One of the striking experiences of Theophany (Jan. 6) is the public Great Blessing of the Waters. I have done this service at several rivers, once in Columbia, S.C., where the ruins of one of the older, more infamous State Prisons, overlooked the site of the blessing. To pronounce the words of blessing over the waters in sight of those ruins could not help but conjure up thoughts of the ruined walls of Hades (to use a metaphor). That place (the prison), once the home of such much suffering and torment (I’m not talking about state-inflicted torture or anything – just the torment of being in prison), stood as an icon of the torment and imprisonment we often carry within our own hearts. To hear the gospel proclaimed in such a place was indeed a true word of freedom.
It seems interesting to me that the specific commandment in the Scriptures (in Matthew’s gospel) is:
Go ye therefore, and teach all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Ghost: Teaching them to observe all things whatsoever I have commanded you: and, lo, I am with you alway, even unto the end of the world (28:19-20).
And in Mark’s gospel:
And he said unto them, Go ye into all the world, and preach the gospel to every creature (16:15).
What strikes me as interesting here is that neither gospel wording says, “to all people,” or “to every man,” or something to that effect. In one case the gospel is directed to nations (ethnos) and in the other to a word that goes beyond humanity to include every created thing (ktisis). Neither, of course, excludes the preaching of the gospel to all humanity – but it is interesting how that preaching is envisioned.
First, there is a regard for the ethnos, or nation (not to be confused with the modern nation-state). Thus St. Paul will say that there is “neither Jew nor Greek, Scythian or Barbarian, male or female, etc.” when he addresses a certain aspect of the gospel, but in other aspects there are certainly Jews and Greeks, Scythians, Barbarians, British, Germans, Russians, Chinese, etc. These “peoples” to whom we all belong (though America seeks to identify us in new ways for a new political entity) seem to have some standing within the gospel, even if that standing is not something meant to separate us from one another, nor to confer a special relationship with God. Nevertheless, we are not merely individuals who have no ethnos.
Neither does the preaching of the gospel single us out as human beings who are somehow separate from the rest of creation. Ktisis includes us as well as the trees and rocks (and all that is)- and the gospel is to be proclaimed to all. One of the liberating aspects of this proclamation is to say that the gospel is not a consumer product. The gospel is not an idea about which we must become convinced. You do not preach to a tree in order for it to reach a decision. The proclamation of the gospel is an announcement of good news which is as true for every rock and tree as it is for every human being. Human beings do possess the ability to choose – an ability which will itself be an aspect of who we are that must embrace the gospel – but, as creatures, let us understand that the gospel is true whether we respond favorably or not. God has acted without invitation, without approval, without a vote. God is love and the Kingdom of God has come among us in the Person of Jesus Christ.
The lives of the saints are frequently marked by a peculiar relationship to creation – whether tree, rock, or beast. Wild animals are known to behave as virtual pets in the presence of a saint. Plants bloom and grow in ways that defy all that nature would expect. Even rocks are not immune from this peculiar behavior.
Such proclamation obviously goes beyond preaching as we generally understand it. Lives whose very presence is the gospel preached can be articulate even in silence. Such silence can be heard by the whole of creation – and doubtless will be.