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.
“Then God said: Let there be a dome in the middle of the waters, to separate one body of water from the other. God made the dome, and it separated the water below the dome from the water above the dome. And so it happened. God called the dome “sky.” Evening came, and morning followed—the second day.” Genesis 1:6-8
The first Creation narrative in Genesis is commonly described by Scripture scholars as belonging to the “Priestly” author. It should not surprise us, therefore, that the quiet drama this text offers — the narrative describing how God assembles each element and characteristic of Creation over the course of seven days — has all the stately elegance of an unfolding liturgy.
The world that God creates and holds in being is precisely fashioned, day by day, to become the place from which God’s praise issues forth. The world, like a glorious temple, has a dome, it is adorned with lights, and supplied with all beautiful and wonderful things, and, in the center, the human creature made in the image and likeness of God draws our attention to God himself.
Our work as liturgists bears a kind of metaphorical relationship to Creation, in that we are preparing a space in which the praise of God may resound. Formed by the liturgy, the faithful may then go forth to praise God with their lives. Liturgy invites and empowers us for the work of changing the world, so that all of Creation may become the temple of God’s glory.
In terms of their content, several of the days of Creation seem to awaken our praises naturally, because amazing things are described within them. Sun, moon, stars; plants, animals, sea creatures, birds; human beings — these things inspire delight and awe. Within the full biblical witness, the Psalms are foremost expressions of praise for these gifts of Creation. These days of Creation readily find a response in our hearts because we are dazzled by their wonders.
Yet what is going on in Day Two? This day seems a bit more puzzling. The separation of one body of water from another, one above and one below? The sky? Not things *in* the sky, but the sky itself? Well may we ask how these elements of the created order will lead us into praise.
Woven into this question is the additional assumption that our way of life, and not only our voices and gestures, offers praise to God. How might our lives give praise for . . . the separation of waters, and the sky?
As I see it, there are two avenues into this question that may be fruitful for us as liturgists.
The Setting of Boundaries
First, it is helpful to remember that in the biblical view, Creation is more an event than a thing. Genesis describes a movement from chaos to cosmos, from a world “without form, and void” to a world beautifully formed and abundantly filled with good things. The event of Creation unfolds in response to God’s will, which is mysterious, yet at the same time full of blessing.
Within this act or event of Creation, the setting of boundaries is important. Indeed, the whole balance and integration of Creation depends on there being boundaries that are put in place and sustained by God for some particular purpose. Without boundaries, the world would collapse again into chaos.
Thus the separation of day from night, and the separation of the waters above the sky from the waters below it are essential movements in this event of Creation. As Gerhard von Rad observed in his masterwork, Old Testament Theology, “God lifted the world out of the formless, and over its own abyss he holds it unceasingly.”
Liturgists, in their own way, both navigate and honor boundaries. The rites of initiation, the act of joining two people in marriage, the rites belonging to the order of Christian funerals — to name but a few — are ways we mark the boundaries of life and death. Deeply personal though these life transitions may be, when we acknowledge them in the liturgy they become public occasions that resound with praise and thanksgiving.
Boundaries are important in the world of nature. One of the reasons why the story of the Great Flood in Genesis 7 is so horrifying is that, in it God seems to roll back the restraints that were set upon the waters in Creation. God has the sovereign freedom to withdraw blessing as well as give it. The deluge ensues with terrifying force when all the floodgates of the skies are opened.
We rely upon that second day of Creation more than we admit.
Which brings us to the current threats to the equilibrium of nature that we face on earth. We are living in a time when the polar ice caps are melting, and the rising seas threaten to overwhelm coastal areas and islands, while storms on land increase in severity and destructive power. The boundaries of the waters are becoming increasingly unstable. This should sober us all.
Within a liturgical framework, do we hear a call to ecological conversion?
To See the Sky
Second, liturgy, rightly celebrated, can become a training ground in how to become more intentionally present to the mystery of God’s work, simply by demonstrating and reminding us of the value of a slower pace of life than contemporary civilization affords.
Liturgy invites us to “see the sky” so to speak — to raise our faces, to look up from our toil and troubles, and see beyond them.
Liturgy invites us into a posture of receptivity — receptivity to beauty, to goodness, to love. “Nature is filled with words of love, ” Pope Francis wrote in Laudato Si’, “but how can we listen to them amid constant noise, interminable and nerve-racking distractions, or the cult of appearances?” (LS 225). The celebration of liturgy can be a time to put aside the tyranny of the clock, and to become present to the moment and to the people with whom we have gathered.
As Francis observes: “Many people today sense a profound imbalance which drives them to frenetic activity and makes them feel busy, in a constant hurry which in turn leads them to ride roughshod over everything around them” (LS 225). He recommends instead a spirituality that is “a return to that simplicity which allows us to stop and appreciate the small things” (LS 222). As liturgists, we might ask ourselves, are our celebrations a true oasis from the frenetic pace of life?
The sky can’t really be considered a “small thing,” yet it may truthfully be regarded as one of the beautiful and neglected things that “a return to simplicity” might help us to rediscover.
Click on the links below to see other posts in the series on Creation:
Fritz Bauerschmidt on Day One, Jill Crainshaw on Day Three, Alan Hommerding on Day Four, James Hadley on Day Five, and Katie Harmon on Day Six and Teresa Berger on Day Seven.
What a thoughtful and thought-provoking reflection. Thank you.
For me, at the core of this is Delight, which is a specific species of Joy. In Hebrew it’s חֵפֶץ (chephets). Delight is inherently relational, inclining one to another, relying on a proper boundary between so that the delightful relationship is not utterly elided in confusion. In Proverbs 8:22-31 (NRSV):
22 The Lord created me at the beginning of his work,
the first of his acts of long ago.
23 Ages ago I was set up,
at the first, before the beginning of the earth.
24 When there were no depths I was brought forth,
when there were no springs abounding with water.
25 Before the mountains had been shaped,
before the hills, I was brought forth—
26 when he had not yet made earth and fields,
or the world’s first bits of soil.
27 When he established the heavens, I was there,
when he drew a circle on the face of the deep,
28 when he made firm the skies above,
when he established the fountains of the deep,
29 when he assigned to the sea its limit,
so that the waters might not transgress his command,
when he marked out the foundations of the earth,
30 then I was beside him, like a master worker;
and I was daily his delight,
rejoicing before him always,
31 rejoicing in his inhabited world
and delighting in the human race.
As Love begets Delight, Delight begets Love. God’s Love in Creating begets Delight in beholding of Creation.
When a love relationship is strained by Trouble, as almost all are, a living memory (an anamnesis?) of the spark of Delight in the foundation of the relationship can be a spring of renewal.
Long ago, I discovered that Delight is probably my strongest spiritual frequency. It draws me to wander (I wander as I wonder), and to be open to “distractions” (however annoying they might seem at first blush), to [insert myriad nouns here] that I might not otherwise notice.
* * *
Side note for people who might wish to enter the space of the Cathedral Basilica of S Francis of Assisi in Santa Fe, here’s a link to a PanoSphere (you can scroll as well as move through the space), in virtual terms:
Karl Liam, thanks for the close-up tour but Holy Moly! There is so much clutter in and around the sanctuary of that church! A lectern and a pulpit (with another empty book stand next to it?)? All sorts and manners of chairs and thrones, everywhere! The bishop’s seal, not over his throne but on the opposite wall, and way out of proportion. Plant stands, mic stands, music stands, Crosses and things on poles, and floor candlesticks with floor flowers and plants. A honking piano (I assume that there must also be a drum kit somewhere). Rugs that don’t match and deaden sound. A risen Christ tableau (it must have been Pascha?). And the poor (little) altar which looks absolutely lost and desolate. What a shame, because it could be beautiful.
Actually, John, when you’re in it, it doesn’t come across like that. There is actualy less clutter than in an EF sanctuary, and the light color of the building interior helps a lot. The walk-in font halfway up the nave is, of course, magnificent. The thing you couldn’t identify on a pole is the tintinnabulum or bell that is one of the insignia of a Minor Basilica (another is the red and yellow ombrellino, in the tour off to the right, but sometimes brought nearer into the sanctuary and opened a little wider, while the third is to be found included in the bishop’s coat of arms, hence the positioning and size). The floor candlesticks in the tour have been moved back and angled to make room for the wedding flowers in front of them. Normally they are positioned alongside to the altar in a straight line, with greenery in front of them, and have the effect of making the altar look twice as wide as it actually is because they are exactly the same height as the altar table. Yes, there’s a rather fine grand piano, but you can also see a pipe organ in the west gallery. The empty lectern in front of the pulpit (which is used as the ambo) is where the Book of the Gospels is enthroned after the Gospel reading has been proclaimed, and the lectern on the other side of the sanctuary is the cantor’s music desk.
Wow, Mssr. Saur, thanks for your delightful post!
“Nature is filled with words of love, ” Pope Francis wrote in Laudato Si’, and then he goes on to point out how we miss these words in our distracted and noisy world. We miss them in our aim of intention; so too we miss them in their absence from our lives.
But not always! as Karl points out, even distractions can be an opening, if we’re attentive and lucky.
What terrific and interesting comments! Thank you, one and all.