Denis Patrick O’Hara has led the Eco-Sabbath Gathering at St. Gabriel’s in Toronto for 20 years. Ecology themes work perfectly this time of year, he says. Photo by Michael Swan

Preparing for an ecological Christmas

  • December 19, 2017
Come Christmas morning in churches around the world, Christians are told once again that “In the beginning was the Word.”

That opening sentence in the Gospel of John is crucial to our understanding of both Christmas and our world, which is why during this season members of the Eco-Sabbath Gathering at St. Gabriel’s Parish in Toronto take some extra time to pick apart, think through and contemplate the Christmas readings.

“You can see these stories and go ‘ho hum, we’ve seen this before.’ Or you can start to probe more deeply into them,” said Denis Patrick O’Hara, who has led the Eco-Sabbath Gathering at St. Gabriel’s for about 20 years. O’Hara is a St. Michael’s College professor of theology and director of the Elliott Allen Institute for Theology and Ecology.

For many years, interpreting the Gospels and Christian traditions in ecological terms may have seemed an obscure enterprise, but since Pope Francis issued his 2015 encyclical Laudato Si’ an increasing number of Catholics have found new meaning in Christmas by looking at it ecologically.

The Global Catholic Climate Movement is sponsoring a “Creation Novena for Advent” Dec. 16-24, among other ways to ecologically prepare for Christmas.

At St. Gabriel’s, the Eco-Sabbath Gathering convenes on the solstice, Dec. 21, to look ahead at Christmas on the longest night of the year. 

“It’s a transition from darkness to light,” said O’Hara of the winter solstice gathering. “You can see right away how those themes work with Christmas, with Advent and Christmas.”

In Laudato Si’, Pope Francis points out how the incarnation of God in the world transforms that long dark night.

“The prologue of the Gospel of John reveals Christ’s creative work as the Divine Word (Logos),” wrote Pope Francis. “But then, unexpectedly, the prologue goes on to say that this same Word ‘became flesh.’ One person of the Trinity entered into the created cosmos, throwing His lot with it, even to the cross. From the beginning of the world, but particularly through the incarnation, the mystery of Christ is at work in a hidden manner in the natural world as a whole.”

For O’Hara, the opening of the Gospel of John holds the key to Christmas.

“This reminds us that there is a sacredness to creation,” he said. “The word Logos also has the sense of order and intelligibility. So there is an intelligibility to creation. Creation isn’t just some random event where if you let molecules bounce around long enough together you get butterflies. No. There’s an intelligibility to it from its very beginning…. This is a creation story — the divine creation story.”

And it’s not a story that leaves us out. Human beings are included in a special way.

“Not only are you part of that order, but there’s a right way to be part of that order,” said O’Hara. “Are you acting in ways that work with God’s creation? Or are you acting in ways that work against that order?”

For Pope Francis, this isn’t just about recycling and environmentally conscious consumerism. It’s also about the real presence of Christ in the Eucharist.

“The Lord, in the culmination of the mystery of the incarnation, chose to reach our intimate depths through a fragment of matter. He comes not from above, but from within,” wrote Francis.

“He comes that we might find Him in this world of ours. In the Eucharist, fullness is already achieved; it is the living centre of the universe, the overflowing core of love and of inexhaustible life.”

The Pope’s understanding of the Incarnation and of Christmas isn’t beyond the grasp of most ordinary parishioners, said O’Hara.

“This is what I find really encouraging, that so many of the people in the pews are well educated,” he said.

“These are well-educated people who are thoughtful. When they sit down with some material that is designed for parishes to embrace these kinds of questions, they pick it up right away. They get it. You don’t need a theological degree to do this.”

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