The Eucharist and Right Relationship to the Land

The following first appeared in the Winter 2012 issue of Catholic Rural Life, a publication of the National Catholic Rural Life Conference.

Each time we come together for the celebration of the liturgy, the priest takes the bread and wine brought forward by the faithful and prays, “Blessed are you, Lord God of all creation, for through your goodness we have received the bread we offer you: fruit of the earth and work of human hands, it will become for us the bread of life.”

This simple prayer which concludes the Presentation of the Gifts makes us aware of all those relationships into which we are enmeshed by our very human nature. As we acclaim “Blessed be God forever” our worship makes us aware of and invites us to make holy these relationships that otherwise often remain implicit. Condensed into the symbols of bread and wine is the invitation to all mankind to reconcile and be in right relationship with one another as laborers and recipients of gift, as producers and consumers, and ultimately as the people God has chosen for himself to be as one body a sacrament, an outward sign, of the divine reality being made manifest.

We cannot be this image of Christ for the world unless we are in right relationship with one another and with all creation. For, as Jesus taught us, “if you bring your gift to the altar, and there recall that your brother has anything against you, leave your gift there at the altar, go first and be reconciled with your brother, and then come and offer your gift (Matthew 5:23-24). It is only when we have cooperated with Christ to heal our broken relationships that we can then come forward and receive his broken body that reconciles us with the Father. Every time we present the gifts for the Mass we have thrust in front of us not simply another foodstuff or commodity, but the very embodiment of our relationships to the soil, to the environment, and to all God’s creatures with whom we have been placed in this garden as stewards.

In the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, the emerging social sciences brought the tools needed not only to see the relationships between persons mediated by the market and civil society but also opened the way for the Church to articulate what has come to be known as Catholic Social Teaching focused on the intrinsic dignity of the human person within such social milieu. Thus our “full, conscious and active participation” (SC 14) in the liturgy of the Eucharist stirs us to pursue justice as we come to the altar with bread and wine which are the “work of human hands,” willing even to sacrifice more of our means in order to make sure that I am in right relationship with those laborers whose very dignity is embodied in every product they craft.

In the last century the ecological sciences have, in a similar way, brought the tools needed not only to see the relationships between us and our environment but also have begun to invite us into theological reflection on our duty as stewards of God’s creation. Our worship invites us to cultivate and tend the great gift of the earth which God has entrusted to us as we see in these “fruits of the earth” our human cooperation with divine bounty. We taste in the wine the very terroir, not simply the soil but all that shaped the land, that which watered and nourished the vine, and sweetness of the sun.

Such awareness of the profundity of the mysteries we celebrate planted within me the yearning to live the liturgy more fully, to respond to this Eucharistic invitation to be in right relationship with my fellow faithful, the poor, and all people as well as to cultivate right relationship with creation so that I might be oriented to receive the grace of right relationship to God. Here are five simple things I have found to build relationship with the land:

Get to know your food from its roots. Although I live on our small farm outside of town where I raise heritage breed Jacob Sheep and keep free-range laying hens, my family still relies almost exclusively on purchased food. Subscribing to a Community-Supported Agriculture (CSA) has been a great way for our family to spend time at and be invested in a farm in area.

Celebrate the seasons. The liturgical year is not meant to be celebrated only in the church. Eating what is in season for your location begins building traditions that associate particular foods with particular celebrations. The harmony between the liturgical seasons and the rhythms of harvest are not accidental. You might even encourage your parish to have your annual celebration associated with local fruits rather than fungible foodstuffs.

Grow something. Anything. Start simple and practice the stability and long-duration planning needed to follow a plant through a whole year. As you spend time growing a crop or a flower you begin to develop a relationship with and can stand in astonished wonder of the life God has brought about. Soon you’ll notice that plants have relationships with one another, the living wonder we call soil, wildlife or livestock, and humans. Fostering these is what companion planting or permaculture guilds are all about. What is now known as biomimicry is the recognition that God reveals something of himself in the beautiful order of his handiworks, The Book of Nature as medieval Christians called this companion to the scriptures, from which we can learn how to better order our world.

Support sustainability. We’re used to checking only one bottom line when we’re planning projects whether at our parishes, in our home owners’ association, or at our children’s schools. But we should add two more bottom lines: sustainability and fostering community relationships. It is great to do specific “green” events but it is all the more important to make all of our works sustainable. One area we often do not think to check is our investments and retirement funds. Make sure you aren’t leveraging your own money against your efforts in sustainability.

Always think about people. We are called to stand in solidarity with all people, to put ourselves in the other’s shoes. In a particular way our building relationship with the land manifests itself in care for immigrants, supporting Fair Trade, and listening to the needs and wisdom of local farmers. Peter Maurin, Dorothy Day’s advisor, developed his idea for a Catholic Worker Farm from his keen awareness of the relationship between rampant urban unemployment and the degradation of the land taking place following the depression. Our relationship to God is opened up to us, is made incarnate, in our relationship to one another and to the land which we share and inhabit.

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