Canada 150: A Mari Usque Ad Mare
Hespeler, July 2, 2017 © Scott McAndless
Hebrews 11:13-16, Micah 6:6-8, Psalm 72:1-20
ho here has a Canadian passport? If you travel, you know that it is one of the most valuable things that you can carry with you – more important than money or your
phone or your insurance. And do you know why? Because of what you find printed in gold on the cover of that passport. There you will find the coat of arms of the Dominion of Canada. The presence of that coat of arms is an indication that, wherever you may travel, you are under the aid and protection of the Canadian crown.
A coat of arms is, therefore, a very powerful symbol, or, if you prefer, a set of symbols because every element in the arms carries a great deal of meaning. But there are two particular elements I want to focus on today – specifically the words. First of all, there is a ribbon that runs about the main shield upon which are words that you can just barely make out. The words, in Latin, are “desiderantes meliorem patriam,” which means “desiring a better country.” These words are actually the motto of the Order of Canada – that select group of people who have been honoured by the government for their extraordinary contribution to our country.
The words should sound familiar to you today, though, because they are taken from one of our scripture readings this morning: “But as it is, they desire a better country, that is, a heavenly one.” Those words were taken from the Letter to the Hebrews as a motto for the Order of Canada. You can see why such a motto is fitting. The people who most often make the biggest contribution to a country like Canada are those who are not merely satisfied with how things are but who dream of making something better. We are all the beneficiaries of their spirit.
But what exactly is that “better country” we strive for. That is not always easy to see. Change, after all, is always hard and disruptive. You don’t really want to risk it unless you are sure that the result will indeed be a “better country.” How do we get a picture of what that “better country” could be?
Well, that brings us to the other words that appear on Canada’s motto: “A Mari usque ad Mare” which is translated as “From Sea to Sea.” Those English words probably sound more familiar as they are still used by politicians often enough, though, these days, they usually will say, “from sea to sea to sea” or “from coast to coast to coast” to recognize that Canada actually has three coasts and that the arctic coast and our sovereignty over its waters is of growing importance.
But what is the meaning behind such a motto? Is it simply a statement of the geographical extent of the country of Canada? I mean, a motto is supposed to be something inspirational – something that stirs the heart and, at first glance, this seems only to be an attempt to describe a map of Canada in as few words as possible. Please tell me it is about more than that! Well, indeed it is! In fact, there is a whole lot of meaning packed into those five Latin words.
To understand them, you need to go back to a gentleman named George Monro Grant. Grant, as far as we can tell, was the first man to apply those words, “from sea to sea,” to the country of Canada. He used those words very soon after confederation, in fact, at a time when Canada didn’t really extend beyond the end of the Great Lakes. So, at the time, to dream of a country and government that reached as far as the Pacific Ocean was a challenge and a vision to strive for.
But it was also about more than that. George Grant, you see, was a Presbyterian minister and the first time he used those words, “from sea to sea” was in a sermon. In fact, he used that phrase often and in many sermons because those words were taken directly from scripture – specifically the Psalm that we read this morning: “May he have dominion from sea to sea, and from the River to the ends of the earth.”
So let us explore, a little bit, those words that became so significant for our country. Grant, as a minister, wasn’t just interested in those few words from the Psalm but in the full context.
The Psalm itself is rather unique in the Book of Psalms. The whole thing is a prayer for the king. At some point, a Biblical editor added some words ascribing the Psalm to King Solomon, but the prayer is not focused on any one particular king and was likely used on many occasions down through the generations when prayers for the king were needed. So it is not a psalm about a particular personality but about the institution of kingship in general.
To put it in modern terms, it is not a psalm about a leader (such as Prime Minister Trudeau, for example) but about leadership in general or even better about governance in general. So we can look at this psalm to discover what the Bible thinks – dare I say, what God thinks – is important about governance. Another way to think of it: what makes a country great?
And clearly, there are a number of priorities that are named in this psalm. A key one is dominion, as we see in the verse we have been talking about: “May he have dominion from sea to sea, and from the River to the ends of the earth.” Dominion is about responsible and effective government – power and influence and what we call sovereignty extending from one body of water to another. In the case of the Psalm, the dominion was supposed to extend from the Euphrates River in the distant east to the Mediterranean in the west. Munro, of course, thought of Canada extending from the Atlantic to the Pacific and more recently politicians have stretched our imaginations further north to the Arctic Sea.
And that kind of dominion (which is basically effective government) is a good thing – it creates stability and makes the country a safe and predictable place to live in. But, again, we have to ask, what is supposed to be accomplished through this dominion? It is not an end in itself, though we sometimes think of it that way.
Well, the psalm is perfectly clear about what it thinks that the king ought to do with his dominion. He ought to do justice: “Give the king your justice, O God, and your righteousness to a king’s son. May he judge your people with righteousness, and your poor with justice.” That’s where the psalm begins and the theme of righteousness and justice runs right through it with those two words begin repeated over and over again. So to understand this psalm and what it is saying about dominion, we need to understand what it means by justice and righteousness.
The first thing we need to observe is that justice and righteousness are essentially two parts of the same thing as far as the Bible is concerned. The key word, in Hebrew, is tsedeq which can be translated either as justice or as righteousness. Tsedeq is so important in the Bible because it is an essential part of God’s character. God is nothing if God is not just.
Tsedeq, or justice, is basically the idea of a world in perfect harmony – the world as God intended it to be. It is closely connected to the concept of shalom which is usually translated as peace, but shalom always meant more to the ancient Hebrews than the idea of peace means to us. Shalom was about all parts of creation being in harmony with one another.
One thing that justice means, therefore, is that when something has gone wrong in the world – when a crime has been committed, for example – justice demands that it be set right. That includes what is called restorative justice, such as when stolen property is restored or victims compensated. It can also include retributive justice such as when the person committing the crime is punished in a fitting and measured way.
And that is often where we end the discussion about justice – with retributive and restorative justice – but, as far as the Bible is concerned, that is just the tip of the iceberg. For the God of the Bible, the essence of justice was found in something called distributive justice. You see, as far as this psalm and many other parts of the Bible are concerned the greatest offence against the justice of God, the greatest indication that all is not working out according to the will of God, is when the goods of this world are so unevenly shared that there were some who go without their basic needs of life being met while others live in an overabundance.
The psalm makes it clear, in fact, the king’s most important duty is the application of this kind of distributive justice. Yes, he might be involved, from time to time, in the application of retributive justice. He has to ensure that those who commit crimes are fairly and swiftly judged. He has to make sure that judges are fair and impartial and that their judgments do their best to right the wrongs that have been committed. But his main job is actually to make sure that the resources of his society are distributed in such a way that nobody lacks what they need to survive and to thrive. a wwa
So it was not enough, for the psalm, to simply pray that there should be prosperity in the land: “May the mountains yield prosperity for the people, and the hills.” Prosperity meant nothing if it did not come “in righteousness,” that is to say, if it did not come equally to all.
And so the job of the king was to “defend the cause of the poor of the people, give deliverance to the needy.” That is to say that he was to stand on the side of the people who were most disadvantaged and were least likely to gain anything from the prosperity in the land. At the same time, the king was to “crush the oppressor,” by standing in the way of those who would keep the prosperity of the land confined to those who were already wealthy.
If Canada today has the motto “from sea to sea,” we likely have one man to thank for that, Presbyterian minister, George Monro Grant. But if Grant pushed for that to be our motto, and he did, he had a vision for this country that extended beyond the Pacific Ocean and even the far-off Arctic. He saw a land where there would be true dominion and sovereignty (and yes, by the way, it was upon Grant’s insistence that this country was given the name, “the Dominion of Canada” at Confederation). But that dominion was not an end in itself, it existed for the sake of making sure that the wealth of the land would be for all the people of the land.
One hundred and fifty years later, it would not be out of place for us to pause and ask if this country has lived up to Grant’s vision. Dominion has been established from sea to sea to sea. We may have to work to maintain that, especially in the north, but it seems well in hand. But what about the justice component of that vision? How good are we at building prosperity in this country and building it in such a way that it is shared equally among all as much as possible? Given that the disparity between the rich and the poor has only been on the rise in Canada, I would say we have a great deal of work to do there.
“From sea to sea,” does indeed contain within it quite a vision. If we could live up to the vision not only in terms of dominion but also in terms of justice, just think of what this country could be, I am convinced that it could be the next thing that God is calling us to. For God, fortunately never ceases to send among us those who dream of a better country, and who put themselves on the line to see it happen. Could you be one of the next people that God is calling to seek a better country by standing up for what is right and just?