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Lectionary selections and ecological concerns: a contribution to dialogue.

Inspired by the spirit and documents of the Second Vatican Council (1962-65), Dr. Leonard Swidler, theologian and historian, became a leading voice in ecumenical, interfaith, and interreligious dialogues worldwide. Whether as sponsor, host, or participant in conferences, meetings, or symposia, Swidler has been a leading theorist for dialogue among religious and ideological communities. His "Dialogue Decalogue" has become the ideal for dialogical encounters. (1) His "4-H's of Interreligious Dialogues: Head, Hand, Heart, and Holy" identifies areas for fruitful dialogical exchange. (2) To meet the need for the publication of serious discourse in these emerging fields in 1964 with his late beloved wife Arlene, he established this Journal of Ecumenical Studies. His graduate courses and the Dialogue Institute for International, Intercultural, and Interreligious exchange motivated many students from Temple University's Department of Religion to engage in and foster dialogue.

I am among these students. Although Swidler's extensive writings do not focus on ecology, in "Toward a Universal Declaration of a Global Ethic" (3) he called for multinational/religious/ideological dialogues to establish an ethic that is "anthropocosmo-centric." This call recognized that future dialogues must address challenges to the natural world. (4) I am convinced that ecological concerns are today's most essential dialogue. While Swidler has rightly insisted that the goal of dialogue is to learn more than to communicate one's own perspectives, dialogue assumes one has a perspective to offer.

I live and teach in Alaska, the canary to a worldwide ecological crisis. Here, the villages of Kivalena, Shishmaref, Shaktoolik, Unalakleet, Koyukuk, and Newtok are already seriously threatened, if not yet irreparably destroyed, by climate change. Those truly familiar with the situation accept that in thirty to fifty years, 193 more Alaskan Native Villages will either have to move or disband, their present locations having become uninhabitable. Alaska is not only the locus of the Exxon Valdez oil-spill disaster in 1989 that ravaged the waters and marine life of Prince William Sound, but it is also home to an oil-based economy populated by a significant majority of voices who deny the scientific evidence of ecological concerns. While scientific and technological knowledge as well as industrialization have greatly enhanced human comforts, these come at "the price of unexpected consequences that have proved increasingly disastrous for the rest of creation as well as ourselves." (5) Environmental concerns (air and soil pollution, resource depletion, loss of biodiversity, overpopulation, climate change, etc.) are the most pressing threat to humanity and to all other living beings. While disputes over natural resources have preoccupied human history, if we fail to arrest ecological degradation, there will be no resources at all.

Ecological concerns entered Christian discourse in response to an important article published in 1967 by Lynn White, claiming that Christian anthropocentricity was culpable for the growing ecological problems. (6) In response, biblical scholars identified biblical texts for earth-affirming insights. These efforts to respond to secular critics who minimized every religion also led scholars and practitioners of other religious to identify ways in which they or their traditions appreciate and affirm nature. (7) It is thus that ecology became a topic for ecumenical, interfaith, and interreligious dialogues. Today, many recognize that all religious communities that determine how people understand nature and establish moral imperatives and values "have the potential to mobilize the sensibilities of people toward the goals of Earth Stewardship, here defined as shaping the trajectories of social-ecological change to enhance ecosystem resilience and human well-being." (8) Statements identifying related concerns and protocols that have been issued by religious bodies throughout the world are posted on the Forum on Religion and Ecology at Yale (9) Pope Francis is currently working on a much anticipated encyclical on the environment, which will be an important addition to these statements.

Initially, Christian studies tended to focus on accounts in the Old Testament (10) that foster a positive appreciation of creation (especially Gen. 1:1-2:3, 2:4b-3:24; Job 38-41; Psalm 104, 148, and too many others to list; Prov. 8:22-31; Eccl. 1:2-11, 12:1-7; Isaiah 9, 11, and 65, and sections of 40-50; Ezekiel 36; Hos. 4:1-3; Joel 1-2, and a number of brief selections from Amos). The studies also presented a few New Testament texts (Romans 8, 2 Peter 3, some Gospel pericopes, and a few passages from Revelation). (11)

Other passages were soon added. In the story of the great flood, God commanded Noah to save all living animals (Gen. 6:19-21) and afterwards formed a biocentric covenant with "every living creature" (Gen. 9:10). God's concern illustrates human responsibility for the care and well-being of animals, be they domestic cats or polar bears threatened by diminishing ice in Arctic regions. This responsibility is reaffirmed at the conclusion of the story of Jonah when God insists on the value of the animal as well as the human inhabitants of Ninevah (Jonah 4:11). In addition, scholars came to recognize that the Bible also speaks of human responsibility toward the limits of flora and water in the story of Abram and Lot, as well as that of Jacob and Esau, who recognized that one area could not support the life of two flocks (Gen. 13:2-13, 36:6-8). The Bible also speaks of drought, crop failure, and the death of animals as divine punishment (Gen. 7:1-4; Jeremiah 14). While such events sometimes are the consequence of conquest (Joel 1:6-12, 17-20), nature by itself can be the malevolent agent. While it is tempting to see the present ecological problems as God's punishment, most are clearly the consequence of human carelessness and ignorance.

When Paul wrote "creation is groaning" (Rom. 8:22), he was not speaking of greenhouse gases or species extinction; he was recognizing that creation needed humanity to be free from the bondage he considered behaviors of the flesh--behaviors that in our time include various ecological concerns. It is not that the disobedience of Eve and Adam disordered creation; it is the inclination to sinfulness attributed to Eve and Adam, aspects of which led humanity to wanton consumption at the expense of their environment. Christians today must recognize that to be led by the Spirit as children of God and the body of Christ is to realize that, through the incarnation the Word of God, the agent of creation (Jn. 1:1-3; Col. 1:15-16) itself entered God's own creation as a human being (Jn. 1:14). In doing so the Word sanctified the whole cosmos.

While these passages are important in the debate over the validity of White's accusation, they have little impact on most Christians. While many read the Bible, most churchgoing Christians are primarily familiar with the biblical passages they hear in their churches. For Catholics, Orthodox, Anglicans, and many Mainline Protestants, these biblical passages are predetermined by one of three lectionaries that appoint selections from the Bible in collections assigned to specific occasions on their church's calendar. (12) These lectionaries are (1) the one-year Byzantine Lectionary that stems from the fourth century, modified in the seventh, and used today by most Orthodox Churches and Eastern Rite Catholics; (13) (2) the three-year lectionary for Sundays and solemnities issued by the Roman Catholic Church in 1969, modestly amended in 1981, and used by Catholics worldwide since the first Sunday of Advent in 1971; (14) and (3) the three-year Revised Common Lectionary of 1992 now used by many Anglican and Protestant churches that amplified The Common Lectionary of 1983 itself patterned on the 1969 Catholic system after nine years of use and critique. (15)

Nathan Habel, the editor of the Earth Bible series catalyzed the Lutheran and Uniting Churches in Australia to adopt a three-year Season of Creation for the four Sundays in September prior to the Feast of St. Francis of Assisi on October 4th, each with a collection of readings that foster the theme from the natural world that is the focus of each Sunday. It was introduced in 2004 by Lutherans in Australia; by 2005 it was endorsed by the Evangelical Lutheran Church of American and the National Council of the Churches of Christ in the United States. This Season of Creation is currently celebrated by churches in South Africa, Europe, and Canada and has been strongly endorsed by the Catholic St. Columban Missionary Society and the Catholic Bishops of the Philippines. This Season of Creation has gained ecumenical interest in fostering a Christian reverence for the cosmic order within worshiping assemblies. The following charts identify the features, themes, and readings for this proposed new addition to Christian calendars:
Year A: The Spirit of Creation

Forest Sunday       Gen. 2:4b-22            Ps. 139:13-16
Land Sunday         Gen. 3:14-19, 4:8-16    Ps. 139:7-12
Wilderness Sunday   Joel 1:8-10, 17-20      Ps. 18:1-19
River Sunday        Gen. 8:20-22, 9:12-17   Ps. 104:27-33

Forest Sunday       Acts 17:22-28           Jn. 3:1-16
Land Sunday         Rom. 5:12-17            Mt. 12:38-40
Wilderness Sunday   Rom. 8:18-27            Mt. 3:13-41 or Mk. 1:9-13
River Sunday        Rev. 22:1-5             Mt. 28:1-10

Year B: The Word in Creation

Earth Sunday      Gen. 1:1-25     Ps. 33:1-9
Humanity Sunday   Gen. 1:26-28    Psalm 8
Sky Sunday        Jer. 4:23-28    Ps. 19:1-6
Mountain Sunday   Is. 65:17-25    Ps. 48:1-11

Earth Sunday      Rom. 1:18-23    Jn. 1:1-14
Humanity Sunday   Phil. 2:1-8     Mk. 10:41-15
Sky Sunday        Phil. 2:14-18   Mk. 15:33-39
Mountain Sunday   Rom. 8:28-39    Mk. 16:14-18

Year C: Wisdom in Creation

Ocean Sunday    Job 38:1-18        Ps. 104:1-9,24-26
Fauna Sunday    Job 39:1-8,26-30   Ps. 104:14-23
Storm Sunday    Job 28:20-27       Psalm 29
Cosmos Sunday   Prov. 8:22-31      Psalm 148

Ocean Sunday    Eph. 1:3-10        Lk. 5:1-11
Fauna Sunday    1 Cor. 1:10-23     Lk. 12:22-31
Storm Sunday    1 Cor. 1:21-31     Lk. 8:22-25
Cosmos Sunday   Col. 1:15-20       Jn. 6:41-53


Every year these Sundays are followed by a Sunday devoted to the Blessing of Animals. Readings assigned to this observance are: Gen. 2:18-25, Psalm 148, Rev. 5:11-14, and Mt. 6:25-29. (16)

Arguably, this Season of Creation has commendable merit, and nothing included in the appointed readings or liturgical prayers that are provided for each occasion suggests alternative "new age" deviance from Christian orthodoxy. However, I question the introduction into the traditional church calendar of a new season and assigned readings appointed without dialogue. Considerable effort and many voices devised both the Catholic and Revised Common lectionaries. Lisa Dahill, whose study of the Revised Common Lectionary identifies its relevant readings in support of earth care throughout the three-year cycle, has significant reservations concerning the introduction of a Season of Creation:
   [A]s a deviation from the ecumenical calendar and lectionary, the
   proposed Season of Creation requires churches that wish to
   celebrate the gift of creation and deepen their ecological concern
   to step out of their broad communion with other Christian churches
   into a special and separate "season" of creation not (yet?) well
   integrated into the flow of the rest of the church year. Such a
   proposal reinforces the misperception that Christianity, the church
   year, and ordinary Christian worship in and of themselves are not
   creation-oriented, so that we have to exit these realities and, for
   just these four weeks, proclaim this connection otherwise more or
   less absent from our worship. (17)


While a Season of Creation is an interesting idea, I sense it is more important to support ecological concerns throughout the year, fostered by the readings appointed to Sundays and solemnities of these three existing lectionaries. For this study I charted all the passages mentioned in related studies to which I have alluded above, with those in Dahill's article from the Revised Common Lectionary and those assigned to the Season of Creation that appear in the three lectionaries, with the occasion to which they were assigned. The limits of this essay preclude the inclusion of all but the chart of Gospel readings that list all the relevant readings with the occasion to which they are appointed. What must be noted here is that over a three-year period the Roman Missal Lectionary assigns relevant readings from the Old Testament to forty-six occasions, relevant Psalms to ninety-one, and relevant Epistles or selections from the Book of Revelation to fourteen. The Revised Common Lectionary assigns many identical passages in addition to other relevant readings from the Old Testament to sixty-four occasions, related Psalms to 107, and fourteen from Epistles or Revelation. The Byzantine Lectionary does not include passages from the Old Testament for the Eucharistic Sunday Liturgy. While some of the occasions to which these passages are appointed do not lend themselves to sermons stressing the need to foster the earth, the animals, and the air that sustains us, many do, and they lift up an important concern for Christian conduct.

Among the New Testament readings preceding the Gospel, the three lectionaries share only one selection from Col. 1:12-20 (RCL = Col. 1:11-20). In this passage one hears that Christ, the Son who is the image of the invisible God (1:15), is not only agent of creation (1:16) but also the one who reconciled all things (1:20) from the distortions of human sin (1:13-14). Thus, Christians as partakers in God's inheritance transferred from darkness to the reign of the Son are to reverence visible creation as a proleptic understanding of the reign.

Gospel passages are the most important proclamation in Christian worship. Many Christians stand during their reading as a sign of reverence. The following chart lists the relevant Gospel readings in all three lectionaries:
Roman Missal Leetionary

Mt. 3:13-17          Baptism of the Lord A
Mt. 6:24-34          8th Sunday A
Mt. 14:22-33         19th Sunday A
Mt. 28:16-20         Ascension A Trinity B
Mk. 1:12-15          Lent IB
Mk. 6:30-34          16th Sunday B
Mk. 13:24-37         Advent 1 B
Lk. 3:15-17, 21-22   Baptism of the Lord C
Lk. 5:1-11           5th Sunday C
Jn. 1:1-14           Christmas Day ABC
Jn. 2:1-19           Easter 3 C
Jn. 4:5-42           Lent 3 A
Jn. 6:1-15           17th Sunday B
Jn. 6:24-35          18th Sunday B
Jn. 15:1-8           Easter 5 B
Jn. 21:5-13          Easter 3 C

Revised Common Lectionary

Mt. 3:13-17          Baptism of the Lord A
Mt. 6:24-33          Epiphany A
Mt. 14:22-33         Proper 14 A
Mt. 28:16-20         Trinity B
Mk. 1:9-15           Lent 1 B
Mk. 6:30-34, 53-56   Proper 11 B
Mk. 13:24-37         Advent 1 B
Lk. 3:15-17, 21-22   Baptism of the Lord C
Lk. 5:1-11           Epiphany 5 C
Jn. 1:1-14           Christmas Day ABC
Jn. 2:5-13           Easter 3 C
Jn. 4:5-42           Lent 3 A
Jn. 6:1-21           Proper 12 B
Jn. 6:24-35          Proper 13 B
Jn. 15:1-8           Easter 5 B
Jn. 21:5-13          Easter 3 C

Byzantine            Lectionary

Mt. 3:13-17          January 6, Holy Theophany
Mt. 6:22-33          3rd Sunday after Pentecost
Mt. 14:22-34         9th Sunday after Pentecost
Mt. 28:1-20          Great and Holy Saturday
Lk. 3:1-18           January 5 Eve of Theophany
Lk. 5:1-11           18th Sunday after Pentecost
Jn. 1:1-17           Pascha
Jn. 4:5-42           5th Sunday of Pascha


The three-year Roman Missal Lectionary used by most Roman Catholics, the Byzantine Lectionary used by most Orthodox and Eastern Rite Catholics, and the Revised Common Lectionary used by many Anglicans and Protestants worldwide are an enormous resource for inspiring a reverence for creation in churchgoing Christians. While the Bible is neither a scientific text nor a blueprint for ecological action, it does celebrate nature as God's gift that humans can appreciate, care for, and reverence--as well as destroy. The eight shared Gospel readings noted above identify the Word as agent of creation who blessed it further by entrance into the human family (John 1), immersed himself in baptismal waters (Matthew 3, Luke 3), instructed his future disciples to cast nets into the sea for an abundant catch (Luke 5), walked on water amid a storm (Matthew 14), and offered living water to a Samaritan woman at Jacob's well (John 4). This Word offers himself as the bread of eternal life (John 6). He speaks of the splendor of the grass, the beauty of the wild flowers, the provision that earth gives to the birds, and, while he speaks of the futility of worry, he also recognizes that one cannot serve two masters (Matthew 6). He commissions his followers to go into the whole world with his teachings. While there is no ecological action provided by these readings, they do foster a reverence for the earth as the place he loved enough to enter.

Much like The Green Bible that identifies over 1,000 passages concerned with nature, printing them in green, this study simply seeks to illustrate how "God saw everything he had made and indeed it was very good" (Gen. 1:31). (18) There is a need, however, for clear principles as to how ecological passages are identified.

Just as the recognition of the patriarchal premises in biblical texts led to feminist hermeneutics, and recognition of the tendency to support domination according to race, class, culture, and education led to post-colonial interpretation, so recognition of the anthropocentrism that has dominated Christianity and biblical interpretation has fostered the emergence of ecological hermeneutics. The Earth Bible Project--initiated in Australia, sponsored by the Society of Biblical Literature, and edited by Habel (19)--identified the following:

a. The principle of intrinsic worth: the universe, earth and all its components have intrinsic worth/value.

b. The principle of interconnectedness: earth is a community of interconnected living things that are mutually dependent on each other for life and survival.

c. The principle of voice: earth is a subject capable of raising its voice in celebration and against injustice.

d. The principle of purpose: the universe, earth and all its components are part of a dynamic cosmic design within which each piece has a place in the overall goal of that design.

e. The principle of mutual custodianship: earth is a balanced and diverse domain where responsible custodians can function as partners, rather than rulers, to sustain a balanced and diverse earth community.

f. The principle of resistance: earth and its components not only suffer from
   injustices at the hands of humans, but actively resist them in the
   struggle for justice. (20)


While these features can certainly be found in the Bible, these principles never mention God or Christ. This issue was noted by Ernst M. Conradie in an article that described and explained ecological hermeneutics. He observed that a set of principles that appear designed to approach the secular world "abandons the attempt to be persuasive within the traditions that have kept the readers of these texts alive." (21) Here, I conclude that Conradie was speaking of Judaism and Christianity, for whom the Bible is sacred. He then proposed an idea that links exclusively to Christianity by suggesting that "Household of God"--oikos--"forms the etymological root of the quests for economic justice ..., ecological sustainability ... and ecumenical fellowship," which integrate the social agenda of the churches as "the whole work of God (creation, providence, redemption, re-creation) ... as the 'economy' of God." (22) While noting its limits to Christianity, I concur with Conradie that household (oikos) is an apt image for identifying passages that include (1) "an ecological doctrine of creation within which God's Spirit abides," (2) "an anthropology of [human] stewardship" as care for the created order, (3) "an ecclesiology" of membership in "the household of God" (Eph. 2:19-22) as sojourners of "the way," (4) an appreciation "of the Eucharist as the table fellowship [where] God's Word [is] spoken, and (5) an eschatology of hope that the earth, home of humanity, will also be home to God. (23) Future studies must clarify how this hermeneutical insight applies to lectionary selections.

(1) See http://globalethic.org/Center/decalog.htm.

(2) Leonard Swidler, "Humankind from the Age of Monologue to the Age of Global Dialogue," J.E.S. 47 (Summer, 2012): 466.

(3) See http://globalethic.org/Center/intro.htm.

(4) The Earth Charter is a similar if more secular statement produced in 1994 by Maurice Strong and Mikhail Gorbachev. See http://www.earthcharterinaction.org.

(5) Richard Bauckham, Bible and Ecology: Rediscovering the Community of Creation (Waco, TX: Baylor University Press, 2010), p. 170.

(6) Lynn White, Jr., "The Historical Roots of Our Ecological Crises," Science N.S 155 (March 10, 1967): 1206 ff.; available at http://www.uvm.edu/~gflomenh/ENV-NGO-PA395/articles/Lynn-White.

(7) Significant credit for the interreligious interest in this topic rests with the Rev. Thomas Berry C. P., a Catholic priest whose studies moved from Western history to Asian traditions and indigenous religion as he came to consider himself a "geologian." As chair of the History of Religions Department at Fordham University, Bronx, NY, his preoccupation with ecological destruction inspired students of various religions to begin to explore the resources of the non-Christian traditions. His major contributions to the discussions on the environment are The Dream of the Earth (San Francisco, CA: Sierra Club Books, 1988), The Great Work: Our Way into the Future (New York: Random House/Bell Tower, 1999), and Evening Thoughts: Reflecting on Earth as Sacred Community, ed. Mary Evelyn Tucker (San Francisco CA: Sierra Club Books, 2006).

(8) Gregory E. Hitzhusen and Mary Evelyn Tucker, "The Potential of Religion for Earth Stewardship, Frontiers in Ecology and the Environment 11 (September, 2013): 368.

(9) See http://fore.research.yale.edu/publications/statements.

(10) Over the past 30 years various efforts to use alternative terms (First Testament, Hebrew Bible) to eliminate the sense that "old" suggests the texts are antiquated have not proved to be successful. While this has, indeed, made many conscious of the importance of the Jewish Scriptures in Christian Bibles, the traditional term remains the classical designation of the text in which Christian interpretations differ from the original intent of their authors

(11) Among the many publications on this issue, one finds the following monographs: Norman Habel ed., The Earth Bible 1 (Sheffield, U.K.: Sheffield University Press, 2000); David G. Horrell, The Bible and the Environment: Towards a Critical Ecological Biblical Theology--Biblical Challenges in the Contemporary World (London: Equinox, 2010); David G. Horrell, Cherryl Hunt, Christopher Southgate, and Francesca Stavrakopoulou, eds., Ecological Hermeneutics: Biblical, Historical, and Theological Perspectives (London and New York: T & T Clark, 2010); Richard Bauckham, Living with Other Creatures: Green Exegesis and Theology (Waco, TX: Baylor University Press, 2011); William Brown, The Seven Pillars of Creation: The Bible, Science, and Ecological Wonder (New York: Oxford University Press, 2010); and Mary L. Coloe, Creation Is Groaning: Biblical and Theological Perspectives (Collegeville, MN: Liturgical Press, 2013).

(12) Catholics also use the term "lectionary" to identify a book that prints the passages in their assigned sequence to facilitate public reading. This essay concerns the tables, not the books. The selections assigned to these tables were chosen to suit observances of the church calendar, to correspond with the readings with which they are collected, or to follow a biblical text in semi-continuous order.

(13) The Byzantine Lectionary assigns separate cycles of Gospel readings for Sundays, Saturdays and weekdays accompanied by a selection usually from an Epistle. Generally, the selections for each cycle progress from week to week and present semi-continuous passages of the canonical texts. For a detailed description of the Byzantine Lectionary, see David M. Petras, "The Gospel Lectionary of the Byzantine Church, Sr. Vladimir's Theological Quarterly, vol. 41, nos. 2-3 (1997), pp. 113-140,

(14) The Catholic and Byzantine lectionaries have daily and sanctoral cycles that assign nearly all Gospel passages not included in the Sunday readings. Some observances, fixed to a date on the Gregorian or Julian calendar, are solemnities that take precedence over a Sunday. Readings assigned to a solemnity replace the Sunday assignments when the date of one of these observances falls on Sunday. Apart from Christmas, this study does not consider selections assigned to solemnities. For a description of the Catholic Sunday Lectionary, see Thomas L. Leclerc, "The Sunday Lectionary as Bible Interpreter," Liturgical Ministry 13 (Fall, 2004): 169-180.

(15) The Consultation on Common Texts modified the proposed Common Lectionary after nine years of use and critique. For a description of the Revised Common Lectionary, see Horace T. Allen and Joseph Russel On Common Ground: The Story of the Revised Common Lectionary (Norwich, CT: Canterbury Press, 1998).

(16) See http://seasonofcreation.com.

(17) Lisa E. Dahill, "New Creation: The Revised Common Lectionary and the Earth's Paschal Life," Liturgy 21 (April, 2012): 4; emphasis in original.

(18) Michael G. Maudlin and Marlene Baier, project eds., The Green Bible: NRSV (New York: Harper Collins, 2008).

(19) See http://www.sbl-site.org/publications/article.aspx?ArticleId=291.

(20) Ernst M. Conradie, "What on Earth Is an Ecological Hermeneutics? Some Broad Parameters," in Horrell, Hunt, Southgate, and Stavrakopoulou, Ecological Hermeneutics, p 307

(21) Ibid, p. 309.

(22) Ibid, p. 310; emphases in original.

(23) Ibid.
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Author:Boisclair, Regina A.
Publication:Journal of Ecumenical Studies
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Date:Jan 1, 2015
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