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Eucharist for Advent II

Eucharist on Sunday 8th  December  2013 [Advent 2]

St Frideswide’s , Osney

Revd. Professor  Martin Henig

Isaiah 11: 1-10; Romans 15:4-13; Matthew 3: 1-12; Psalm 72:1-7, 18-19

 

They will not hurt or destroy

on all my holy mountain;

for the earth will be full of the knowledge of the Lord

as the waters cover the sea.[Isaiah 11:9]

 

+ In the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen

Familiarity tends to breed acceptance without thought. In this famous passage which Isaiah doubtless applied to a liberated and restored Jerusalem after the Babylonian captivity, and which Christians have not unnaturally associated with the advent of the Saviour, is encapsulated a challenging vision for us, in which we are invited to take our stewardship of the earth seriously. In my sermon last week at our sister church, St Margaret’s,Binsey,  I introduced the sacrament of baptism in the light of Christ’s imperative command to cherish one other together with  the whole of God’s creation in the light of God’s love for us.  Today I want to turn to that creation in the context of that same all-embracing Love.

At one level Isaiah’s vision of universal harmony would seem impossible of realisation. Felines, lions and leopards and, indeed, our own domestic cats, cannot survive on a vegetarian diet even if  in theory omnivorous animals such as canines and bears could. Asps and adders might, I suppose, refrain from harming a child but they too require living prey. Moreover our knowledge of zoology and palaeontology tells us that animals have eaten each other since life first evolved on earth.[1] Where do primates, apes and humans in particular stand in what would seem to be a ruthless process of eating and being eaten? They are essentially vegetarian, but some species, especially hominids are adapted to meat eating too. Where food is plentiful humans are in a position to choose, and that seems to me to be a distinguishing feature, perhaps the distinguishing feature of humankind, just as it says in Genesis!

There are, of course, schools of thought which see all human behaviour as fundamentally selfish, restrained ,as for instance Thomas Hobbes famously believed only by the threat of more powerful force.[2] On this reckoning humans will always naturally wish to dominate their surroundings and everything exists for them simply to be exploited. But that is not the Jewish or the Christian way, which aspires to view creation as the gift of Almighty God, and our part in it, being simply that of stewards, that is as servants.[3] Prior to the Flood and the Noachic covenant, humans were given a purely vegetarian diet.[4] In the passage we have heard from Isaiah we are invited to return to the pre-Lapsarian state.

And yet, as in so much else, we are too often far from living up to the implications of the wonderful vision, though it is embedded in our tradition and was voiced, for instance, by St Basil (c.330-379) in his plea for us to renew our fellowship with other creatures as well as famously by St Francis (1181-1226).[5]  The problem is that human beings appear to be  inveterate speciesists.[6] Do any of us ever stop to consider why almost all wild animals instinctively shy away from us? In a long history of hunting, we have exterminated so many beautiful animals, sometimes for food but often out of savage blood-lust.  And do we ever wonder about the casual and callous manner in which we treat domestic animals as commodity?: chickens, turkeys, pigs, sheep and cows, all creatures made by the self same God who made us, are simply treated  as mass-produced products of trade made only to be eaten, regarded simply as ‘meat’. We separate cows from their calves, we de-beak poultry, we confine sows in farrowing pens. Is that a satisfactory basis of relationship with other creatures? Is it not rather Diabolical: a barbarous obscenity, a blasphemy against the God in whom we claim to believe? How does that square with our Advent hope in the descent of the Living Word sent to save all creation? To me the only way in which it works, is that Our Saviour has himself become simply a product, as Lamb of God, the lamb whom we have torn and abused, the lamb we will consume theologically in the sacrifice of the mass, but who in his amazing compassion came to save us.

People who care passionately about the ways in which animals are mistreated in animal husbandry, vivisection laboratories or in hunting, often most unjustly face the unjust criticism that they ignore the suffering of  fellow humans. But that totally ignores the fact that suffering wherever it occurs  is indivisible and everyone I have ever read about or met who has cared or cares about the suffering of animals has agonised  about human suffering too. Every news bulletin brings home the horrors of warfare, massacre, rape and domestic cruelty alongside unspeakable cruelty to animals.[7] Interestingly George Bernard Shaw saw the consumption of meat and the practice of warfare as being related.[8]

The great German-Jewish art historian Aby Warburg was fascinated by Dürer drawing The Death of Orpheus which depicts the legendary Greek seer Orpheus beaten to death by frenzied maenads; for him that was not simply myth, for he related it to the death of a young woman murdered for her religious views by enraged  Czarist soldiers. His comment was : ‘The death of Orpheus. The return of the beast, for ever unchanged, called homo sapiens.’[9] I have, indeed,  given a lecture, a philosophical reflection on humankind at the Oxford Centre for Animal Ethics and at the Annual Ecumenical Animal Retreat which ended similarly’, implying my own  loss of faith, not in God, but in our own species.  Aby Warburg, was fortunate in that he died in 1929, less than a decade before the obscenities of the Nazi holocaust were released on the world, and destroyed the community of which he was part. And yet I cannot end there, on such a pessimistic note, and I cannot simply because of Christ, because of Christ’s love.

Richard Ryder has invented a new philosophy, building on the utilitarianism of Jeremy Bentham, which he designates as Painism. This holds that we should judge our actions by whether or not they cause pain to another sentient being. The criterion should not be the intelligence of  an individual  creature, but its capacity to suffer. Science and especially the study of behaviour, of humans and other animals, should by now have told us that we have so much in common with other creatures,[10] and act as a deterrent to harming those whom St Francis recognised as our brothers and sisters. Painism is fine as far as it goes, but it seems to me that a merely  ‘humanist’ approach  is far too limited, and does not engage with the problem of suffering  in this world, or offer any eschatological hope, any approach to redemption beyond it.

We know that living creatures suffer, but human beings (perhaps alone) have the gift of being able to choose between inflicting or ameliorating suffering, the capacity of being able to choose between good and evil, to choose between God and Satan, to choose between kindness and cruelty and between love and hatred. The ambiguity of the ‘human condition’ is enshrined in so many of the myths recorded in Genesis. Humans have it in them to be death-dealing monsters more terrifying than the tyrannosaurus or the devilish dragons of the Apocalypse; and yet they can be saints who occupy a place close to the angelic realm. Our choice is then between accepting or rejecting the privilege of stewardship. As in the case of baptism, this apparently simple charge should  herald a complete change in lifestyle, in the way we regard the animals who share our world and with all creation our hopes of redemption with us.[11] What better time than Advent for the Church as a whole and for congregations and individuals in it to take up the life enhancing prophetic challenge of  seeing the hand of God at work in the whole creation and join in as true stewards, loving every living creature.  There are only a couple of weeks before we greet that small baby who is also rex tremendae maiestatis , eternal king and judge. And if we do not take such a decision right now, in the second week of Advent, when will we ever take it up ? Time is short before the King of Glory will, if we allow him, come in to transform our lives (and those of all living creatures) as Emmanuel , God with us .

 

+ In the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen

 

 

 

 


[1] M.J.Murray, Nature red in tooth and claw. Theism and the problem of Animal Suffering (Oxford 2008)

[2] Leviathan XIII,9. In the state of nature existence would inevitably be one of ‘continual fear and danger of violent death, and the life of man, solitary, poor, nasty, brutish, and short.’

[3] Inevitably this builds on the work of the Revd. Professor Andrew Linzey in such books as Creatures of the same God.Explorations in Animal Theology (Winchester 2007) and After Noah. Animals and the Liberation of Theology (London 1997) which he wrote with Rabbi Dan Cohn-Sherbok

[4] Genesis 1:29-30  and Genesis 9:1-4

[5] Both are referenced in the splendid survey by Deborah M.Jones, The School of Compassion. A Roman Catholic Theology of Animals (Leominster 2009),61-4 and 66-71

[6] A term invented by Richard Ryder. Richard D.Ryder, Speciesism, Painism and Happiness. A morality for the Twenty-First Century (Exeter 2011)

[7] Such cruelties are inter-related. Cf A.Linzey (ed), The link between animal abuse and human violence (Eastbourne 2009)

[8] See his A song of peace reprinted in The Ark 225 (Autumn/Winter 2013),p.19

[9] M.A.Hurttig, Antiquity unleashed. Aby Warburg, Dürer and Mantegna (Courtauld Gallery 2013) quoted on p.21. Aby Warburg, born 1866,died 1929

[10] J. Balcombe, Second nature. The inner lives of animals (New York 2010)

[11] Romans 8:18-23. Though even St Paul cannot bring himself to spell out the implications of a creation of which humans are only a (small) part