Incarnation is possible when we are taken off-center

  • Northern lights in Lapland (Unsplash/Vincent Guth)
Preview of a story in our print-only Ecology 2017 special section.

If you hug too many trees, people will not just label you a "tree-hugger." They will also doubt your theology and develop concerns that you are a pagan. Let me hug some trees with you, as a Christian who also loves pagans.

Christianity has a long record of loving nature and worshiping with nature in tow. Pagans do as well. But Christians have branded redemption as the restoration of creation, and creation is nature plus matter. It is not a nature-but-Jesus matter so much as a nature-and-Jesus matter.

Our song "Joy to the World" has an odd refrain. "And heaven and nature sing" implies that there is something different about heaven and nature. Christians don't conflate nature and heaven; we love them both and live with them both at our side, as pointers to the direction of our song. Nature is the way we Earthlings describe the cosmos; heaven is the way we Christians describe nature and the cosmos.

The strict Lutheran pastor of my childhood told me that the entire theology of the Incarnation was summed up in a Perry Como song: "Catch a falling star and put it in your pocket; never let it fade away." Christianity understands nature as pointing to a cosmic Christ. This Scripture from Matthew 2:2 makes that point: "We have seen his star in the East and have come to worship him." The star fell to earth to show us the Jesus way.

Another example, this one sculptural, may show the difference between pointing and letting nature be the Earthling's diminishment of the cosmos. Melissa McGill's "Constellation" drags the stars to earth in an art installation 50 miles north of New York City on a small patch of land just off the Hudson River shore. LED lights were installed to mimic the night sky. The night sky's beauty is a form of worship for some.

Those of us who enjoy the constellations may also see the artistry of the divine in both stars and human imitations of them. There is no need to create a fight over God and beauty, when clearly they are in partnership, almost as if they had each other in their pockets.

A version of this story appeared in the April 7-20, 2017 print issue.

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April 21-May 4, 2017