6 min read

When creation and justice converge

N.T. Wright is one of the world's best-known theologians and currently a senior research fellow at Wycliffe Hall at the University of Oxford.

In a world of climate catastrophe, what does the message of Easter have to offer? N.T. Wright contemplates the hope of a new heaven and a new earth.
On a misty beach, people comb the tide line to remove rubbish.
A beach clean in progress.
Brian Yurasits on Unsplash.

What on earth might the Easter story have to say about our climate catastrophe? What does this ancient story mean to us today, who know that the universe is fourteen billion years old and that, according to the best predictions, one day entropy will have its way with our world, leading to the universe either cooling down as it expands or rushing back together as gravity reasserts itself: the big chill or the big crunch? And what more urgently, might it mean in a world where we have woken up not only to man-made climate change but also to frightening levels of toxic pollution, in our seas, in the atmosphere? 

John’s gospel is one of the sources of that ancient story. And the way the author tells it, gives us an answer.   

A new story reflects an old story 

Like Shakespeare, John does nothing by accident. The way the author introduces the story of Easter reaches far beyond the central fact of Jesus rising again from the dead. John’s point is that with that extraordinary event a new creation is launched. And that means hope – not just for individual humans, but for all creation.  

On the first day of the week, very early, while it was still dark. That’s how John begins the story. Twenty chapters earlier, at the start of his book, he deliberately echoed the start of the book of Genesis: ‘In the beginning was the Word’. He has told his story in a great sequence of seven ‘signs’, representing as it were the ‘week’ of creation itself. Now, with Jesus’ resurrection, a new week is beginning: the eighth day of creation, if you like.  

It takes everyone by surprise. At the time, many Jewish people had longed and prayed for God’s new day to dawn, but nobody had imagined it would look like this – a young Jewish prophet announcing that it was time for God to become king at last, being brutally executed by the ruling authorities, and then rising again from the dead. The hope of ‘resurrection’, cherished by many Jews at the time, was the hope for all God’s people to be given new bodies to share in God’s new world, the world in which heaven and earth would at last become one. Nobody imagined that this might happen, in advance as it were, to one person ahead of time. But by the time John writes his gospel he has reflected long and hard on what it all means. When he says ‘On the first day of the week’ – which he repeats a little later, in case we missed it – he is pointing to the truth that Paul expressed when he wrote that ‘if anyone belongs to the Messiah, there is a new creation.’ With Jesus, and then with his followers, we see in microcosm that the new creation has been launched. 

Back on earth 

This truth, central to the early Christians, has long been obscured by the influx of Greek philosophy into Christian thinking. For Plato, and those Christians who looked to him to help explain their faith, the point of it all was not to renew the present creation but to leave it behind. They supposed, as many Christians do to this day, that the aim of the their faith was to go to ‘heaven’ after they died, where they would at last see God. But the central story of the Bible, stretching back into Israel’s scriptures but focused now on the story of Jesus, is that ‘heaven’ was supposed to come to earth. That, after all, is what Jesus himself taught his followers to pray. The point was not that we – or our ‘souls’ – would go and live with God. The point was that God would come and live with us.  The ‘God’ in question is the creator God. His aim, emphasized repeatedly in the Bible, is to renew his good creation, flooding it with his presence ‘as the waters cover the sea’. That is the biblical hope, quite different from that of Plato and his followers.  

St Paul insists, at the climax of his greatest letter, that this will happen through a powerful, convulsive, fresh action of God. All creation, he says, is groaning like a woman going into labour, awaiting the new world which is to be born. And he sees Jesus’ followers as themselves ‘groaning’ in their present suffering; a majority of Christians in Paul’s world, just like a significant number in our own day, were being persecuted for their faith, and Paul encourages them to see that suffering as part of the larger cosmic labour-pains. But then, he says, God’s own spirit is also groaning within us, so that the new world which is to be born will come by the same divine agency that raised Jesus from the dead. In fact, Paul’s claim could be summarized that way: God will do for the whole creation, at the last, what he did for Jesus at Easter. The message of the resurrection isn’t just about God rewarding Jesus for his own terrible suffering. Nor is it simply about there being hope beyond death for his followers. It is about new creation – a new world in which we are all invited to share, not just eventually but already in the present.  

Looking at the evidence, at the present state of the world, it might indeed seem that the promise of new creation is just a fantasy. But the message of Jesus’ resurrection was never designed to fit into the expectations people already had. Everybody knew perfectly well that dead people don’t rise. The Jews believed that one day all God’s people would be raised because they believed in two things about God: first, that he had made creation and made it good; second, that he was committed to putting right everything that had gone wrong. Creation and justice converge at this point: resurrection and new creation.  

But Jesus’ resurrection, bursting into the world unexpectedly, like an important guest arriving several hours early when the family is all still asleep, adds another dimension to this. In Jesus, God himself has come forward in time to meet his tired and groaning world halfway. When the early Christians tell the story, they indicate that this is above all else an act of love: of rescuing, re-creating love. And that love invites an answering love, which takes the form both of faith itself and of allegiance, personal commitment. It takes basically the same faith to believe that God will one day renew the whole creation, flooding it with his glorious presence, as it takes to believe that Jesus rose from the dead. And that faith is awakened, again and again, as people hear the news about Jesus and realise that it is a message of love, the love of the creator God for his wounded and weary world. 

A community of care 

With that faith, and that love, there comes as well a new vocation. If Jesus represents the long-term hope of God’s people arriving unexpectedly in advance, in the present time, then part of the point is to equip people who follow him with his own spirit so that they can be agents of new creation even in the present time. That means a vocation to be small working models of new creation: to engage in advance in the tasks of creation care and renewal, and to encourage those working to address the major challenges of global warming and pollution. We are meant to bring into the world such a measure of justice and beauty as we can, to model in communal and personal life what the creator God always intended and what will come to pass in the ultimate new creation. We are meant to be people of hope: not just people who are motivated by the personal hope of sharing God’s new world, but people through whom that hope comes true in the present time in a thousand living ways, all of them anticipations of, and hence signposts towards, that final new creation. 

7 min read

Red radical: the tales behind the Santa we see today

Graham is the Director of the Centre for Cultural Witness and a former Bishop of Kensington.

A determined, fiery, culture warrior lies behind the iconic image of Santa. Graham Tomlin unwraps a tale or two and find some serious theology.
A Lego Stanta figure strolls across a table holding a wrench
Artem Maltsev on Unsplash.

There is one figure in our cultural memory who pops up at this time of year without fail. It is the unmistakable figure of Santa. 

Santa Claus, AKA Father Christmas, Sinterklaas in Holland or Kris Kringle in the USA conjures up a definite image in the mind’s eye. The Santa of popular imagination with elves, red suit, bushy white beard flying in a sleigh towed by reindeer was shaped more by the famous Coca Cola adverts of the 1930s than anything else, and may seem to have very little connection with the birth of Christ. There are, however, strong connections between Santa and the Christian celebration of Christmas.  

Santa Claus is a linguistic development of St Nicholas, who was a real, fiery, determined Christian bishop of the early 4th century. Many of the stories about him date from later centuries, and some, no doubt, are legends developed to enhance his reputation. Yet he clearly made a deep impact on those who encountered him. On the principle that there's no smoke without fire, while some of it may be fiction, these stories may also contain a grain of truth.  

A group of enterprising Italian sailors from Bari in southern Italy made a daring raid on the city, scooped up most of St Nicholas’ skeleton and carried it off home. 

Nicholas was born around 260 AD. His parents, or so the story goes, died of the plague while he was young, leaving him a reasonable fortune. The other thing we know about his youth was his profound and strong Christian faith. This shaped his mind from early years, and led him, like many young Christians at the time, to enter the demanding spiritual boot camp of the monastic life, and then in time to becoming the Bishop of Myra, a city in southern Turkey known today as Demre.  

Christianity at the time was deemed a dangerous religion, subversive of the unity of the Roman Empire and in 303 AD he was one of many Christian leaders imprisoned under the wave of persecution initiated by the emperor Diocletian. Not only did he survive the rigours of a brutal Roman jail, but he encouraged other Christian prisoners to stand firm, who, like him, emerged more determined than ever. He died around 335 AD and within a few hundred years had become one of the most celebrated saints of the mediaeval era, with numerous accounts of his life spreading around Europe.   

In the 10th century the Russian emperor Vladimir visited Turkey and was so impressed with the stories of St. Nicholas that he pronounced him the patron saint of Russia and he remains a hugely venerated figure in Russian Orthodoxy to this day. In 1087, when Myra had come under Islamic rule, a group of enterprising Italian sailors from Bari in southern Italy made a daring raid on the city, scooped up most of St Nicholas’ skeleton and carried it off home, where with great fanfare, a large basilica was erected around the resting place of the bones of St Nicholas – an attraction which enhanced the status of the city no end. It became a pilgrimage destination for numerous medieval Christians (which was what the sailors had in mind) and the edifice still stands on the very spot to this day.

He was promptly sent home for stepping out of line, but it did his reputation as a hero of orthodoxy no harm at all. 

There are two stories of St Nicholas that get us closer to understanding why he became such a key figure in our Christmas celebrations.  

While he was still a young man, so we are told, he heard of a local family who were falling into poverty. A father who was badly in debt desperately needed money to pay off loan sharks, otherwise his only option (as happened in many families at the time) was sell his three daughters into slavery, or in some versions of the story, into prostitution. St Nicholas, aware of the teaching of Jesus that good deeds should be done in secret, resolved to do what he could to help. He wrapped up a bag of gold coins and secretly dropped them into the window of the house to the relief and delight of the poverty-stricken family. Nicholas performed this act of generosity three times for each of the three daughters, and on the third occasion threw the bag of gold coins so far into the room that it fell into a sock hanging over the fire to dry - hence stockings on Christmas Eve. On that occasion the father caught Nicholas as he tried to slip away, and thanked him profusely. Nicholas insisted he tell no one, which the man assured him he would not. Obviously, he didn't keep his promise. 

It is this kind of story that gives rise to the idea that Nicholas was a picture of radical generosity. Ever since then, depictions of St Nicholas are recognisable by his carrying three gold balls, representing the three bags of gold coins – and the same symbol found its way to hang outside many a pawnbrokers’ shop, after St Nicholas was adopted as their patron saint.  

The other story relates to the famous Council of Nicaea in 325 AD. Although historians debate the question, there is some evidence Nicholas might have been present at this Council at which the Nicene Creed was written, the Creed that describes the heart of Christian faith for most Christian churches to this day. The Council centred around the controversial teaching of Arius, a priest from Alexandria who had taught that Jesus, although the best person who ever lived, the pinnacle of creation, was not in any significant sense divine, as the Council eventually discerned he was. The story goes that Nicholas was so incensed by the teaching of Arius that at one point he strode across the room in which the Council was taking place and struck him on the face. He was promptly sent home for stepping out of line, but it did his reputation as a hero of orthodoxy no harm at all. A heretic being punched by Santa Claus is an image to conjure with.  

The stories of St Nicholas give us the impression of someone who does not just do generous acts, but who has become generous. 

So why did St Nicholas become a person of such radical generosity? Were these two stories, however apocryphal some of the details may be, strangely linked? 

At stake in the debates at Nicaea was the question of whether Jesus Christ was just an illustration, a good example of what human life can achieve, or whether his radical love and self-sacrifice was in fact an expression of the heart of God, the very heart of reality itself. That is the core insight at the heart of the Nicene Creed – that when we see Jesus, we see God. The compassion, courage, grace, generosity, the anger at evil of the world, the deep compassion for those who struggle with life that flows out of him at every moment – all this is not a brief moment of light in an essentially dark world, but is the very nature of reality itself. In other words, Jesus Christ represents God giving to the world, not just a gift, but giving Himself.  

That kind of belief seems to have animated the soul and the mind of Nicholas, and if you believe that generosity is what lies at the very heart of things, its not surprising if it starts to seep out into a life full of generosity. Alongside the gifts to the struggling family, Nicholas is said to have argued the emperor into a tax cut for the people of Myra, and secured extra shipping of grain for his people during famine. The stories of St Nicholas give us the impression of someone who does not just do generous acts, but who has become generous – it’s the difference between the lucky tennis player who plays a good shot every now and again, and the pro who plays that shot nine times out of ten. That is virtue – where a person is generous almost without thinking about it, because it has become second nature.  

There are, of course, differences between the Santa of popular memory and St Nicholas. It’s hard to imagine Santa punching anyone, whereas St Nicholas had the fierce, determined faith of the early church, a faith so compelling that it took over the entire Roman empire. Then again, Santa gives gifts to children who are good but not to those who have been bad. He is a moral arbiter who rewards those whose good deeds outweigh their bad ones. That is about as far removed from a Christian understanding of grace, as depicted in the stories of St Nicholas as possible. In Christianity, divine generosity is not a reward for goodness, but is the wellspring of it. The God that Nicholas learnt about from his earliest days gives first and asks questions later. Generosity inspires gratitude and generosity as a response. 

St Nicholas became associated with Christmas partly because his feast day, December 6th, was near to the annual feast, but also because of this theme of radical generosity. Christmas is the time when Christians recall God’s greatest gift – the gift of Christ given to people of dubious moral standing like us. Not because we deserved it but despite the fact that we didn’t. It’s why we give gifts at Christmas, not to win favours from others, but for the sheer joy of it. We give as an act of gratitude for we have been given, before we even asked for it – just like three helpless young women, and their desperate father, in need of help.  

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