For liturgical Christians, Easter Vigil is the most important service of the year. Held in the last hours before Easter morning, it begins in the dark as the community of faith waits for the rebirth, the empty tomb that witnesses to the resurrected life of Jesus. During the service, new Christians – both infants and adults – are baptized and welcomed into the church by candlelight.
Baptism is always beautiful, but most especially at Easter Vigil. The priest pours water from a pitcher into a font amid prayers of blessing. Infants are presented in Christening gowns, children strain to reach the Baptismal Font, and adults have their foreheads splashed with holy water. Washed in the water of the Spirit, made clean forever. Welcomed into God’s household. In traditional churches, baptism is an affair rather different from some I experienced as a teenager. Then, I was an evangelical Christian, and our baptisms were not so pristine. A group of us would go outside, ushering a new convert to a nearby stream or pond. The water could be murky, seemingly impure rather than sanctified, but it did not matter. The pastor or youth leader would dunk the newcomer anyway, a drenching testimony of sin washed away and new birth in Jesus. Secretly, I was grateful that my parents had baptized me as a baby in the Methodist Church, for I wondered how one could be washed of sin when the water itself was not safe to drink.
On this particular Easter Eve, in the darkened church, I trusted the water. And I did not expect anything surprising regarding this ancient act. The priest intoned the traditional words, “Sanctify this water, we pray you, by the power of your Holy Spirit, that those who here are cleansed from sin.” I had heard the prayer a thousand times, but this night it sounded odd. For the first time I realized that at the center of the liturgy was a confusing, confounding spiritual metaphor: that salvation meant washing away dirt.
It is one of the basic concepts of Christianity: baptism removes our sins. My surprise? I had spent the previous forty days of Lent studying soil, rediscovering what it means to be grounded in the world, and reading creation stories and articles about the topsoil crisis. And I had readied the garden, worked the soil in my backyard, coaxing dirt to life. Dirt was not dirty – it was beautiful. God made it; I was tending it. Caring for soil is hard work. The last thing I wanted to imagine was it being washed away. I was fighting for the dirt. I wanted more dirt, better dirt, richer dirt. I was adding stuff to it to make it darker, mealier. I wanted dirtier dirt. Yet the liturgy was describing a kind of spiritual soil erosion. The metaphors of church struck with an angular force against the metaphors of the garden.
Over the centuries, sin – especially regarding human sexuality – has been equated with dirt. When a woman is sexually active, she is considered soiled. When we speak of something vile, we refer to it as filth. We speak of pornography as smut. We refer to ethical choices as muddied, love of creation or Earthly things as worldly. Indeed, the terrain of sin is described by a vocabulary of soil. And many religious traditions get rid of it by ritual cleansing, baptisms, and other rites of washing it away.
In many dictionaries, the definition of “soil” as a noun is typically scientific: “soil: the portion of the Earth’s surface consisting of disintegrated rocks and humus; a particular king of Earth; the ground as producing vegetation or cultivated for crops.” But the second definition, as a verb, turns sinister: “to soil: to make unclean, dirty or filthy; to smirch, smudge, or stain; to sully or tarnish, as with disgrace; defile morally.” Its synonyms are blacken, taint, debase, pollute. The term “dirt” is perhaps even worse than “soil.” Dirt comes from Middle English, but goes back originally to a Norse word, drit, meaning “mud, dung, or excrement”; the related dritty means “smutty or morally unclean.” With this etymology in mind, it is easy to understand the theological leap from dirt and soil to sin and evil.
All this may seem like a tempest in a linguistic teapot except for the fact that human beings have treated the land terribly. For thousands of years, where people have gone, environmental destruction has followed. One need only look to the formerly fertile lands of the Middle East, the great swaths of African desert, or the declining prairies of North America to see that we have not cared for the soils that fed us. In 1938, the U. S. Soil Conservation Service sent its chief researcher, Dr. W. C. Lowdermilk, to study the history of soil erosion around the world. Concentrating on the beginnings of human agriculture about seven thousand years ago in Mesopotamia and Egypt, Lowdermilk reported on great cities and civilizations laid waste by soil erosion, loss of topsoil, poor grazing and plowing practices, destruction of forests, and the silting of streams and rivers. Describing his team’s disappoint at crossing the Jordan River, Lowdermilk said that they had hoped for a “land of milk and honey,” but found instead “denuded highlands” and “abandoned village sites”:
We found the soils of red earth washed off the slopes to bedrock over more than half the upland area. These soils had lodged in the valleys where they are still being cultivated and are still being eroded by great gullies that cut through the alluvium with every heavy rain. Evidence or rocks washed off the hills were found in piles of stone where tillers of soil had heaped them together to make cultivation about them easier. From the air we read with startling vividness the graphic story as written on the land. Soils had been washed off the bedrock in the vicinity of Hebron and only dregs of the land were left behind in narrow valley floors, still cultivated to meager crops.
Europeans continued many of the same poor practices, exporting them around the world through colonization – colonization that was often driven by the attempt to find new farmland to replace what had been ruined or destroyed back home. Lowdermilk referred to the history of farming as “suicidal agriculture” and in a government report wondered, “If Moses had foreseen what suicidal agriculture would do to the land of the Holy Earth, he might have been inspired to deliver another commandment, ‘Thou shalt inherit the Holy Earth as a faithful steward, conserving its resources and productivity from generation to generation.’”
We humans have not learned well, however, for more recent examples abound – like the Dust Bowl. Most Americans know the history of a desolate landscape destroyed by drought and deep plowing, resulting in massive dust storms across a once fertile prairie. But few understand that Dust Bowl conditions are returning after recent years of severe drought. “It is just as dry now as it was then, maybe even drier,” 101-year-old Oklahoma farmer, Millard Fowler, says. “There are going to be a lot of people out here going broke.”
Other episodes of soil loss are not as well known, such as one in Georgia. Once Georgia’s hills were not red. They were covered with rich topsoil and millions of acres of farmland. Because of poor farming practices, however, by the early twentieth century the state’s Piedmont area had lost seven inches or more of fertile soil. In some cases, the entire top layer of earth was washed away in rains and floods. The hills were stripped bare, previously unknown gullies and valleys opened up, and streams and rivers filled with silt. It was an agricultural disaster, as the state lost millions of acres of farmland.
Of course, for many centuries, farmers knew nothing of soil science or land management, simply choosing to use the ground as they would, seeing the soil as something that needed to be broken, tamed, or moved in order to make the land work. I cannot help but wonder if descriptions of sin in terms borrowed from language about the land has aided and abetted its misuse. Rather than seeing it as “Holy Earth,” we have seen dirt and soil as theological problems that must be overcome, to be regulated by religious rules or washed away in water and blood, making our souls as white as snow. The Biblical language foreclosing a notion like “Holy Earth” was the vocabulary of ritual purity. Where do we think the old aphorism, “Cleanliness is next to Godliness,” comes from? Holy things are clean, while what is unholy is unclean.
Of course, most religions are not speaking of actual dirt as the problem of human moral failing; rather, clean and unclean are states of being nearer or farther from God. But if “unclean” and “being soiled” become the dominant metaphors for sin, it is just a small step to the demonization of real dirt. And removing, controlling, or subduing the Earth is necessary to both spiritual salvation and human survival. If being dirty means we are an unclean people on an unclean land, dirt stands in the way of both holiness and dinner. Theologically, it can be difficult to experience soil as anything but a problem.
Within monotheistic religion, however, there is alternative reading of soil. Biblical creation stories about with praise for the soil: God creates the ground and calls it good. Then the land brings forth life, and God calls it good. Humankind is made from the dust, and God sees that as very good. But that is not all. The soil is the first victim of human evil; as a result of Adam and Eve’s disobedience and Abel’s murder, the land is wounded, crying, and bloodied. Noah, considered righteous by God, was praised as a cultivator of the ground, “a man of the soil,” a new Adam. Moses walked on holy ground and received the law on a mountain. For the people of Israel, land is a blessing and bounty as a result of their faithfulness, and fruitful soil is the gift of God to an obedient people. King David, the greatest Biblical king, was first a shepherd, and the poems attributed to him are full of the lyrical praise of nature, as the Earth itself is the stage on which God’s glory is played out. Heaven is not a place among the stars; rather, it is a land of milk and honey, where “the mountains shall drip sweet wine” and God’s people “shall make gardens and eat their fruit,” (Amos 9:13-14). In Islamic tradition the Prophet Muhammad prostrated himself on the ground, and so many carry a turbah, a small earthen tablet, on which to place their foreheads when they pray.
Soil is not the problem. Rather, the infertility of the soil is the problem. The sin is not that human beings are unclean. The sin is that we have failed the soil; we have not attended to it, or we have abused it. We humans willfully disregarded our vocation to protect and keep the Earth, choosing instead to do violence upon it. Thus, soil may be either blessed or cursed by our activity. Soil is good but may become bad, something sacred and fertile ruined into what is profaned and hardened. Our problem is that we hardly understand our own involvement in the degradation of the ground. And we have become jaded and unaware of the spiritual power of dirt.
Jesus talks about this in one of his stories. A farmer sowed his seeds, some of which fell on bad soil, with rocks or little water or thorns, and died. But “other seed fell into good soil and brought forth grain, growing up and increasing and yielding thirty and sixty and a hundredfold,” (Mark 4:8). Jesus explains that the seed is God’s love and the soil is us. The moral of the story? We are not soil-y enough! Spiritually, we would be better off more soiled rather than less. Being soiled is actually the point. A friend of mine who is a pastor and gardener insists, “God loves dirt more than plants, soil more than what it yields. God is a dirt farmer, not a vegetable gardener.” Soil is not sin. Soil is sacred, holy, and good. When we care for it, we are doing God’s work. Soil is life. And it is time for us to reclaim the dirt.