Christ’s Birth, Patristic commentary and Animal Protection.


Firstly, we send our love and blessings to all our friends and supporters.  We extend this to those across the world who show concern and compassion for animals, even if they do not know of His, or our, existence.  We do so because we believe they carry out God’s will for His Creation.

This is the classic representation of Christ’s birth:

Image result for icons of the nativity of our lord

From the earliest times, Eastern Orthodox Christianity has had a tradition which promotes God’s love and compassion for all created beings.  Church history informs us that the early Fathers wrote much of their work in order to dispute the various heresies of their time; two of which were the false teachings that God neither knew, nor cared for Man or the world he inhabited. Understandably, with so many heresies the non-human creation was not the primary focus of the early Church however, this does not mean that they failed to recognize the need to care and protect the non-human world. St. Irenaeus was one of the earliest to acknowledge the heresy of separating God from His Creation:

… among the “all things” our world must be embraced.  It too, therefore, was made by His Word, as Scripture tells us in the book of Genesis.[1]

There is also a tradition of recognizing that through Christ’s Incarnation, Crucifixion and Resurrection all creation is sanctified [2]

               and all flesh shall see the salvation of God.[3]

 The Fathers also recognized that only the human portion of creation had sinned and that only humans were in need of instruction and repentance:

While all things were made by God, certain of His creatures sinned and revolted from a state of submission to God, and others, indeed the great majority, persevered,  and do still persevere, in [willing] subjection to Him who formed them.[4]

nothing in creation had gone astray in its notions of God, save the human being only. [5]

The Fathers also taught that Christ sanctified creation through everything He touched. [6]

For no part of creation is left void of him: He has filled all things everywhere.[7]

Basil of Seleucia states that Christ saved the world and liberated the earth [8] and recounts all the benefits of salvation including ‘a principle of purification for the world, a renewing of nature’. [9]

We find many examples of similar teachings in ecclesial texts:

The earth was sanctified, O Word, at Thy holy birth, and the heavens with a star declared Thy glory; and now the nature of waters is blessed by Thy baptism in the flesh, and mankind is restored to its former nobility.[10]

This tradition continues until today and is evidenced here in His All Holiness Bartholomew’s Patriarchal Proclamation of Christmas 2017 ( Prot. no. 1123)

This is the supreme truth about salvation. That we belong to Christ. That everything is united in Christ. That our corruptible nature is refashioned in Christ, the image is restored and the road toward likeness is opened for all people. By assuming human nature, the divine Word establishes the unity of humanity through a common divine predestination and salvation. And it is not only humanity that is saved, but all of creation. Just as the fall of Adam and Eve impacts all of creation, so too the Incarnation of the Son and Word of God affects all of creation. “Creation is recognized as free when those who were once in darkness become children of light.[11] Basil the Great calls us to celebrate the holy Nativity of Christ as the “common feast of all creation,” as “the salvation of the world—humanity’s day of birth.”[12]  …

 In the Church, we experience freedom through Christ, in Christ and with Christ. And the  very summit of this freedom is the place of love, which “does not seek its own” [13] but “derives from a pure heart.” [14] Whoever depends on himself, seeks his own will, and is self-sufficient—whoever pursues deification by himself and congratulates himself—only revolves around himself and his individual self-love and self-gratification; such a person only sees others as a suppression of individual freedom. Whereas freedom in Christ is always oriented to one’s neighbor, always directed toward the other, always speaks the truth in love. The aim of the believer is not to assert his or her rights, but rather “to follow and fulfill the rights of Christ”[15] in a spirit of humility and thanksgiving.

It is important therefore for us to remember that in addition to the traditional focus on Christ’s Incarnation for humans, there is another Eastern Orthodox tradition which links Christ’s Incarnation to the relief of suffering of the non-human creation. One example of that recognition is given here by St Ephrem the Syrian:

The lamb bleated as it was offered before the First-born. It praised the Lamb, that had come to set free the flocks and the oxen from sacrifices…O Babe, that art older than Noah and younger than Noah, that reconciled all within the ark amid the billows![16]

This Icon reminds us that Christ is the light which breaks through the darkness of the fallen world.

For those involved in animal protection or conservation, this darkness is witnessed each and every day.  Out of compassion for our readers it is impossible for us and groups like us, to share the many manifestations of evil which come across our desks but we can give you a glimpse into that world. In this past week alone we have had examples of animals being skinned alive; animals being beaten, burnt, killed and filmed and animals being hunted for fun and pleasure. It is often stated that those who care for animals are sentimentalists.  Such statements could not be further from the truth.

How then are we as Christians to stand against such manifestations of evil?  Those Christians involved in animal protection profess one voice on this and it may surprise some to find that it is the traditional teaching of the Christian Church. It is not through rights, philosophy or separatist theologies that will bring about the oft called for metanoia in the heart of man, but through our role as Icon – our reflection of the Image of a loving and compassionate God. That Image guides us to live virtuously and lovingly – in a godly way, within a process of perpetual striving (επéκτaσις) to regain our original nature. We are to be at peace and forego violence,[17] to exercise loving-kindness and the virtues. We are to acquire a contrite heart through repentance; to listen and follow God’s Word and to pour out compassion and love on ‘all things’, rather than indulging our passions in evil, violent acts which serve only to destroy other created beings, their environments and eventually ourselves – be that as individuals or collectively as a species. Bartholomew echoes that early wisdom:

This truth about the life in Christ, about freedom as love and love as freedom, is the cornerstone and assurance for the future of humankind. When we build on this inspired ethos, we are able to confront the great challenges of our world, which threaten not only our well-being but our very survival[18]

We send our love in Christ and Christmas blessings to all those involved in the compassionate care and protection of all God’s created beings.

[1] St. Irenaeus, Against Heresies 2.2:5.

[2] Ibid 4.18.6.

[3] Ibid 3.9.1.

[4] Ibid 2.18.7; see also 3.9:1 ‘all flesh shall see the salvation of God’.

[5] St. Athanasius of Alexandria, St. On the Incarnation of the Word.  Inc. 43.

[6] St Gregory Nazianzen, 37.2, Nicene and Post-Nicene Fathers. 2nd Series. Schaff, P. and Wace, H. (Eds) Peabody, MA: Hendrickson Publishers, Inc. (1994:338)

[7] St. Athanasius of Alexandria, op. cit., S8:1.

[8] Basil of Seleucia SC187:209.

[9] Ibid, 3rd Homily on Pascha, SC187:215.

[10] 5th January, Matins; Kanon 9.2; Menaion, p. 302.

[11] Iambic Katavasia on the Feast of Theophany, Ode VIII.

[12] St. Basil the Great, Homily on the Nativity of Christ, PG 31, 1472-73.

[13] 1 Cor. 13:5.

[14] 1 Tim. 1:5.

[15] Theotokion, Aposticha of the Ainoi, October 12.

[16] St. Ephrem the Syrian, Hymn 5, Hymns on the Nativity

[17] St. Irenaeus, op. cit., 4.18.3.

[18] Bartholomew’s Patriarchal Proclamation of Christmas 2017. (Prot. No. 1123)