An interesting theme within the holy Scriptures is the “voice of Creation.” The famous Old Testament Canticle, Song of the Three Young Men, in English traditionally known as the Benedicite, omnia opera Domini, and which in Orthodoxy forms the basis of the Seventh and Eighth odes of the Canon, very famously calls on creation to offer praise to God:
O let the earth bless the Lord;
O ye mountains and hills, bless ye the Lord’
O all ye green things upon the earth, bless ye the Lord;
praise him and magnify him for ever….
In the New Testament the same understanding is taken even deeper in St. Paul’s famous 8th chapter of Romans in which he speaks of “creation groaning and travailing unto now” as it “waits for the manifestation of the sons of God” (the general resurrection).
This “animation” of creation does not in the least seem to be an anthropomorphizing (attributing human abilities to non human things) of creation, but rather a revelation of creation’s true status. The Scripture does not see the creation as inert. In Leviticus there are many warnings as well as blessings. But the imagery used contains this same animation of creation:
Do not defile yourselves by any of these things, for by all these the nations I am casting out before you defiled themselves; and the land became defiled, so that I punished its iniquity, and the land vomited out its inhabitants. But you shall keep my statutes and my ordinances and do none of these abominations, either the native or the stranger who sojourns among you (for all of these abominations the men of the land did, who were before you, so that the land became defiled); lest the land vomit you out, when you defile it, as it vomited out the nation that was before you. (18:24-28)
We do not live within a universe in which we are the animate and everything around us is inert – at least not in the Scriptural account. The winds and seas “obey” Christ. they are not described as having merely been stilled, but that they obeyed the voice of His command.
This same relationship is frequently described in the lives of the saints, whether it is the story of St. Gerasimos and the lion, or St. Seraphim and the wild bears. In the presence of the holy, trees and flowers behave differently – blooming out of season as well as other behaviors.
Orthodox Christianity does not attribute a “spirit” to the things of creation – but neither does it describe creation as mute or as a secularized, universal no-man’s land. The universe is decidedly on the side of God and resists those who do evil. This is not to say that creation behaves in a way in which we are always pleased. Rain falls on the just and the unjust. The righteous die of cancer as well as the wicked. There is a fallenness to the world in which we live, but it has not been stripped of its character or nature. The winds and the seas obeyed the voice of Christ, even as the universe itself came into being through His voice.
Neither does Orthodoxy see creation has having been brought into existence and simply left alone to its own laws and devices. Instead we confess that “in Him we live and move and have our being.” God is not a stranger to the universe at any point. He sustains us and everything around us.
All of this means that how we interact with creation is not properly that of the “masters of the universe” lording it over some inert lump of stuff. The passage in Leviticus points rather to a proper stewardship of everything around us. The earth does not belong to us: “The earth is the Lord’s and the fullness thereof” (Psalm 24:1).
In recent years the Patriarch of Constantinople added a new emphasis to the Orthodox feast of the New Year (marked on September 1). To the new year he added an emphasis on celebrating our relationship with the whole of the created order and our right treatment of all things. This was ratified by the other patriarchs of the Church within the past month.
The voice of creation is not always heard by all. But it is heard by some. St. Anthony of Egypt said (when asked why he had no books), “My book is the whole creation.” It apparently taught him into paradise.
Orthodox sacraments are not bringing into the the created order something which is foreign to it – but rather – according famously to Fr. Alexander Schmemann – revealing things “to be what they already are.” The Body and Blood of Christ that we consume in the Liturgy also reveals our right communion with all that we eat. The waters which we blessed are not blessed to become something other than water, but to be what water was created to be.
By the same token, those sacraments that are directed particularly at human beings are not making us other than what we were intended to be, but are bringing us back and re-establishing us in the communion where alone we may find ourselves becoming truly human. It is also entirely appropriate that such a restoration occurs within the context of other created things – water, oil, wax, etc. All things begin to take their proper place and the liturgy releases the voices of all – man, water, oil, etc. And all proclaim the wonders of God.