Creation, Day Three: Soil Underneath Our Fingernails

In honor of the Season of Creation (September 1 – October 4), Pray Tell is running a series of posts on how the liturgy can help us to appreciate the wondrous gift of Creation, and how it can challenge us to care for Creation. Each post will reflect on one of the seven days of Creation described in the first chapter of Genesis.

“And God said, ‘Let the waters under the sky be gathered together into one place, and let the dry land appear.’ And it was so. God called the dry land Earth, and the waters that were gathered together he called Seas. And God saw that it was good. Then God said, ‘Let the earth put forth vegetation: plants yielding seed, and fruit trees of every kind on earth that bear fruit with the seed in it.’ And it was so. The earth brought forth vegetation: plants yielding seed of every kind, and trees of every kind bearing fruit with the seed in it. And God saw that it was good. And there was evening and there was morning, the third day.”

Genesis 1:9-13, NRSV

I don’t like to wear gloves when I garden. When I plant garlic bulbs in the fall, I prefer to dig the holes with my bare hands and get dirt underneath my fingernails. So, I was pleased that liturgical theologian Nathan Mitchell reminded readers in a 1982 essay in Spirituality Today on the spirituality of worship that “the God of Jesus is one with dirt under his fingernails. . .”  What Mitchell suggests with this image is that “[S]acraments and worship are not glistening shrines that beckon us to withdraw from the world but spattered landmarks built of human sweat, seed, meat, and eggs that point back to the world itself as the place where God loves to dwell.”

On the third day of creation, we encounter God as First Gardener, as one who with wisdom and creativity invites the earth to sprout, yield seed, and bear fruit. Striking about this is that God prepares for an abundant harvest before God makes creatures to eat and enjoy the feast. God gets dirt under God’s fingernails in order to make possible a harvest for those who are yet to dwell and work upon the earth.

The work of the people

The overall narrative arc of Genesis 1 invites us into God’s creative and creating rhythms of work and rest, labor and sabbath, sprouting and germinating. Day Three emphasizes the wonders of creation that God cultivates through God’s labor as Divine Gardener.

Biblical scholar Michael LeFebvre offers this wisdom about the Genesis creation narrative in The Liturgy of Creation: Understanding Calendars in Old Testament Context:

The text is not trying to amaze us with an unusual, one‐time miracle but rather is showing us the marvel of a fruitful earth as God designed it for human participation. The text teaches Israel to regard the wonder of their own experience with agriculture as something that comes from the good order God provided to the land.

God’s work as First Gardener—tending and cultivating soil that flourishes across and through the rhythms of day and night, months and years—is the model for our work as God’s people of the soil. God creates and calls us to join God in creating by cultivating soil that will sprout with goodness and nourishment for those yet to come. As communities of worship, we can tap into God’s creative rhythms as liturgical rhythms; we can celebrate the wonders of ongoing labor in and with the soil as vital to liturgical spirituality, communal well-being, and the flourishing of the Earth.

Soil and sacramentality

The Genesis verses that depict Day Three also invite us to plumb unexpected sacramental depths. Soil teems with life. As Grennan Millikan writes in a 2015 Popular Science essay about soil,

[M]ore creatures live in soil than in any other environment on Earth: a menagerie of worms, archaea, bacteria, fungi and countless other microbes you couldn’t dream up in your sleep. . . . [W]ithin a gram of soil could lie more species than all of the vertebrates on earth (various studies have it ranging anywhere from 10,000-50,000 species per gram as to high as 850,000 species per gram).

Soil bustles, crawls and swarms with life, much of it unseen or unnoticed.

Our liturgies can invite us to take notice, to consider the divine mysteries hidden in the soil of the places where we dwell. One way we can cultivate this noticing is to invite people in prayers and liturgies to name their watersheds. We can encourage worshipers to become more aware of how the waters under our skies are gathered together and how dry land is present in the places where we live, work, and worship.

Hydrology and theology

Ethicist Christiana Peppard and theologian Ched Myers each in their unique ways invite us to consider the spiritual and theological dimensions of knowing, naming, and celebrating our watersheds. Peppard and Myers both view hydrology as theology. What does this mean? The hydrologic cycle is the Earth’s water cycle and describes how water molecules journey from the Earth’s surface to the atmosphere and back again; this cycle functions in varying ways depending on the geography and health of local watersheds. Peppard traces a relationship between hydrology and theology to Genesis and invites readers to consider links between Christian baptism and contemporary issues of lack of clean water access and at-risk water sources.

On Day Three, God called the dry land Earth, adamah, and taught the soil to flourish. We are the creatures who today are invited to enjoy the feast God first imagined in the wee hours of Creation. We are also creatures formed from the Earth, from the soil. Life unimaginable teems in our bodies, hearts, minds, and souls. To embody liturgies that celebrate God’s work in creating the Earth is to embody worship and work that honor the soil and the people of the soil and that make possible life for those yet to come.

In our hands, beneath our feet

Photo credit: Sheila G. Hunter

At Wake Forest University School of Divinity where I teach worship and liturgical theology, students in a February chapel service invited us into a liturgy that incorporated seeds. Each worshiper was given a seed and asked to consider the life that a seed promises even in the midst of winter. Together we considered the mysteries of the life we held in our hands as we held a single seed. Then we liturgically committed ourselves to tending to that life in both symbolic and concrete ways.

Through liturgical practices linked with what Genesis celebrates about Day Three of Creation, we have an opportunity to join God in God’s work to honor life, even and perhaps especially where it is hidden from plain sight. We also have an opportunity to join God in getting soil underneath our fingernails as we care for the Earth and tend to its flourishing for generations to come.

Jack Frost is curled up, napping
In my bones.
Backyard grass crunches, frozen
Beneath my feet.
Summer sunflowers hibernate, silent
In my heart.

Could it be—
When I hold this dried out husk
Springtime rests on wintertide fingertips?
Infinitesimal harbinger of arugula and radishes; 
Holder of stories–fields plowed,
Dirt collected under ungloved fingernails.

Death—in autumn–
Birth–in spring–

When tender-strong seedlings 
Unfurl from soil-stained shells,
And push through the earth
Gasping for the sun—

Dirt weeps sometimes too,
And calls to us: We are stronger than we imagine.
Justice—in wilderness places—
Freedom—in a kernel—
An orchard redeemed—blossoming
Sweet succulent promises of life overflowing.

So we take our shoes off to
Absorb holy ground nutrients
Beneath our feet.
And we water with salt-seasoned tears
This garden we hold in our hand.

——-

Click on the links below to see other posts in the series on Creation: Fritz Bauerschmidt on Day One, Rita Ferrone on Day Two

Still to come: Alan Hommerding on Day Four, James Hadley on Day Five, Katie Harmon on Day Six, and Teresa Berger on Day Seven.

2 comments

    1. Thank you, Alan. The Nathan Mitchell quote is one of my all time favorites. It is from the 1980’s. I have seen it quoted in a few places since then, but I discovered it in a Spirituality Today essay from 1982.

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