Recovering a Reverence for the Earth

As the Ashes were being distributed yesterday, I began to reflect on the meaning of such sacramental actions and how they reflect an ancient, yet newly emerging, theology of creation. For many Christians, especially those in a sacramental tradition, the word “sacrament” evokes immediate recollection of the seven sacraments of the Church – Baptism, Confirmation, Eucharist, Reconciliation, Anointing, Marriage, and Holy Orders. However, in the latter half of the 20th century (thanks in no small part to our brothers and sisters in the East) western Christendom has begun a recovery of much more ancient understanding of sacrament as “mystery.” The very Latin sacramentum is the translation of the Greek mysterion. Thus, rather than focusing exclusively on the seven sacraments as isolated moments of grace, sacramental theology has emphasized the broader application of the sacrament referring to the ability of created reality to mediate the presence of God to us.

As the psalmist prays, “The heavens declare the glory of God, and the firmament proclaims his handiwork” (Ps. 19:2). Thus, in the seven sacraments the elements – water, bread, wine, oil, and the laying on of hands, among others – are capable of mediating the divine presence to us. Likewise, the earth itself, and all that is “good” upon it acts as an uber-sacrament – a meta-sacrament – such that all of creation reveals its creator.

The recovery of this wider view, I think, will serve us and all creation well. It encourages, at first, the cultivation of an essential reverence for the world that God has made. This is perhaps especially important in an age when people are increasingly estranged from the earth that sustains them. Imagine a relationship with another person with whom you are a stranger. Remembering its sacramentality invites us to a direct encounter and intimate relationship with creation. It also demands an intentional effort to care for it. Moreover, such sacramental thinking reminds us that if we are to encounter God at all, creation remains absolutely necessary. In short, we are part of creation and cannot live apart from it – it is the source and demonstration of the very life God gives. Creation is not merely one way of encounter, it is the only way. Thus, to the extent that we diminish creation – to the extent that we treat it irreverently, we treat God’s holy gift irreverently – we treat God irreverently.

Such a theology of creation – with its sacramentality and inherent value – begs the final solution: what are we going to do about it. It is one thing to say that we must recover a reverence for the earth and quite another to say what kind of life we should adopt in order to accomplish this. I will leave today’s thoughts with some questions:

  • How can we recover a reverence for the earth?
  • What can we do to regain that understanding that we cannot live apart from creation?
  • What can be done to deepen our relationships (individually and communally) to the earth and all of creation?

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