The earth is the Lord’s and the fullness thereof.” That is a truth that gets double billing in the Bible with the Apostle Paul quoting the Psalmist David in his first letter to the Corinthians. But it is a truth that gets short shrift today. We want an unbridled personal autonomy and a cornucopia from which we indulge without thought as to limits. If taken seriously, the idea that we are not our own and that we do not really own anything could break the modern consumption conveyor-belt that feeds our appetites while bypassing our responsibilities.
Of course, this scripture can also be bent into as an excuse to abdicate responsibility: “The earth is the Lord’s, so let Him take care of it!” It does not work that way, though. While the earth is indeed the Lord’s, He has entrusted its care to the pinnacle of His creation. David, pondering that before the Almighty in Psalm 8, is struck by how the wonders of the universe provide little reason for a man to assume a position of importance, and yet, “You have made him ruler over the works of your hands.”
The Bible first shows those divine hands working to shape Adam and next planting a garden in the ground from which man was formed. The job of further tending Eden was then given to the first couple before the Fall—a reminder that while sin makes our efforts more toilsome, work itself is not a punishment but an exercise in image bearing.
A chance to be reminded of these intimate connections to the land was one of the blessings from a sabbatical spent in the old farmhouse that my great-grandparents built in 1902. It is a place filled with little echoes of the past, including a church bulletin for “Soil Stewardship Sunday” from May 1957. The front shows a pair of hands praying over a rural scene of farms and woodlands with a church in the foreground and a city distantly in the background. These are not the hands of a model but of a real person, a real person who even has dirt under his fingernails, a bit like Yahweh might have had back in the Genesis story.
The brochure contains pats on the back to outstanding students at the parish school and news on activities like bingo (“25 games for 50 cents”), scouts, and the Christian Mothers’ Society. The back page then contains a call for three “Rogation Days,” or times of prayer and procession “for protection against calamities, such as storms, pestilence, famine, and war, and for God’s blessing upon our crops.” And there are these words from the local priest that bear repeating in full almost six decades later:
THIS IS SOIL STEWARDSHIP WEEK, so designated by the National Association of Soil Conservation Districts with the cooperation also of the National Catholic Rural Life Conference. Let us remind ourselves that “the earth is the Lord’s” and we are at most only stewards of the soil as well as all our earthly possessions to use them as entrusted to us by the Creator for our temporal and above all our eternal good. Some of our things we use up, but the soil is one of those things that needs to be managed properly to insure its continued usefulness, in fact to improve it, and to pass it on to future generations for their use. The riches of the soil can be exhausted by greedy, selfish, and unwise use. The good steward, however, not only carries out good conservation practices against erosion, but understands that the fruits of the soil draw out of it something that he needs to replace to avoid its depletion. In this work of keeping up good land or even building up poor land, the farmer is a good steward and partner with the Creator.
Wendell Berry, our nation’s foremost writer/farmer, would have a hard time improving on that.
From the Latin rogare (to ask), Rogation Days were established by Pope Gregory the Great to Christianize a long-standing Roman appeasement rite. In 1955, modern soil conservationists from all backgrounds then piggy-backed on the Christian observance, leading to the bulletin that my great grandmother Annie found worth saving two years later. After Vatican II, though, the practice apparently fell out of favor among Catholics in this Texas farming community, and in most others too. Anglicans, who had a strong Rogation Days tradition that dated back centuries also de-emphasized the observance in their 1979 Book of Common Prayer.
Nevertheless, Soil and Water Conservation Week or Stewardship Week continues, now tethered to the original Roman calendar observance on April 25th—known to liturgical Christians still in the know as the Major Rogation—rather than the more variable Minor Rogations, the three days before Ascension Thursday, highlighted in 1957. To their credit, the National Association of Soil Conservation Districts has not severed the week’s religious roots nor given the occasion a neo-pagan polish. In fact, the NASCD provides some surprisingly Christ-centered materials suitable for Christian congregations of all stripes that still wish to observe the occasion. And it is an occasion worth observing. Ash Wednesday reminds us that we are dust and to dust we shall return. Stewardship Week reminds us that in the mean time we are called to care for the ground from which we came.
John Murdock is a professor at the Handong International Law School, helps direct the Earth Stewardship Alliance, and resides online at johnmurdock.org.