With Earth on our Heads? Pope Francis' Encyclical

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Editor’s note: As we anticipate tomorrow’s release of Laudato Si’, Pope Francis’ encyclical on the environment, guest author and environmental ethicist Marybeth Lorbiecki offers a reflection on what it may contain and relates it to Old Testament prophecy. –Barb

girls with a raven on her head

Painting by Mirjana Mataya, @2104, used with permission.

“Now on the twenty-fourth day of this month, the people of Israel were assembled with fasting and in sackcloth, and with earth on their heads.” –Nehemiah 9:1

As I was thinking about Pope Francis’s upcoming encyclical, I played Bible roulette, letting God lead me to the passage I should pray with.  This is the one my Bible opened to, one I never remember reading before.  And it shocked me.

. . . .  fasting and in sackcloth, and with earth on their heads. . . .

Can’t you see them all with dirt on their heads? I love that image. This is exactly what the new encyclical is going to ask us to do. Return to prayer and fasting and putting our relationships with God and each other in order–and wearing clumps of the holy sod on our heads to put the Earth and all it means to us and to our brothers and sisters in poverty into our minds and hearts and hands.

Just before this, the people of Israel had been led into their rebuilt city of Jerusalem and told, “do not be grieved, for the joy of the Lord shall be your strength.” Then they were asked to study the law of the Lord, then go to the hills to bring back branches of olive, wild olive, myrtle, palm, and other leafy trees to make little “booths” to live in for seven days.  So it’s like they are told, go, be like kids and make some tree forts, and live in them, and remember, you are God’s children, and this is God’s land, and you are just loaned the use of these forests and hills and lands. So play and live in them, free from your usual burdens of life and open to hospitality, welcoming strangers as if they were messengers or angels from God. And remember, always remember whom you are and from whom you have come.

It’s also like the old Ash Wednesday saying, “You are from dust (ashes) and to dust (ashes) you will return”–or “you are from the earth and to the earth you shall return.”  It’s what psychologists are now finding is true, the amazing calming effect that nature has on our bodies and souls, helping to distress us if we let it.  That the minerals in our bodies and the salt water that enlivens our cells are shared by all the other living creatures, and we are bound together in systems of water, wind, rain, oceans, pollination, and so much more.

Having been in these tree-made booths for seven days (which will become an annual holy ritual called Sukkot–The Festival of the Booths to keep the memory fresh), the people are now ready to go into what was called a “National Confession,” where they stand before God in prayer with God’s laws in their minds and earth on their heads..

This is the point at which we stand.

In this new encyclical, we will find a kind of world confession of our sins toward each other and God’s Earth, which was created to be cared for and shared. It will tell of our consumerism and greed, our materialism and forgetting of soulfulness, our lack of compassion and sharing, our lack of deep faith, hope, mercy, and joy.  It will tell of all the catastrophes that are happening and will happen. And these are not new. The people of Israel cut down their forests and ruined their lands too, turning much into desert and leaving the poor to try to fend for themselves in their devastated, war-torn, drought-stricken landscapes. They forgot to rest on the Sabbath, and their efforts turned to dust. Just read Leviticus 25 or the Old Testament prophets! Especially Jeremiah.  The Lord tells them (and us):

When I brought you into the garden land
To eat its goodly fruits,
You entered and defiled my land,
You made my heritage loathsome. . . .  (2:7)

Fools my people are,
They know me not.
Senseless children they are
Having no understanding.
They are wise in evil
But know not how to do good.
I looked at the earth,
And it was waste and void,
And the heavens,
And their light had gone out!
I looked at the mountains,
And they were trembling,
And all the hills were crumbling!
I looked and behold, there was no man,
Even the birds of the air had flown away!
I looked and behold,
The garden land was a desert,
And all its cities destroyed. 4:22-26)

Over and over this pattern of uncaring and destruction happens in the book of Jeremiah, but each time, the Lord says, come back to me. Remember the Sabbath. Stop working too much (don’t carry burdens on the Sabbath!) and put things right with Me and each other, and I will restore the lands, I will restore all of you.  It’s the story of Christ’s coming and dying and forgiveness and resurrection. Come back to me. Remember what is right. And do it. And you will find joy in your hearts and lives.

God keeps calling us to love.

That is what Pope Francis will be saying. God will have mercy, if we turn now. If we put ourselves right and work together for the good, the world is not destroyed. Climate change won’t take the whole world down. God is with us. God is among us. Christ’s Holy Spirit is shining forth in this moment, in us, waiting for us to move forward.  And it has already been moving in all the people who have been working with such good hearts up to this time.

This encyclical is like Joshua’s trumpet to bring down the walls of hardness that remain in our hearts and minds and policies and corporations, to open us up to hope. To action.

St. John Paul II had said this. Pope Benedict and the bishops had said it, and leaders of so many other faiths and Scriptures have said it.

And God said it through Jeremiah:
“I am the Lord, the God of all humankind!
Is anything impossible to me? . . .
I will replant them firmly in this land,
With all my heart and soul.” (33:27, 41)

We can take on something as large as consumerism and climate change with the winds of God’s spirit pushing us along. So let’s all read this encyclical, take a walk in the woods or go to the beach or climb into that tree fort or go camping, and come out afterwards with awe, wonder, gratitude, and praise in our hearts, ready to fast and pray, with Earth on our heads, so we can slough off laziness and apathy, cynicism and luxury, and work to “renew the face of the earth.”

About the author: Marybeth Lorbiecki, M.A. is the director of Interfaith Oceans, an ethics campaign bridging faith & science, restoring oceans & communities (www.oceanethicscampaign.org). She is also the author of Following St. Francis: John Paul II’s Call for Ecological Action (Rizzoli Ex Libris, 2104), Sister Anne’s Hands, and Aldo Leopold: A Fierce Green Fire (to be re-released by Oxford in fall 2015). She’s a graduate of St. Catherine University.

Painting by Mirjana Mataya, @2104, used with permission.
Su Santidad Papa Francisco” by Gabriel Andrés Trujillo EscobedoFlickr: Su Santidad Papa Francisco. Licensed under CC BY-SA 2.0 via Wikimedia Commons.

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