of the sacredness of all God’s creation and a realization that it is imbued with God’s all-embracing loving Spirit is evoked in us.  On-going revelations of the creative Spirit abound also in the hopes and struggles of people and communities in their daily lives.

An earth-centred reading of the Bible is of paramount importance now and requires that we employ a hermeneutic of suspicion developed in ecofeminist theology and biblical studies.  The application of this hermeneutic is three-fold.  It involves evaluating the biblical writers’ assumptions, being alert to the presence of oppression in terms of gender, race or social status and recognising the extent to which domination of the earth pervades the text.


An ecological Liturgy of the Eucharist

In the Eucharist the elements of bread and wine, taken from the earth and transformed by the labour of humans, are offered in memory of Jesus’ passion, death and resurrection and are then transformed, through the action of the Spirit, into the body and blood of Christ. The bread for the Eucharist represents the ‘work of human hands’ and what ‘the earth has given’ through the work of numberless tiny creatures, who make our soil capable of producing food and through the sunlight and rain that nurture growth.  We become aware of the need to work, not only for a just and compassionate society but also, ‘for a sustainable society where seeds and soils are protected and the bonds of interdependence between humans and the rest of creation are more clearly understood and experienced’.[7]  When partaking of the Eucharistic meal in a world of both excess and hunger we are confronted with the greed and exploitation that allows such an unequal situation to continue.  We are also confronted with the realisation that basic to all human life, well being and nourishment, is the well being of the planet.

Pierre Teilhard de Chardin, who very literally celebrated Eucharist on and in the earth, knew its all-embracing dimensions in a very profound way.  ‘Over every living thing which is to spring up, to grow, to flower, to ripen during this day… This is my Body. And over every death-force which waits in readiness to corrode, to wither, to cut down, speak again your commanding words which express the supreme mystery of faith,  This is my Blood’.[8]  As we partake of the sacred Host we are drawn into communion not just with Christ and one another but with all creation.  The ‘with all creation’ dimension needs to be emphasised as well as the ‘with one another’ dimension.   To highlight the latter dimension only is to lose the impact of this great sacrament and sacrifice which reaches a fullness of meaning in the twenty first century.

An ecological Concluding Rite

The focus, in this part, is on the challenge to become what we have received, the living Body of Christ, ready to give ourselves in love to the human and other than human world.  The most urgent mission is ‘ecological conversion’ which Berry regards as a requirement for The Great Work.  Denis Edwards believes ‘that the following of Jesus in the twenty-first century will involve ongoing ecological conversion’.[9]  We are the first generation who has had to face up to human induced climate change and the awesome fact that our action or inaction will determine much of the future life of the planet.  We are also the first generation who has had to accept responsibility for the survival of the biodiversity of the planet.

This ecological conversion calls for a new way of seeing, thinking and acting.  The radical transformation required involves mind, heart, politics and life-style.   We are sent forth from the Eucharistic table to live in harmony, peace and justice with all beings and the other than human world.  This means participating in the healing mission of Jesus.  It means living with a renewed appreciation of the gifts of life.  We move from the Eucharistic table with a heightened awareness of the Eucharistic earth table and the all-inclusive meal which continues in an ongoing sacred ritual and sacrament.  ‘Only a Eucharistic spirituality which recognises the presence of Trinitarian love in the imperilled creation with its countless poor is worthy of us.  There is much to do.’[10]  

by Colette Cullinan rsm 

[1]James Mackey, Christianity and Creation, p.309

[2] John Feehan, “Foreword”  in Hugh O’Donnell, Eucharist and the Living Earth (Dublin: The Columba Press, 2007) p.11

[3] Celia Deane Drummond,  Eco-Theology, p. 181

[4] Thomas Berry, The Great Work, Our Way into the Future. p.115

[5] John Feehan, The Singing Heart of the World: Creation, Evolution and Faith. p. 93

[6] Thomas Berry, The Christian Future and the Fate of the Earth., p.44

[7] Sean McDonagh, Why are We Deaf to the Cry of the Earth. p.56

[8] Pierre Teilhard de Chardin,  Hymn of the Universe. p.20

[9]Denis Edwards, Ecology at the Heart of Faith. p.108

[10]Hugh O’Donnell, Eucharist and the Living Earth.p.93

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