In the 7th ecumenical council of bishops in 787 AD that defined the Christian attitude toward material things, St. Leontes of Cyprus said this about our role in God’s creation:
“Through heaven and earth and the sea,
Through wood and stone,
Through all creation visible and invisible,
I offer veneration to the Creator and Master.
For the creation does not venerate the maker directly and by itself
But it is through me that the heavens declare the glory of God.
Through me the moon worships God.
Through me the stars glorify Him.
Through me the waters, the showers of rain, and the dews of all creation
Venerate God and give Him glory.”
The thought of an inanimate material object such as the moon giving glory to and worshiping God strikes many of us as strange in itself. But the thought that not only do the forests praise Him and the stars sing of His glory, but that they do so somehow through *my* mediation might sound downright un-Christian. And yet, it is an essential aspect of our vocation as the ‘priesthood of all believers.’ Ancient Christianity taught that our relationship with the earth is more than a managerial stewardship; we are each the priests of creation. But what does it mean to be a priest of creation?
While a priest fulfills many roles, the primary duty is to celebrate the sacraments and lead others into sacramental living. A fundamental characteristic of the sacrament is that we (people created by God) take natural materials (some bread, water, wine, and oil created by God) and offer it back to Him in thanksgiving. In offering it, we also ask that it be blessed as a means of imparting His love and mercy to us, a means of two-way communion. In the great sacrament, the parish priest speaks the words Christians have spoken in worship service since before 370 AD: “Thine own of Thine own we offer unto Thee on behalf of all and for all.” We reach up; God reaches down.
In sacramental worship, both creation and Creator are present and active, while the role of the priest is to be the intentional link between them, the mediator that holds the middle ground. The priest both lifts up created beings and brings down God’s blessing, creating unity and reconciliation. We are material beings made in the image of God, and are thus that link between physical creation and the uncreated God. This means our priestly responsibility to creation is not a calling to selfishly exploit it, nor even to merely take care of it, but to offer it back to God. When we do this, creation becomes far more than the means of our subsistence; it becomes the medium of our communion with Christ, our expression of thanksgiving, blessing, sanctification and salvation.
Paul explains to us in Ephesians 1:10 that it is God’s desire for all of creation to be reconciled to Him, saying the plan revealed is “…to unite all things in Him, things in heaven and things on Earth.” We have an important role in God’s plan. As Jesus unified human and divine natures in himself, blazing a trail for us humans to be unified with God, so we as humans unite the dust and the Spirit. We become one with God as we are transformed by life in Christ; the rest of creation becomes one with God through our mediation.
As members of the ‘priesthood of all believers’, one element of our vocation is to participate in the sanctification of the earth through our daily sacramental living. Stewardship of resources may be one of the many responsibilities of a priest, but is not the whole end of it. As priests, we are called to sanctify the earth through our direct communion with God.
While in line to receive communion in Orthodox parishes, it’s common to hear a hymn exhorting other creatures to participate in the worship. Often, at the very moment my lips receive Christ’s body and blood and I am mystically unified to Him, I am hearing from Psalm 148:
“Praise the Lord from the earth,
you great sea creatures and all deeps,
fire and hail, snow and mist,
stormy wind fulfilling his word!…
Mountains and all hills,
fruit trees and all cedars!
Beasts and all livestock,
creeping things and flying birds!…
Let them praise the name of the Lord!…”
Psalm 148’s lyrics reminds us of St. Leontes of Cyprus’ teaching and helps us practice it: “Praise Him, sun and moon! Praise Him all you shining stars!” Singing this psalm as we approach the chalice, we carry those inanimate and material, but beloved, creations of God’s back up to Him, so that through us, they may worship Him too.