Let us pause to give thanks for the gift of God’s presence in all Creation:
Gracious God, Holy One of mystery and beauty,
in the beating of heart
in the pulse of life
in the rhythms of earth
we know your presence and we give thanks.
In language beyond words
the wind in the trees
the moon behind the clouds
the river holding the sky
in day’s ending, in dream’s beginning
we know your presence
and we give thanks and praise to you, O God.
(Age to Age, The United Church of Canada, p. 92, adapted)
Today is the first Sunday of Creation Time. Giving thanks for God’s presence in all of Creation is not something new and I’ll say something about that in a moment. What is new is intentionally setting aside five Sundays in the church calendar to focus on God’s Creation. These five Sundays, beginning today and ending with Thanksgiving Sunday, fall within the Season After Pentecost. The Season After Pentecost is the longest season in the church calendar, stretching from Pentecost Sunday (May) until Reign of Christ Sunday (end of November).
Betty Lynn Schwab, who is a staff member in the national office of the United Church of Canada, says that, “…creation is an integral part of the entire Christian worship cycle yet particularly emphasized during the five fall Sundays within the Season of Pentecost. As we need holy places such as churches to remind us that all places are holy, so we mark Creation Time to remind us creation is integral to all Sunday worship.” (Gathering, Summer/Fall 2012, pg.69)
What makes any place or time holy or sacred is God’s presence. The intention of Creation Time is not to worship Creation but to recognize and celebrate all life as sacred because of God’s creative and inspiring presence.
Earlier I said that this recognition of God’s presence in Creation is not a new phenomena. In the Christian faith tradition, awe and reverence of God’s presence in Creation reaches back to very early times. I’ve been reading a book this week called, Water, Wind, Earth & Fire by Christine Valters Paintner that makes this point. Painter says, “Christian tradition tells us that we have received two books of divine revelation: the book of scripture and the book of nature. Creation itself is a sacred text through which the presence of God is revealed to us.” (Water, Wind, Earth & Fire, Introduction, pg. 2, Sorin Books, 2010)
In the early centuries of the Common Era there were Christian ascetics who lived in the desert in caves or in other simple dwellings. We know these people today as the Desert Fathers and Mothers. One of the most well known of these is Antony who lived in the desert in Egypt in the third to fourth centuries. “When asked once by a philosopher what he would do if one day he could no longer read scripture, Antony replied simply, ‘My book, sir philosopher, is the nature of created things, and it is always on hand when I wish to read it.’ In this brief exchange we witness the essential role of the natural world in forming Christian awareness from ancient times.” (Ibid, Introduction, pg. 2)
Celtic Christianity, emerged in the 2nd century C.E. in Roman occupied Britain but it was not until the 4th century C.E. that distinct characteristics began to emerge that set it apart from the Roman Church.
I was browsing the Internet this week and found some information that is consistent with what I’ve read and learned about Celtic Christianity in past years. “The Celtic church celebrated grace and nature as good gifts from God and recognized the sacredness of all creation. …The Celtic understanding of church leadership was rooted in its rural and agricultural communal culture…The roots of Celtic Christianity reach deep into the mysticism of St. John the Evangelist in the New Testament, and the wisdom tradition of the Old Testament. According to Celtic tradition, when…John leaned against Jesus at the Last Supper, he heard the heartbeat of God. Therefore, …John became a symbol of listening for the life of God in ourselves, and in all creation.” (St. Cuthbert’s Website – The Celtic Way, pg. 2: www.st-cuthberts.net/celspty.php)
There is a long and very interesting evolution in Celtic Christianity but for now, suffice it to say, that eventually the differences between Celtic Christianity and the Roman “Mother Church” brought conflict which demanded conformity. Celtic Christianity appeared to conform but went underground and the prayers and rituals were guarded and passed through oral tradition from generation to generation. “Prayers were sung or chanted at the rising and setting of the sun, in the midst of daily work and routine, at a child’s birth, or a loved-one’s deathbed. These were the prayers of daily life celebrating God as Life within all life, with creation as God’s dwelling place. The Celtic understanding of God, was that God was always overwhelmingly present all around them.” (Ibid, The Celtic Way, p. 4) It is a testament to the power of oral tradition that these prayers and rituals survived even through the Protestant Reformation in the 16th century when they were banned as being pagan.
The middle of the 19th century was a time when Celtic prayers and rituals were in danger of fading from memory except in isolated regions. Fortunately, there were people such as Alexander Carmichael, a civil servant from Edinburgh, who began to record the prayers, songs and stories passed down for centuries in the oral tradition of the Hebrides and the West Coast of Scotland. “These prayers were used in the most ordinary contexts of daily life and not within the four walls of a church on Sunday, but Carmichael detected in many of them a liturgical character and tone. He believed they had come down in the tradition of the old Celtic Church, and the chanting that accompanied them was reminiscent of its ancient music.” (Listening for the Heartbeat of God, pg. 40, J. Philip Newell, Paulist Press, 1997)
The 20th and 21st centuries have been marked by a resurgence of interest in Celtic Christianity and its focus on God’s presence and blessing in everything from the intricacies and wonders of creation to the ordinary mundane tasks of everyday life.
This brings me back to the origins of Christianity with Jesus’ life and ministry. Jesus had a way of teaching that helped people make the connection to their blessedness and God’s presence in Creation. Jesus’ parables (teaching stories) most often focussed on things that would be familiar to his listeners. Jesus lived in an agrarian society and stories of the land which included vineyards, fig trees, mustard seeds, harvest, and so on would have been readily identifiable for people. There were also stories about storm-tossed seas and the gentle beauty of God’s presence in the lilies of the field and in the presence of little birds. Christine Valter Paintner, whom I quoted earlier says that Jesus’ “ministry also centres around elemental places, such as feasting at the table on the gifts of the earth, his appearance on the mountain as a place of transfiguration, his encounters at the well, [his time spent in the desert wilderness] and his own baptism in the River Jordan…” (Water, Wind, Earth & Fire, Introduction, pg. 3, Sorin Books, 2010) Paintner goes on to make the connection with Jesus’ connection with God’s Creation and the nurturing of our own spiritual lives today. “When we recognize ourselves as part of the earth community, as the scriptures and mystics have encouraged us to do for centuries, then we begin to see the profound mystery at work in the depths of our own souls as the same sacred mystery at work in the natural world. Being present to the gifts of creation helps to give us insight into paths for our own spiritual growth and into the ways in which God is present to us.” (Ibid, pg.7)
The United Church of Canada has embraced these truths. In 1968, the General Council, added the words, “to live with respect in Creation” to the United Church Creed. These words are placed in the section of A New Creed that speak of the Church, “We are called to be the Church: to celebrate God’s presence, to live with respect in Creation, to love and serve others…” and so on. The past Moderator of the United Church of Canada, Mardi Tindal, worked hard in her three year term to put into action these words of faith.
With this, and all that I’ve talked about this morning in mind, I’ll close with a poem by Bliss Carman that I first heard when I was a young adult and whose sentiments I’ve carried with me throughout my life:
I took a day to search for God and found God not.
But as I trod by rocky ledge, through woods untamed,
just when one scarlet lily flamed:
I saw God’s footprints in the sod.
Then suddenly, all unaware, far off in the deep shadows where
a solitary Hermit Thrush sang through the holy twilight hush
I heard God’s voice upon the air.
And even as I marvelled how God gives us heaven here and now,
in a stir of wind, that hardly shook the poplar leaves beside the brook
God’s hand was light upon my brow.
At last with evening as I turned homeward,
and thought what I had learned
and all that there was still to probe
I caught the glory of God’s robe
where the last fires of sunset burned.
Back to the world with quickening start
I looked and longed for any part
in making saving Beauty be
and from that kindling ecstasy
I knew God dwelt within my heart.
(Vistigia, Bliss Carman (1861-1929), adapted slightly)