Sacred Materialism

By Abayea Pelt 06-27-2008

As a convert to Orthodox Christianity, I have come to appreciate the strong connection in our tradition between spirituality and creation. Many of our great feasts, minor celebrations, and daily prayers involve joining prayer, blessing, and the material world. Unlike Western Christians who remember the three kings on Jan. 6, 13 days after Christmas we celebrate Theophany, the feast of the baptism of Christ in the Jordan. Part of this feast includes blessing water in our churches or processing to a nearby pond, sea, or ocean where a priest will toss a cross into the water, transforming the whole body into a holy water font. We annually commemorate our loved ones who have fallen asleep in the Lord by making and blessing koliva -- boiled wheat with fruit, sugar, and spices. The wheat recalls the words of Christ, that "unless a grain of wheat falls into the ground and dies, it remains alone; but if it dies, it produces much grain," while the cinnamon, clove, and pomegranate remind us of the sweetness of the resurrection to come. And each liturgical day begins in the evening with vespers and the chanting of Psalm 102, a hymn of the goodness of the natural world: "The trees of the Lord are full of sap, the cedars of Lebanon which he planted, where the birds make their nests ...."

Because of this intertwining of spirituality and sacred materialism, environmental awareness can be easily encouraged by our spiritual leaders. His Holiness Patriarch Bartholomew I (whom The Guardian has named "The 'pope' of hope" and elsewhere has been called the "green patriarch") in particular has become a leader among clergy who are dedicated to rallying people of faith to care for the environment. He has organized environmentally responsible cruises for political leaders, journalists, and scientists on the Baltic Sea, the Black Sea, and the Amazon river in an effort to use his ecclesial rank to change attitudes and policies related to the environment. The patriarch also gave new significance to Sept. 1, our church new year, by calling for prayer and supplication for the environment on this day.

In his book Encountering the Mystery, the patriarch writes, "In the Orthodox liturgical perspective, creation is received and conceived as a gift from God. The notion of creation-as-gift defines our Orthodox theological understanding of the environmental question in a concise and clear manner while at the same time determining the human response to that gift through the responsible and proper use of the created world. Each believer is called to celebrate life in a way that reflects the words of the Divine [Eucharistic] Liturgy: 'Thine own from Thine own we offer to Thee, on behalf of all and for all.'"

Abayea Pelt is the office manager and receptionist for Sojourners.

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