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12/4/22 Homily: The Land

Sunday's readings can be found: [HERE]

I recently saw a few YouTube videos of interviews of Jordan Peterson on the topic of the Bible. I won’t pretend to comprehend his full explanation, but, in brief, it seemed to me that he was advancing the notion that the Bible is the foundational text for western literature, and by extension, western civilization.

My internal reaction to this idea was to envision certain stories that might come to mind fairly quickly, and to ponder whether or not those tales seemed an echo of a biblical text in some way.

The legend of King Arthur came to mind. And another thought came to mind: the theme of that powerful connection between people and land, to the degree where vitality in one corresponds to vitality in the other; with the reverse also being true: the devastation of one being the devastation of the other.

In some stories, this bond is personified into a single person. This seemed to be the case in the legend of King Arthur. In one telling of the story, when Arthur was deathly ill, the land itself remained was dying; famine and sickness swept through the land. Arthur could only be healed when he drank from the Holy Grail, and so the knights were sent to quest for it. When the chalice of Christ was recovered and Arthur drank from it—when he received communion—only then was the land restored and made green again.

About thirty years ago, I started reading a book titled, The Eye of the World. It was the first of a fourteen-book series called, The Wheel of Time. About ten years ago, the final book was released, years after the original author’s death. But before he passed away, he had left extensive notes on the plot, so that the series could be completed by another author. I won’t spoil the story, but I will say that there comes a point, like in the story of King Arthur, where the health of the land mirrors the health of a certain character.

That union between people or nation and the land is a very ancient theme rooted in the Bible. This goes beyond the people of Israel dwelling in the Promised Land. This theme goes all the way back to the very first pages of the Bible. Think of the Book of Genesis.

As a brief aside, Genesis actually includes two different accounts of creation. Chapters one and two are different stories, from different literary traditions, known as the Elohist account and the Yahwist account.

In both accounts of creation, mankind is set over the world and creation. In the Elohist account, mankind, male and female, are created last, as if they were the final participants in a great procession of created beings. As the crown of creation, mankind was given the command by God to have dominion over the land with its creatures, to fill the earth and subdue it.

In the Yahwist account of creation, which is a different story altogether, the man was created first—before any other animal. Animals were created for the man. Even in this account, the man is set over creation. He is the original gardener and the steward of Eden. Even his name is synonymous with the earth (the Hebrew word for earth or soil is, Adamah).

The perfection of this man matched the perfection of the created world. But when he sinned, he became corrupted and lost his immortality. Likewise, the world itself became corrupted and lost its immortality by the sin of man (there will be a new earth in the Resurrection of the Dead on the Last Day). The man with his wife were cast out of Eden. The soil rebelled against him, and from then on he had to toil and labor over the soil. Other creatures became hostile.

Do you see how this theme is present—that of the bond between man and the land? This theme continues even without our readings today. The Messiah is even described in terms of the land and its fruit: On that day, a shoot shall sprout from the stump of Jesse, and from his roots a bud shall blossom.

And then we hear of the vitality of this Messiah: The spirit of the Lord shall rest upon him: a spirit of wisdom and understanding, a spirit of counsel and of strength, a spirit of knowledge and of fear of the Lord… and so on.

And just as the fall of man led to the fall of the world, the advent of this champion also brings with it the restoration of the land: Then the wolf shall be a guest of the lamb, and the leopard shall lie down with the kid; the calf and the young lion shall browse together, with a little child to guide them. The cow and the bear shall be neighbors, together their young shall rest; the lion shall eat hay like the ox. The baby shall play by the cobra’s den, and the child lay his hand on the adder’s lair. There shall be no harm or ruin on all my holy mountain; for the earth shall be filled with knowledge of the Lord, as water covers the sea…

The scriptures speak of a restoration of Eden. There was harmony in the beginning, and there will be harmony again, not only between the man and the land, but even the other creatures of the land.

In our gospel passage, we witness John the Baptist in the desert. The desert is the most appropriate place for the dawn of redemption to break forth. Out of Egypt, I have called my Son, says the Lord. The world—spiritually—is a lifeless desert. After forty days in the desert, the Messiah comes forth, and as he does so he brings with him the transformation of the land: the sick are cured, demons are cast out, the dead are raised, and the Kingdom of God is proclaimed.

What might be a take-away from our readings? I offer you just one suggestion: as in the words of Saint John the Baptist, prepare the way of the Lord; make straight his paths. As we each prepare to celebrate the coming of our Lord this Christmas, perhaps we can work towards caring for the land that is each our own.

By this, I don’t mean we become environmental activists. There were ancient cultures that did worship nature—that personified natural forces—and worshipped gods of nature. Christians don’t worship nature. We worship the Creator, and therefore we gratefully receive the gift of creation, we cultivate that gift responsibly, and we can make it a blessing to others for God’s glory.

We can do that with whatever land is our own. Many of us have already decorated our homes for Christmas—good. What else can we do to transform our land? We can clean out our homes more intentionally this season, similar to a good Spring cleaning. We can welcome people into our homes with an Advent or Christmas party. We can consecrate our homes, by making sure Christian symbols are integrated into our décor: a holy water font by the front door, crucifixes in every room, Christian paintings or scripture passages on the wall, and so on. We can carefully attend more to our relationships this season, and welcome the peace of God into those. We might care for the land which is our own flesh—this earth—and consecrate it once again to our Lord by breaking away from bad addictions or habits. I’m sure we all might have our own ideas of what might be possible this season.

May God inspire each of us to welcome our Savior through the transformation of the lands which are our own. God bless you.

The Holy Children with a Shell, by Bartolomé Esteban Murillo, c. 1670, oil on canvas, Museo del Prado. [Public Domain]

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