Holy Ground

From September 1 to October 4 (the Feast of St. Francis of Assisi), Christians around the world mark the Season of Creation, a relatively recent development in the liturgical calendar. 

The practice began in 1989 when Ecumenical Patriarch Dimitrios I proclaimed September 1 a day of prayer for the environment. In 2000, a Lutheran congregation in Australia developed a four-week celebration of creation — and the idea spread throughout that nation and beyond. Eventually, the Vatican picked up the practice and the World Council of Churches promoted the new liturgical season. 

During these weeks, Christians are urged to recognize the theological centrality of God the Creator, Creation itself, the human vocation of caring for Creation, and doing justice on behalf of the Earth and all of her inhabitants. 

For all of its struggles, especially in the West, Christianity remains the world’s largest religion — and it’s incumbent upon people of faith to work for the Earth’s healing in this time of crisis. Christians bear the burden of being part of the problem as many Christian traditions have badly muddled their theologies of creation and promoted practices that colonized and destroyed the very world we were instructed to “till and keep.”

Because of the relentless burning of fossil fuels and deforestation, the world’s climate has become disrupted and unstable. The web of life is unraveling before our eyes. Human society is at risk of collapse within decades along with mass extinctions of species and forced migrations. 

• Over the last fifty years, 60% of the planet’s mammals, reptiles, amphibians, birds, and fish have been wiped out by land development and habitat destruction. 

• More than 1 million species are on the way to extinction. 

• Oceans are acidifying and warming, and living fish are being displaced with dead plastic. Sea levels are rising, coral reefs dying, and ecosystems collapsing.

• Record-breaking and intensifying weather patterns are increasing deadly droughts, floods, fires,  storms, and heat.

• Food supply disruption due to weather events, water shortages, and unpredictable seasons will increase, leading to mass starvation events as we’re already seeing in parts of the world. 

 These days of prayer for Creation are not a kind of off-handed “thoughts and prayers” dismissal. It is an invitation to experience faith differently, to center Creation and the Creator, and to learn the Bible and theology anew. They invite us to metanoia — a profound change of heart and life, a genuine conversion toward a Creation-based vision of God, nature, and neighbor. 

There are so many ways that we could begin our reflection on this Season of Creation, but perhaps there is none better than today’s first reading from the third chapter of Exodus.

Moses was keeping the flock of his father-in-law Jethro, the priest of Midian; he led his flock beyond the wilderness, and came to Horeb, the mountain of God. There the angel of the Lord appeared to him in a flame of fire out of a bush; he looked, and the bush was blazing, yet it was not consumed. Then Moses said, “I must turn aside and look at this great sight, and see why the bush is not burned up.” When the Lord saw that he had turned aside to see, God called to him out of the bush, “Moses, Moses!” And he said, “Here I am.” Then he said, “Come no closer! Remove the sandals from your feet, for the place on which you are standing is holy ground.”

Holy means “of or relating to God.” 

One of the greatest sins is a twisted understanding of reality, of seeing creation as a duality: sacred and secular. This ground—these few acres–owned by the Diocese of Southern Ohio and set aside for the use of St. Christopher’s is holy, but that ground over there – that’s not holy so we can do whatever we want with it. That kind of thinking is an offense against God.

Back in the 1970’s our Diocese owned a beautiful plot of land down in Vinton County where we had a primitive summer camp for young people who came from all over Southern Ohio. Ann and I ran that camp for five years—1976-1980. Shortly after we started working at the Vinton County Camp as it was called, the Jay Hall Coal Company made an offer to the Trustees of the Diocese that they couldn’t refuse . . . a lot of money. So they gave permission to the coal company to strip mine the camp—starting on the outer fringes. 

By our last year there the giant earth movers, bull dozers, and dynamite explosions were right next to the central part of camp itself, and they made it nigh impossible to hold a camping session with their constant 24 hour a day noise. Shortly after we left, the Diocese closed the camp and turned it over completely to the strip miners. The holy ground was sold for secular ground. Although they promised to restore and reclaim the land after they had taken all the coal, even to this day the site is mostly barren, all the promises unfulfilled. The Trustees never understood that all the ground was holy—and at the very least the contracts should have recognized that fact, and insisted on full reclamation of plants, trees, and grasses. 

Both the Hebrew and Christian Scriptures insist that destruction of nature is a sign of estrangement from God.

The prophet Hosea said, “There is no knowledge of God in the land. Therefore the land mourns, and all who live in it languish; together with the wild animals and the birds of the air, even the fish of the sea are perishing,” (Hos. 4:1b, 3)

And then this admonition from the Book of Revelation“Hurt not the earth, neither the sea nor the trees,” (Rev. 7:3).

When the Genesis stories of Creation were first told, there was no distinction between the various parts of creation given for God’s purposes and those set aside for other uses. When Moses was told to take off his shoes for he stood on holy ground, he wasn’t told that the land where he’d been grazing his sheep before he came to the burning bush was not holy—was unholy. No! All ground is holy.

St. Gregory the Great once said that “All Creation is a Temple.” “Every tree, stone, lizard, rabbit, meteor, comet, and star to us is holy,” wrote Ernesto Cardenal. 

Yes, we do need natural resources and parking lots and various kinds of development, but we do not have an inexhaustible supply and there are simply no throw-away places to be exploited and then forgotten as if they don’t matter.

And what goes for ground and land goes for the rest of Creation—especially people who are created in the image of God. The scriptures don’t distinguish between colors or hues or classes or levels of education. They say nothing about gender or sexual orientation. They do not say that only some people’s histories or family stories should be told, remembered, or kept in the library while other folks should have theirs ignored, removed, diminished, and denigrated. 

When we consecrate certain pieces of bread to be holy, the intent is that we will all go out from our worship and sanctify all the meals we have throughout the week as holy food. 

Holy bread is all bread.

Holy people are all people.

Holy Ground is all ground.

The Season of Creation is marked by repentance for the past, a call to deepen theological reflection and spiritual awareness of Creation, and engaging justice on behalf of nature and our neighbors. Attending to Creation in liturgy, prayer, scripture, and spirituality may be one of the most significant theological shifts in contemporary Christianity, and it’s certainly one of the most needed.

Christian hope is in the renewal and restoration of all things. Our participation with God in creating a more just and habitable world and living more gently on Earth is how we share in what Archbishop Desmond Tutu calls the “supreme work” of Jesus Christ, who reconciles us to God, one another, and God’s whole Creation. 

The good news of God in Christ is for all creatures and the whole Earth.

Let us commit ourselves to this journey, to a change of heart and mind and spirit, in the name of the One Who Has Made Us All, the Earth, the Universe, and all that is therein. 


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