Lowell Bliss’ monthly post.
For seven of the years my family and I lived in Varanasi, India, we resided in a house right on the western banks of the Ganges River. From our rooftop first thing in the morning, we could look down on the riverfront and witness hundreds, sometimes thousands, of Hindu worshippers bathing in the Ganges. At some point, they would cup their hands, draw up some water and then pour it in libation to the east from where the sun was rising. They were in fact worshipping the sun. I was a good enough cultural anthropologist to know why: the sun is a powerful luminary; it governs so much of life and health. Studying Hinduism was not my first exposure to sun worship, neither was studying the Aztec civilization. As a westerner, I first learned about the sun-as-god through Greek mythology, the mighty Apollo racing his golden chariot across the arc of the sky.
But from an early age, I was a follower of Jesus Christ, so Greek mythology was just story. I knew that it was idolatry to worship anyone or any thing other than YHWH, the True and Living God. And perhaps now that I am an environmentalist working with a largely conservative audience, I find myself going out of my way to avoid the accusation of hugging trees, calling Earth my mother, or worshipping the sun. Nonetheless, I had my first personal encounter with sun worship while on a solitary backpacking trip this past month in Rocky Mountain National Park, Colorado.
Backpacking in the Rockies in the month of October is wonderful for any number of reasons. One reason is because it allows you to catch up on your sleep. This is true despite a thin foam sleeping pad beneath you. It is true despite a small bladder which refuses to listen to the rest of your body explain how cold it is to leave your tent to go relieve yourself. This is true despite every sound of the wind on your tent flap falsely signaling your brain: “Bear!” The reason one can nonetheless catch up on sleep is because the sun goes down early and rises late. On my particular night’s sleep in question, the sun officially set at 6:14 PM MST (but earlier due to the mountain to the east of my campsite) and rose again at 7:21 AM (but later due to the mountain range to the west). That’s at least thirteen hours of darkness or semi-darkness. Campfires, as per Park rules, are no longer allowed in the backcountry. Once it turns dark, your first thought is that your sleeping bag is your only hope for warmth. I climbed in and snugged up. With my head lamp on and my fingertips poking through the top of my mummy bag, I did complete half a Sudoku puzzle and read one Sherlock Holmes story. Quickly though, I fell asleep.
During my first night’s sleep, I awoke once and noticed that the tent seemed noticeably lighter. Was it morning? I pulled on my boots (potty break), only to discover that it was just a half moon that had risen. The stars (and bears?) were still out in full force. I climbed back into my bag, did doze off again, and the next time I awoke, it was dawn. It was light outside, but that did not mean that the sun was shining yet on my campsite. At this point, getting up, pulling on my coat and gloves, and brewing a cup of coffee proved a greater prospect for warmth than staying in my bag. I ate one of my homemade energy bars to stoke my furnace and walked around to get my blood flowing. By then I had done all that I could do without violating park rules and starting a campfire. I climbed up a large boulder and faced east. I waited for the sun.
I waited a long time. I longed.
Behind me I looked up at the mountaintop to the west. The sunshine had lit up the mountainside and was glistening on its small dusting of snow. I felt somewhat jealous: why the mountain first and not me? But in Rocky Mountain National Park, the mountains are royalty, while backpacking can make one feel like a coolie, one step up from a pack mule. Even the sunshine in the Rockies conspires to keep you humble. One thing I discovered is that while the sun rises in the East, sunshine advances from the West. I turned and watched the sunshine creep down the mountainside toward me. It then leapt to the top of the tallest lodgepole pine trees around me. It oozed down the tree trunk until finally I could see my own shadow against the bark. And so I turned around again and there was the sun up over the ridge! I stood with my face tilted upwards toward it, my mouth agape, my eyes closed, and my hands stretched downwards, palms out. It was all subconscious actions on my part, but if a Hindu or an Aztec or an Ancient Greek had seen me, they surely would have thought I was worshipping the sun.
I thank YHWH for his special revelation in the Holy Scriptures and in the life of his son Jesus Christ. The fact of the matter is that the sun had betrayed me for over thirteen hours of cold darkness. As I applied sunscreen in preparation for the day’s hike, I knew that even the sun’s warmth could turn to my harm. But as for the Creator God, there was never a moment during the long night and cold morning when I wasn’t wrapped up snuggly in his unfailing love. And so when I did stand facing the sun, my words of praise were to God. I was thankful to the Creator and thankful for his creation. But I was PROFOUNDLY thankful for the sun. My longing for the sun, and my welcoming of it seemed to be more powerful an experience than mere thanksgiving. How close can thanksgiving get to the line of worship without stepping over it?
The Puritan poet John Milton had a dilemma when he wrote “On the Morning of Christ’s Nativity” (1629). He wanted to narrate what had transpired in the heavenlies at the moment when Jesus was born, but how is a poet trained in Classicism to treat the ancient gods? As for the Babylonian deities, he simply dismissed them as demons, but he had grown up loving the Greek pantheon. His solution was to portray that their day had passed, or more accurately that their glories had been surpassed. Of Apollo and his chariot, Milton writes:
And, though the shady gloom
Had given day her room,
The Sun himself withheld his wonted speed,
And hid his head of shame,
As his inferior flame
The new-enlightened world no more should need:
He saw greater Sun appear
Than his bright Throne or burning axletree could bear.
In this way, Milton honors the sun, but worships the Son. The situation may be akin to what my Catholic friends keeping trying to tell us Protestants: “We don’t worship Mary! We worship Jesus (the Latin term is latria.) But we honor or venerate Mary and the other saints. That term is dulia.” Aquinas assigns dulia to “certain excellent creatures” and to “those who excel in dignity.” And so on one glorious cold morning in the Rocky Mountains, I was both a worshipper (latria) of God, but became a venerator (dulia) of the Sun. Before my five days in the backcountry were over, I added to my hagiology (definition: the study of the saints): aspen trees, bugling elk, and the various lakes of the Fern Lake trail.
Lowell Bliss is the director of Eden Vigil and the author of Environmental Missions: Planting Churches and Trees. He thinks that he’s got two more blog post ideas to write up from his backpacking trip in Colorado. Stay tuned.