Tuesday, April 22, 2008

Earth Day musings

Today is the 39th Earth Day. Earth Day is an observance that was thought up back in the late '60s by movers and shakers in the modern environmental movement to draw the public's attention to issues affecting the planet's health as an organism...issues like air and water quality, preservation of biodiversity, recycling, and global warming. I didn't see too much evidence of people making a big deal of it this year, but perhaps that's because I live in Pennsylvania and the huge presidential primary here today kind of overshadowed everything. Otherwise, I have noticed that Earth Day is steadily growing in popularity. Each year I hear more and more about Earth Day rallies and other events. Last year all rostered leaders in my church, the ELCA, received a fancy, formal letter (through email) from our presiding bishop calling attention to Earth Day nd encouraging us to recognize it in some way.

To be completely honest, I was (and still am) a little perturbed that I received an email about Earth Day from my presiding bishop. I have nothing against Earth Day, per se, but Earth Day is not a church observance. I can't figure out why my highest church authority would urge me to celebrate or observe this occasion since it does not purport to venerate a Being higher than the earth, not to mention that it doesn't proclaim Christ at all. I would assume that some Christians celebrate Earth Day wholeheartedly, "baptizing" its message in some way by saying that God urges us to be good stewards of creation. The concept of Earth Day certainly seems to create space enough to do that, although the tone of most Earth Day observances come close to the line of creation spirituality, making an idol of the planet and equating being a good person with being appropriately environmentally-minded.

My problem, though, is that Christians already have/had a type of Earth Day observance that is much more theologically grounded and spiritually robust. Have we completely forgotten them? They are the Rogation Days, which also fall at this time of the year. The Rogation Days fall each year on the four days preceding Ascension. Ascension always falls in spring, and traditionally the Church chose this time of the year to pray for the year's crops. Rogation Days get their name from the Latin word "Rogare," which means "to ask," a phrase which appears in the gospel text on the preceding Sunday (which happens to be this coming Sunday). During the Rogation days, the Church asks God to bless and renew the face of the earth, specifically in the ways in which humans typically use the earth--farming, logging, herding, harvesting. I have heard of some rural Lutheran congregations in this country that bring seeds to church on Rogation Sunday and pray over them just before they are planted. In Anglican tradition, the priest and members of the parish would actually form a procession outside and "beat the bounds," walking around the perimeter of the parish and praying for its protection in the upcoming year.

We may look on these medieval traditions as arcane and outdated, but, really, how different are they from attending an Earth Day parade or highlighting the benefits of recycling on the nightly news? In fact, I think these church traditions actually put us more directly in contact with the earth that God has given for us to use and care for. Imagine an urban congregation going outside on Sunday and playing in the dirt! I think that might make us more aware of the environment right around our building and how we're impacting it.

It's such a good idea! Why, I might have actually thought of it last year had my bishop sent me a letter reminding me to mine our own Great Tradition for ways to remember the needs of creation.